Internal and external onslaught
Esen Uslu reports on the Erdoğan regime’s ongoing oppression, its Kurdish war and involvement in Syria
In the aftermath of the unsuccessful military coup of July 15, the crackdown on the Turkish media has been ruthless and ongoing. There are many highly vocal international campaigns for the release of this or that media personality, for press freedom and journalists’ rights. Even the European Union, together with several member-states, have raised concerns.
Many thousands are still detained in Turkish jails on the pretext that they are members or supporters of Fethullah Gülen and the secretive politico-religious racketeer organisation allegedly formed around him. Numbers are so large that an early release programme has been introduced in order to free up space for those who have yet to be convicted. And there is no end in sight for the campaign of arrests and imprisonments under the state of emergency. Every day Turkey wakes up to news of yet more people detained.
Changes in just about every aspect of life have come about because of emergency decrees - the government has been granted extraordinary powers by parliament for a period of three months (renewable as long as the current emergency lasts).
All this is supported by the ‘Grand National Coalition’ which is made up of all parties represented in parliament with the sole exception of the HDP (People’s Democratic Party). Standing at the pinnacle is, of course, president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The coalition kept together by what has been dubbed ‘the spirit of Yenikapi’ - a reference to the massive demonstration staged by the state at the Yenikapi fields of Istanbul in August, which brought together large sections of the anti-junta population, especially those committed to nationalism and Islamism. Leaders of all the mainstream reactionary parties shared the platform. The anti-junta sentiment was quickly supplemented with a new, all-encompassing narrative depicting the Gülen movement, Islamic State and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) as a single terrorist entity.
Immediately after the collapse of the attempted coup, TV channels and newspapers associated with the Gülen movement were closed down, and some of their journalists and editors were detained. The state-owned channels and the so-called mainstream media, which has been under the direct influence of the AKP government, propagated the government line. News reports and commentary were closely monitored and it was the state which determined what stories were to be buried and what could be aired.
However, the crackdown on the media did not end there. Leaning on the Yenikapi consensus, the government soon made its move against the usual suspects: that is, the Kurdish press, as well as the liberal and left-leaning media. Independent TV channels and radio stations were closed down, while state-controlled satellite companies stopped broadcasting - their offices were sealed off and their internet sites blocked. Amongst the channels closed and banned were a Kurdish children’s TV station and a radio station dedicated to folk music.
Prominent journalists, columnists and editors, as well as novelists, other authors and TV personalities, were among those detained on the flimsiest of pretexts. Most are opponents of the Erdogan regime and associated with the Kurdish cause. And the academic world, together with the teaching profession, has had its share of detentions and sackings. This repression also acts to freeze independent thinking, not to mention the ability to organise.
However, in September, after the long summer holidays, public opposition seemed to have regrouped. Some left organisations attempted to form a bloc called the Coalition for Labour and Democracy, and first demonstrations were scheduled for International Peace Day. Their nine-point programme did not even touch on the ‘Kurdish problem’, however, and even before the government stepped in with a ban, cracks began to appear in the bloc. Some organisations withdrew from the coalition.
The period spanning most of 2015 and 2016 has been defined by the war in Kurdistan after Erdogan and his government decided to end the peace process after three years of truce. That fateful decision was what actually provoked the crisis within the ruling bloc.
The two main components of the Islamist AKP government - Erdogan and his political organisation and the Gülen movement with its highly trained cadre entrenched within the state machinery - were on a collision course. The Gülen movement forced Erdogan’s hand by revealing the graft and corruption endemic among his key people.
The nationalist-racist-fascist cadres within the bureaucracy and army, which had previously been pushed back and sidelined, not least through the ‘Ergenekon trials’ of oppositionists beginning in 2008, now found themselves wooed by both sections of the Islamists. In the months before the coup attempt, Erdogan seemed better placed to win their support when he quashed many of the convictions, ended the prosecutions and released almost all of the Ergenekon detainees. The Gülen movement was only able to garner the support of a very small section of the state machine.
The price paid by Erdogan in order to win their support was the reversal of his policy of peace negotiations with the Kurds and a return to the well-trodden path of seeking a military victory - even though the military consensus had been that it was just not a winnable war. Since the Gülen movement is renowned for its opposition to a settlement with the Kurds, Erdogan had to act with particular brutality to get the support of the nationalist-racist-fascist forces.
A no-holds-barred war effort has been mounted over the last year against Kurdish cities and towns. One by one, districts and towns were bombarded by artillery and air attacks. Thousands have been killed. Cross-border air raids into Iraqi territory against actual and imaginary PKK targets were launched almost every night.
The publications of the Kurdish freedom movement were closed down, and local journalists were killed, detained or forced into exile. Turkish supporters of the peace movement were the object of violent campaigns, in which we now know that state security forces worked hand-in-glove with IS.
The elected local municipal councils of towns and cities deemed too close to the Kurdish freedom movement were closed down by executive order, and caretaker administrators appointed from Ankara. Just like state of emergency decrees, the caretakers’ terms of office seem indefinite. The last vestiges of democracy in Kurdistan have been removed. Just a couple of days ago, an armoured vehicle allegedly opened fire without provocation, killing four. One of them was a nephew of a prominent MP of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
Added to the complications is the participation of Turkish armed forces in the war in Syria, where they have attempted to prevent the formation of a continuous Kurdish zone along the border separating Turkey from the Sunni Arabs and Turkmens. After the town of Manbij, an important crossroads on the west bank of the Euphrates, was captured by the coalition forces centred around the Syrian Kurds - armed by the US - the direct route from Turkey to the IS-controlled Raqqa was cut off.
After a frantic last-ditch diplomatic effort to get the acquiescence of Russia, Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia, Turkey jumped into the fray. Turkish armoured, artillery and special forces have been in action, while the main bulk of the ‘boots on the ground’ has been provided by the Turkish-trained Sunni Arab and Turkmen forces of the Free Syrian Army.
A likely Mosul operation in Iraq, plans to attack IS-controlled Raqqa, nationalist sentiment, as well as enmity towards Kurds - all are factors creating an uneasy balance in Turkey. Erdogan and co have been using ‘anti-imperialist’ rhetoric, emphasising the relationship of the US administration with the Gülen movement. The EU is also coming in for its share of scorn with accusations of unfulfilled promises relating to the refugee repatriation agreement.
The ongoing war propaganda and anti-Gülen rhetoric, accompanied by the most widespread and intensive wave of oppression, has produced a large body of people who hate the regime. However, a substantial section of finance capital is prepared to support the government. There is no realistic alternative if stability is to be maintained - at least in the short term. Behind the scenes finance capital is seeking to moderate the ‘excesses’ of the Erdogan regime. The hope is to restore the ‘rule of law’ based on EU accession negotiations.
The Islamists have been licking their wounds, while the nationalists are keen to extend their newly acquired gains. The parliamentary opposition has evaporated except for the HDP. In this situation, freedom, democracy and a secular state seem like a faraway dream.