Turkey. The power structure’s crackdown on the “enemy within”

At the same time as Turkey develops a foreign policy of all-out interventionism, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s regime has launched a campaign against the “enemy within”, threatens to curtail women’s rights and is using its control of the water supply to eradicate the Kurds.

Istanbul, June 17, 2021. Sit-in protest against the armed attack on the HDP office and the murder of Deniz Poyraz in Izmir.
Engin Guneysu/AFP

In March 2021, a prosecutor applied to the Constitutional court to obtain the banning of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and a ban against 600 of its cadres from holding public office. For Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s administration, any reference to the “Kurdish question” is a pretext for judicial proceedings. Thus, it was that in a town in South-West Turkey, Diyarbakir, a reporter and human rights activist, Nurcan Kaya, was taken to court for having posted a tweet in October 2014 in support of the struggle of the inhabitants of Kobané in Syria against the Islamic State Organisation (ISO). in which he stressed the fact that this struggle was not only of interest to Kurds but also to democratic Arabs.

The prosecutor demanded a sentence of five years for “subversive terrorist propaganda”, declaring that with this message, Nurcan Kaya had “publicly justified, praised and encouraged the constrictive, violent and threatening methods used by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) and the People’s Protection Units (PYG).”

One out of every hundred Turks is in gaol or on parole

However, if the crack-down is primarily aimed at members of the pro-Kurdish party or its sympathizers, it is by no means limited to them. In a study made public on 26 May 2021, the NGO P24 Platform for Independent Journalism reported that during the first four months of 2021, 213 journalists were brought to trial and 20 were sentenced to a total of 57 years and 10 months behind bars. In May, six journalists were gaoled. They stand to be sentenced to 17 years for having disclosed “State secrets”. At the beginning of June, the police took into custody two journalists, Ismaïl Dukel, Ankara correspondent for Telel TV, and Milüyesser Yildiz who works for the news Website OdiTV. These arrests were part of an investigation into “political military espionage”. According to Reporters without Borders (RSF), with 90% of the country’s media directly controlled by the government, Turkey ranks second only to China world-wide for its persecution of the press.

Since July 2016, the NGO Turkey Purge has shown that some 80,000 people have been arrested and are awaiting trial; 150,000 civil servants, including 44,000 magistrates and 3,000 academics have been cashiered or suspended and 20,000 military personnel revoked from the armed forces.

Recently, 104 admirals, having criticized plans for a “Kanal Istanbul”, meant to replicate the Bosphorus straits and likely to be in violation of the Montreux Convention, incurred the wrath of the authorities. The letter which these retired officers sent to the President triggered an investigation for “conspiracy to commit a crime against State security and the constitutional order.” Fahrettin Altun, in charge of communication for the Turkish presidency, tweeted: “Not only those who signed the letter but also those who encouraged them must be made accountable before the law.” The courtrooms are always bustling and, according to the Bulletin de l’Institut Kurde de Paris (11 June 2021), quoting statistics contained in a recent report by the Council of Europe, one Turkish citizen out of every hundred is in prison or on parole.

Education taken over by the clergy

Along with these prison sentences, the clergy have gained a stranglehold on education. Since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has come to power, over 20,000 mosques have been built and more than a million pupils attend the Imam Hatip secondary schools whose main function is to train future imams and preachers.

On 1 January 2021, as a part of this regimentation of the academic community, President Erdoğan appointed a new chancellor of Bosphorus University (or Bogazici, ranked among the 500 finest institutions of higher learning in the world), one Meli Bulu whose only reference is having been an AKP candidate for parliament in 2015. His appointment triggered a broad protest among faculty and students. “At midnight on 1 January 2021, for the first time since the 1980s military regime, an unelected administrator, who is not even on the faculty, was appointed chancellor of Bogazici. This appointment is just one more example of the undemocratic practices which have never ceased since 2016. We do not accept this flagrant violation of the autonomy, scientific freedom, and democratic values of our university.”1 The name of Bogazici has thus been added to some twenty others headed by an active member of the AKP and to the 112 that have been affected by purges.

During the two years that followed the failed coup of July 2016, 6,081 academics were fired. Accused of “ties with” or “membership in a terrorist group”, some of them (407 very precisely) know they were fired for having signed a petition demanding an end to the violence in South-East Turkey wreaked against the Kurdish majority there. Although all have been acquitted thus far by the Constitutional Court, they are still barred from teaching.

Democracy flouted

Nor have the purges spared the opposition MPs. The Turkish parliament, dominated by a coalition of the AKP and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) revoked the mandates of four MPs following their convictions in various trial proceedings. Enis Berberoğlu of the People’s Republican Party (CHP), centre-left, secular) as well as Leyla Güven, Musa Farisoğullari and most recently Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu of the HDP, whose brutal arrest in Parliament itself marked the start of the judicial proceedings against his party, have all lost their mandate. Arrested and then released, they will no longer be allowed to sit in Parliament and have, in theory, been sentenced to long prison terms.

These affronts to democracy have been accompanied by various measures of similar ilk: restriction of public freedoms, repressive or assimilationist policies against Kurds, Armenians, Alevites and other minorities, defence and illustration of the most retrograde ideas about male-female equality. Indeed, Turkey has withdrawn from the European convention, adopted in April 2011 in, of all places... Istanbul! regarding the prevention of violence to women, including conjugal and familial violence, on the pretext that this Council of Europe treaty aimed at protecting women against all forms of gender-linked aggressions, “runs counter to traditional family values” and “favours LGBTI + ideology”. This militant homophobia made itself felt again on 26 June during the Pride March (which was banned, as usual) when the police made many heavy-handed arrests in Istanbul. The withdrawal from the Convention is quite in keeping with Erdoğan’s Islamo-conservative convictions. He has often publicly declared that a woman’s place is in the home and that she must bear at least three children.

Afrin Canton: the takeover

In March 2018, Turkey over-ran the Syrian-Kurdish canton of Afrin. Since then, it has undertaken an ethnic cleansing of this territory, located to the north of Aleppo. Prior to that invasion, its 300,000 inhabitants were 98% Kurdish and hosted as well, according to UN statistics, 125,000 displaced persons, mostly Kurds fleeing the Syrian regime’s bombings, particularly in Aleppo province. The canton has been relatively spared by the war, its land is fertile, rich in water and natural resources, regularly attacked by Syrian Islamist militias and Jihadists. It was governed by a local Kurdish administration elected by the population and its security was ensured by a self-defence militia force made up of young men and women. Women were well-represented among the canton’s political and military authorities. and its educational facilities gave ample prominence to the Kurdish tongue, persecuted under the rule of the Assad dynasty.

The Turkish regime regarded the autonomy of this tiny territory as “an existential threat to the Turkish State”, took it over with the blessing of the Russians. As for the Western powers, although allied with the Syrian Kurds in their war against the Islamic State (ISIS), they just let it happen, making do with a few oral admonitions of no consequence for Turkey. Nor did a single UN member refer this flagrant violation of international law to the Security Council.

Immediately following this invasion, according to UN statistics, 130,000 Kurds were obliged to flee to the province of Aleppo where they eke out a living in makeshift camps. The policy of terror, property confiscation, arbitrary arrests, abductions, tortures and looting carried out under the aegis of the Turkish occupation army by Islamist Arab and Turkmen militias has driven another 120,000 Kurds, locally established or already displaced, into exile. Their homes, their land and their businesses were handed over to militiamen (whom the Pentagon made no bones about describing as “the worst sort of riff-raff”), to their families and to Arab refugees from Ghouta and Idlib.

A conference involving the participation of many NGOs and on-the-spot witnesses was held on 31 January 2021 at Qamishli in Rojava. According to the figures provided on the situation in the Kurdish territories under Turkish occupation, the Turks have installed some 400,000 Arabs and Turkmens in the canton of Afrin where the Kurds now constitute scarcely a quarter of the population. The canton is now virtually attached to the governorate of Hatay (formerly Antioch, which France ceded to Turkey in 1939). The Turkish flag flies on school buildings, classes are taught in Arabic and Turkish, the electricity and telephone are hooked into the Turkish systems. The imams and preachers in the mosques are appointed and their wages paid by the Turkish direction of religious affairs (Dyamet). The Turkish pound is now the currency for all forms of trade. Women are no longer seen in public wherever the Syrian militiamen, paid by the Turkish army, enforce the rules of the Islamic sharia. Ahrar Al-Charkiya is the main militia running rampant in the region. It is mainly composed of veterans of ISIS, recycled by the Turkish intelligence services. Here we recognize a well-known occupational procedure, a prelude to out and out annexation.

Twenty-two devastating dams

To these calamities, Turkey has added another, which it tries to pass off as “natural”. The Northern region of Syria is irrigated by the waters of the Euphrates. Taking no account of the exceptional drought that has hit that region, the Turkish government has decreased the river’s flow with a series of dams. In spite of a 1987 agreement with Syria stipulating that Turkey will guarantee a minimum flow of 500m3 per second, the present volume is estimated at less than 200m3 per second.

According to research geographer Jean-François Pérouse: “Turkey has invested huge sums to build a vast network of dams in its south-west region. One of the characteristics of its foreign policy is a complete lack of suples about using all available means to further its interests.”2.

In this instance, these restrictions are meant to put pressure on the region of Syria held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an interethnic alliance made up in majority of Kurds, determined to counter Turkish expansionism. The drop in water levels (by as much as 5 metres) has naturally created a catastrophic situation for the population, both as regards farming and the production of electricity.

En Turquie même, le projet d’Anatolie du Sud-Est (en turc, Güneydoğu Anadolu Projesi ou GAP) qui prévoit d’irriguer 1,7 million d’hectares de terres arides à partir de 22 barrages principaux construits sur les bassins versants du Tigre et de l’Euphrate devrait réduire de 22 km3 par an le débit des deux fleuves. Le partage des eaux de ceux-ci demeurant une source de conflit entre la Turquie, la Syrie et l’Irak.

In Turkey itself, the South-Eastern Anatolia Project (in Turkish, Güneydoğu Anadolu Projesi or GAP), planned to irrigate 1.7 million hectares of dryland from 22 main dams built on the watersheds of the Tigris and the Euphrates should reduce by 22km3 per year the flow of these two rivers. The sharing of their waters has long been a source of conflict between Turkey, Syria and Iraq.

Many analysts have criticized the GAP for its disastrous effects on the environment, its devastating consequences for the historical heritage and traumatic repercussions for the local inhabitants. Once the 22 dams are completed, they will have caused the removal of some 350,000 persons.

At first the authorities vaunted the benefits this project was expected to generate, but as time went by, they have changed their tune. As Emile Bouvier, expert in things Kurdish has pointed out: “The rhetoric surrounding the realisation of GAP and its future utilisations is indeed gradually and rapidly acquiring a national security dimension; the GAP has become, in spite of all intentions, an official instrument of counter-insurrection aimed at the PKK and its sympathisers. The use of the GAP as a counter-insurrectional weapon is organised around three principal axes: population displacement, geographical transformation and cultural destruction”.3. The advocacy of general welfare has given way to the pure and simple eviction of local populations In the nineteen twenties, Mustapha Kemal Ataturk referred contemptuously to the inhabitants of this region as the “desert Kurds”. Soon, thanks to the GAP, both the Kurds and the desert will have disappeared.

Going rogue in NATO

Comme on vient de le voir, la Turquie déploie tous les moyens possibles pour réprimer ces opposants supposés ou réels, pourtant ce membre de l’Organisation du traité de l’Atlantique Nord (OTAN) ne fait l’objet d’aucune mesure de sanctions de la part de l’Union européenne.

As we have seen, Turkey is resorting to every possible ploy to repress its opponents, real or imaginary, and yet this member of the North-Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) is never sanctioned by the UE. At a summit meeting in Brussels on 14 June, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reminded Joe Biden that he had no intention of changing his position regarding the S-400 ground-to-air anti-missile defense system purchased from the Russians. This provocative declaration, which endangers the military organisation’s technical coherence did not prevent the US President from declaring in his press conference “I’m confident we’ll make real progress with Turkey and the United States”4.

1Étienne Balibar, « Sur le Bosphore, enseignants et étudiants en lutte pour la liberté », Libération, 24 January 2021.

4« Remarks by President Biden in Press Conference », the White House, 14 June 2021.