WeeklyWorker

12.03.2020
On the Greek border

Two-way mirror of shame

Erdoğan’s regime is playing with the lives of innocent victims to both its east and west. Esen Uslu describes the shambles.

In the mid-60s Sylvie Vartan, the famous French singer, had a hit ballad called ‘La Maritza’. In those days the Turkish pop music industry was in its infancy and would grab any good tune and give it Turkish lyrics. While the original song was about the Maritsa river, which runs through Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece, in Turkish it became ‘When the moon is rising’.

Vartan was born in Bulgaria, and her family migrated to France in 1952, and for her the song must have provoked deep emotion. The lyrics went:

All the birds of my river

We sang freedom

I hardly understood

But my father knew

The Maritsa river catches the rain and snow falling on the slopes of the Rila, Balkan and Rhodope mountains. It carves an elliptic arc, forming the border between Greece and Bulgaria, and then the border between Greece and Turkey, before discharging its waters into the Aegean.

The first and second Balkan Wars of 1912-13 - the prelude to World War I - erupted in that region. And the never-ending feud between rival regional powers continued into World War II, and then burst out again with the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. And, of course, another never-ending feud is between Greece and Turkey - and not only on the Maritsa river border, but all along the Aegean Sea and the islands within it.

The birds of the Maritsa were not ‘singing freedom’ during the last century, when Turkey’s borders with Greece and Bulgaria were no-go areas under a virtual state of siege. For years crossing the border unaided was almost suicidal, but with the end of the cold war the situation changed. Nowadays the ‘major threat’ is from refugees and so-called ‘illegal immigrants’ desperate to cross into western Europe. As the Arab spring uprisings were replaced by counterrevolution, with reactionary regimes holding onto power through civil war, more and more refugees have been attempting to cross the border into the European Union.

The migrants have responded to various measures adopted by EU countries to stem the tide, by changing the routes used. As the Syrian war heated up, crossing the Aegean Sea or the Maritsa into Greece in dinghies became the chosen option - especially as Turkey was turning a blind eye. Fortress Europe responded by building higher and stouter fences along the Bulgarian-Turkish and Turkish-Greek borders, and providing more staff for its Frontex border force. And the EU bartered with Turkey, as if it was over an old oriental carpet in the Grand Bazaar, over ‘how to share the burden of refugees’, provided Turkey did not allow them to mass along EU borders.

The agreement reached stabilised things for a couple of years, but the dispute between Turkey and Cyprus, Greece and the EU over exclusive economic zones and maritime borders provoked the Turkish regime into taking drastic measures. Faced with a coalition of Egypt, Israel, Cyprus and Greece, with their interests in offshore gas fields, and the backing of the EU to thwart Turkish claims to the same waters, Istanbul opted for a dodgy agreement with one of the warring parties in the Libyan conflict in order to declare a new maritime border.

To support its claims the Turkish regime sent survey teams and drilling platforms under the protection of the navy into the disputed waters. In response a nuclear-powered French aircraft carrier arrived in the zone for exercises. The US navy followed suit, sending out a loud and clear message.

Syria

On the other side of Turkey’s land mass, there was the incursion of its army deep into Syria’s Idlib province. The Astana and Sochi agreements between Russia, Iran and Turkey allowed Istanbul to intervene in alliance with Islamist jihadist forces.

One of the tasks it set itself was to clear the M5 route between Damascus and Aleppo, along with attempting to disarm the extremist jihadists. That was, of course, an impossible task, as the US experience in Iran and Afghanistan had demonstrated. And when the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad gathered sufficient forces with aerial support from Russia, a military offensive campaign started. During the last few weeks, town by town the Assad forces cleared the M5 route, and eventually captured Seraqib, the town on the junction of M4 and M5, and a few miles from the city of Idlib.

Turkey was left with a few observation posts behind the Assad forces’ front line, under the protection of Russian military police. By December 2019 the Turkish regime would have been wise to withdraw its forces a little. However, the regime of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, believing in its prowess in the brinkmanship game, declared that none of the observation posts would be vacated or relocated. On the contrary, unless the Assad forces withdrew to the positions they occupied when the Sochi agreement was signed, they would be driven back. And a massive military build-up backed up the rhetoric, with thousands of heavily armed Turkish troops streaming into Idlib province.

During this period, four high-ranking Russian intelligence officers, who had come to the Turkish occupied zone to meet their Turkish counterparts, were mysteriously killed. This was the last straw for the Russians. Their response came in the form of an air strike on a Turkish convoy at the end of February, killing around 30 military personnel. It was the largest death toll suffered by Istanbul during the conflict and really shook the regime.

Erdoğan, who usually appears daily on TV, giving his take on mundane matters, was unable to utter a single word for two long days. But behind-the-scenes diplomatic moves with the USA, Nato and the EU, as well as the Russians, had borne fruit and a smiling Erdoğan finally took to the rostrum once again, declaring that Assad’s forces (not the Russians) had paid a heavy price - so many enemy soldiers were killed, so much equipment was destroyed, etc, etc. It was obvious that the Russians had relaxed its airspace blockade, allowing Turkey to operate its drones. And a tentative date for a Putin-Erdoğan meeting was set.

It was during these tense days that the Erdoğan regime decided to put pressure on Greece, which it deemed to be the main culprit on the diplomatic front. Refugees and ‘illegal immigrants’ residing in Turkey were allowed to cross the border into no man’s land, as well as use rubber dinghies to head off for Greek islands.

As has been widely reported, the Greek response was coordinated with the Frontex - ie, the EU - and was very heavy-handed. Despite the hypocritical speeches of European leaders, the response was to defend the borders of Fortress Europe. The migrants’ dinghies were rammed and fired upon by the coast guards’ boats, while on the land border refugees who managed to cross the Maritsa river were beaten, forced to strip and swim back to Turkey. When some attempted to jump the razor-wire fences, they were fired on with live ammunition and a couple were killed. Liberal amounts of CS gas canisters were discharged.

So the Maritsa border has become a two-way mirror, revealing the dirtiest aspects of both parties, while presenting a jingoistic, racist image to their own people. While on both sides of the river this deadly game with the lives of refugees is being played out, the politicians are at the same time stressing the need to prioritise combatting the COVID-19 pandemic.

Erdoğan had what must have been an acrimonious meeting with top EU leaders on March 10 - his team left Brussels without taking part in the prearranged press conference. But since his return to Turkey almost all the mainstream media has remained silent on what happened. As I write, a meeting with Nato representatives is taking place.

All these desperate moves by Erdoğan give a clear indication that the regime’s sell-by date has passed. However, what would cause him and his cohorts to leave office and disappear into oblivion is not clear. There is no opposition grouping capable of becoming the rallying point for forming a government to replace the current one. And the so-called Turkish left is paralysed by its anti-Arab, anti-Kurdish, racist-nationalist sentiments. The internationalist opposition or those who are looking across the borders for a solution are in the minority - so much so that even Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the Kurdish freedom movement, has been unable to make his voice heard.

The irreconcilable differences between supporters of the Eurasian wing of Turkey’s military top brass and the American/Nato wing are heading towards a calamitous clash.