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A false Messiah: Turkey’s negative role in the Middle East

Turkey
Conflict
Syria
Human Rights
Turkish flags

Quinn Dombrowski under a Creative Commons Licence

It has been called ‘the secret war’, ‘the unknown war’ and ‘a war inside a war’; all names for a battle that began when the Islamic State (IS) launched its attack on Kobanê, one of three cantons that make up the Kurdish self-ruled Rojava in northern Syria. The fighters from the People’s Protection Unit (YPG), a Kurdish armed force, have been resisting IS with a spirit and determination that has captured the attention of the world in a manner unprecedented for the Kurdish people, who have largely been ignored by mainstream media.

One by one, Kurdish cities were declared liberated in July 2012 when Syrian regime forces withdrew in order to fight the Free Syrian Army, an armed opposition consisting of defected Syrian soldiers and civilians. Since then, Rojava has become a refuge for internally displaced Syrians and a model for a functioning democracy in a war-torn region.

Rojava operates with a bottom-up approach, an inclusive system where local communities and groups have great influence on political and social issues. These communities are diverse and include Kurds, Arabs, Turkmens, Christians and so on. As an example of its philosophy of inclusion, children can be educated in their mother tongue and the rights of women are promoted.

The YPG and the Asayish (the Kurdish security police) include people of different ethnic backgrounds, just like the rest of Rojava’s institutions.

Dangerous perceptions

Turkey, however, does not view Rojava as a model for people-enforced autonomy or a progressive, inclusive democracy. Rojava is considered a threat to Turkey because the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the dominating party in Rojava, is considered a ‘terrorist’ organization due to its ideological links with the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), a political and armed organization that has been fighting for Kurdish rights in Turkey since 1978. The Turkish government has been far more vocal about the potential danger of a Kurdish autonomous state than an IS-controlled territory. The government’s attitude towards the PKK and PYD is reflected in many aspects of Turkish society and media. Not surprisingly, a Turkish research centre called Metropoll recently found that 43.7 per cent of Turks perceive PKK as being more dangerous than IS, while 41.6 per cent think IS is more dangerous than the PKK. In the last few months, such numbers have been reflected by the Turkish army personnel stationed at the border with Kobanê, one of three cantons that make up the Rojava region, where an intense battle is taking place between Kurdish fighters and IS terrorists.

Additionally, there have been numerous reports of the Turkish army killing refugees from Syria crossing the border into Turkey, as well as a recent killing of a Kurdish activist who was shot in the head without warning as she tried to reach Kobanê from the Turkish side of the border.

‘There have been numerous reports of the Turkish army killing refugees from Syria crossing the border into Turkey, as well as a recent killing of a Kurdish activist who was shot in the head’

It is uncertain, or at least debatable, to what degree Turkey is aiding the Islamic State, but it seems to be a fact that new IS recruits join the terrorist group via Turkey. Furthermore, it is well known that injured members of IS have been treated in Turkish hospitals. This raises suspicions about Turkey’s role, especially considering its motive in keeping Rojava and Kurds out of power for the sake of its own political and economic interests.

A recent article in Newsweek by Barney Guiton titled ‘“ISIS Sees Turkey as Its Ally”: Former Islamic State Member Reveals Turkish Army Co-operation’ quotes a former member of IS: ‘“ISIS commanders told us to fear nothing at all because there was full co-operation with the Turks,” said Omer of crossing the border into Turkey, “and they reassured us that nothing will happen, especially when that is how they regularly travel from Raqqa and Aleppo to the Kurdish areas further northeast of Syria because it was impossible to travel through Syria as YPG [National Army of Syrian Kurdistan] controlled most parts of the Kurdish region.”’

It is not debatable, though, that Turkey is, in one way or another, facilitating IS’s entry into Syria and consequently aiding its expansion and influence. Turkey’s shameful link to IS is not hidden from the attention of allies and the international community, yet a clear, public condemnation has not yet been voiced and Turkey has showed no sign of feeling pressured to change its course.

It is in everyone’s interest that peace be established among Kurds and Turks, but not only has the so-called peace process (initiated in early 2013) failed to produce sufficient and meaningful reforms, Turkey’s connection to IS has worsened Kurds’ perception of the Turkish government, which they accuse of aiding the killing of Kurds in Syria.

The Kurdish people have continued their resistance against the Turkish state’s oppression with unmatched endurance and perseverance, using whatever influence they have to amplify their voice through online campaigning, protests, sit-ins in parliaments and airports, radio and TV presence, art, music and more. Despite these efforts, Turkey has managed successfully to avoid international condemnation for its treatment of the Kurdish people.

I witnessed, with great disappointment, as the Queen of Denmark held a banquet in honour of the Turkish president, broadcasted live on Danish TV, earlier this year. She gave a very diplomatic speech, naturally avoiding anything political. She ended her speech with the words: ‘Here’s to ongoing prosperity and happiness for Turkey.’

What ‘ongoing happiness’ was she speaking of? The Roboskî massacre, which resulted in the death of 34 innocent civilian Kurds, the majority of whom were children, on 28 December 2011 and was committed by the Turkish military, is still fresh in our memory. It is one massacre of many committed by the Turkish government which targeted Kurdish civilians, many of whom are still languishing in Turkish jails.

Fallen hero

In the initial phase of the so-called Arab Spring, then-Prime Minister Erdogan took advantage of the turbulent situation across the Arab world to promote his leadership in Turkey as a role model for the region. European politicians began pressing the European Union (EU) to edge closer to Turkey so it could serve as a bridge between the West and the Middle East. Whenever Kurdish rights were brought up by human rights advocates, it was routinely ignored and these ongoing violations were barely present in international media outlets covering Turkey’s role in the Arab Spring.

It took roughly two years for Turkey to fall from its pedestal as a regional ‘hero’ and ‘beacon of hope’, when the infamous Gezi protests took Turkey by storm in 2013. Evidence of corruption and police brutality, widespread censorship and mass arrests served to prove that Turkey is itself far from stable.

‘Turkey’s connection to IS has worsened Kurds’ perception of the Turkish government, which they accuse of aiding the killing of Kurds in Syria’

Turkey continues to show its reluctance to join the US-led coalition against IS. For example, it does not allow the US military greater access to the Incirlik Airbase. This has disappointed other Western allies and it further supports the suspicions about Turkey’s aid towards IS. Yet this disappointment has yet to translate to international condemnation – while Turkey continues to be celebrated as an ‘important ally’.

NATO’s new General Secretary, Jens Stoltenberg, former Prime Minister of Norway, said at a press conference in Ankara in October:

‘ISIL [Islamic State] poses a grave threat to the Iraqi people, to the Syrian people, to the wider region, and to NATO nations [...] So it is important that the whole international community stays united in this long-term effort. I welcome the decisive actions taken by the United States, with many Allies and partners. And I welcome the recent vote in the Turkish Parliament to authorize an even more active role of Turkey in the crisis.’

Will Turkey’s lack of crackdown on alleged IS activity and aid inside Turkish borders have an effect on its campaign for EU membership? The fact that Turkey has dragged its feet in the fight against IS and has avoided using the term ‘terrorist group’ must mean that the EU and European politicians are hesitant to embrace Turkey in its ranks.

In addition, Turkey has yet to fulfil any of the goals that have been a barrier between them and their accession into EU, most significantly freedom of expression and press; the country’s conflict with Cyprus due to Turkey’s illegal and ongoing invasion of northern Cyprus; and, most recently, the 2013 Gezi protests which exposed the Turkish police’s extensive brutality against civilian protesters and opposition activists. Turkey continues to lead the list of countries which have imprisoned the largest number of journalists, the majority of whom are charged with ‘offending a government official’, with the rest being Kurdish writers, academics, teachers and students who took the risk of defending their dignity and rights.

Reporters Without Borders ranked Turkey at number 154 out of 180 countries in its World Press Freedom Index 2014, below countries such as Russia and Iraq.

The violation of Kurdish rights has not played as big a role as would be appropriate in the discussions regarding Turkey’s accession into EU. It is yet another aspect of the international community’s failure to put pressure on Turkey and demand more than superficial reforms.

The so-called peace process has not brought about significant reforms that answer the Kurdish people’s demands of the right to education in their mother tongue and right to free assembly, freedom of expression, information and press. The de facto handling of ‘terrorism’ charges in relation to Kurds (including children) has not been improved. The brutal crackdowns on peaceful Kurdish protests have led to numerous deaths and injuries. The Turkish government, police and military forces take no responsibility and fail to investigate the deaths of innocent civilians. Thousands of families are hopelessly awaiting justice.

Turkey does not have the best reputation at the moment: accusations of aiding IS, its ongoing violations of human rights, oppression of its Kurdish citizens, growing media and internet censorship, as well as massive spending on private properties such as the mansion president Erdogan has built as a ‘presidential palace’. Have these issues weakened Turkey’s position as a regional power? Has it made allies and other nations unwilling to associate with Turkey? Sadly doubtful. It apparently takes much more than Turkey’s laissez-faire attitude towards IS and its massacres of Kurdish civilians to influence alliances between it and the West. Until the rest of the world wakes up, they enjoy a deep friendship, one that is at our painful expense.

Naila Bozo is the editor for the Alliance for Kurdish Rights.