Turkey’s Incursion into Northeast Syria: Authoritarianism Within and Beyond Borders

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A man looks on as smoke rises from the Syrian town of Ras al-Ain, in a picture taken from the Turkish side of the border in Ceylanpinar on October 11, 2019, on the third day of Turkey’s military operation against Kurdish forces. – Turkey will not stop its operation against Kurdish militants in northern Syria, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Friday, dismissing what he called “threats” from other countries. (Photo by Ozan KOSE / AFP) (Photo by OZAN KOSE/AFP via Getty Images)

Çağrı Yoltar

Reflecting on the U.S. troop withdrawal from northern Syria, which facilitated a Turkish incursion into the area and to possible human rights violations against the Kurds, PoLAR editors asked Firat Bozcali, Deniz Duruiz, and Çağrı Yoltar to discuss what is missing from western media coverage of the situation. Other essays may be found on our Ethnographic Explainers page.

The international news media seemed to swiftly lose interest in the Turkish incursion into North-East Syria (Rojava), especially after the President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to White House on November 13, 2019. All those concerning news stories about Turkey’s attack on Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)-controlled territories—including news about human rights violations and ethnic cleansing attempts by Turkish military and Turkey-sponsored militia against the Kurds in the region—have now given way to a deep silence, reminding us yet again the limits of humanitarianism and regimes of protection for stateless people.

Even in the first couple of weeks when Turkey’s attack on Northern Syria had the heightened attention of the international media, the implications of this incursion for domestic politics in Turkey remained mostly undiscussed. Here, I would like to reflect on this domestic aspect as I believe it will help us better understand the scope of authoritarian assault that democratic alternatives in the region face today.

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Supporters of Turkey’s main pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) party cheer as they celebrate the Kurdish New Year during a campaign rally in Istanbul on March 24, 2019 ahead of the March 31 local elections. – Under daily attack from Turkish President and with dozens of its mayors in jail, HDP is fighting an uphill battle for this month’s local elections and hopes to mobilise its supporters in the vote to capture municipal mayor posts and local councils. (Photo by YASIN AKGUL/AFP via Getty Images.

President Donald Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of Northern Syria to clear the way for a Turkish invasion came at a time when the governing Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) was reeling from a major electoral defeat which cost them municipal governments in almost all metropolises in Turkey. The political blow President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his party suffered resulted from an economic recession and growing popular unease with President Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies. During the 2019 local election campaign, opposition parties representing quite disparate stances in Turkey (Kemalists and some factions of ultranationalists and political Islamists) managed to form a political bloc (Millet Ittifakı – the Nation Alliance), organize grievances of the people, and present themselves as a viable alternative to AKP regime. The Peoples’ Democratic Party (Halkların Demokratik Partisi, HDP), a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, progressive umbrella party led by the Kurds, played a critical role in the defeat of AKP in 2019 local elections by indirectly supporting some candidates of the Nation Alliance and not running for the mayoralty in Turkish metropolises.

Under these circumstances, Erdogan’s decision to declare war against Syrian Kurds was also an attempt to undermine this emergent political bloc which, for some, had the potential to loosen Erdoğan’s authoritarian grip over Turkey. 2019 was in fact the second time the AKP has suffered a significant electoral blow. The first setback occurred in the June 7th, 2015 general elections. In both instances, the electoral defeat of Erdoğan was followed by a declaration of war, first in the Kurdish cities and towns in southeastern Turkey and then in Northern Syria where Kurds have established a relatively peaceful autonomous region in the midst of a civil war. So in order to account for the connections between Turkey’s attack on Northern Syria and rising authoritarianism in the country, one should go back to the June 7th, 2015 general elections.

In the June 7th general elections, the HDP won 13.12 percent of the votes and, for the first time in Turkey’s history, a Kurdish-led party managed to pass Turkey’s 10 percent electoral threshold, the highest in the world. With this historic victory, the HDP not only secured 81 seats in the parliament and became the third biggest party; this success also brought an end to the AKP’s thirteen-year-long single-party government. Erdoğan’s response to his first electoral defeat was to immediately end peace negotiations that had started in 2012 between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan, PKK). This was a strategic maneuver by Erdoğan, as it was actually the peace process which created a relatively calm atmosphere for the HDP to organize an effective election campaign, overcome long-standing ethnic divisions propelled by Turkish state nationalism, and establish ties with progressive forces across Turkey, including other ethnic and religious minorities, leftists, feminists, LGBTI+ and environmentalists. Erdoğan and his AKP utilized the war as a main instrument to counter this flourishing democratic opposition in the country. Declaring “war on terror” immediately after the June 7 elections, Erdoğan and the AKP successfully revived and inflated the nationalistic sentiments of the Turkish public and legitimized subjecting the country to a snap election.

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Coffins are draped in the Kurdish flag, as mourners gather for the funerals of people killed during clashes between Turkish forces and militants of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the Kurdish-majority city of Cizre, in southeastern Turkey, on September 13, 2015, following a week-long curfew imposed to support a Turkish military operation against the Kurdish rebels. The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) has said over 20 civilians were killed during the operation, which deprived residents of access to essential amenities and triggered food shortages. Clashes between the state and PKK, which resumed in late July, have upended a 2013 ceasefire that had sparked hopes of an end to the PKK’s three-decade insurgency, which has killed tens of thousands of people. Photo by ILYAS AKENGIN/AFP via Getty Images.

In the November 2015 snap election, AKP managed to win the majority in the parliament and form a single-party government. Soon after AKP’s “electoral success,” massive military operations started in the Kurdish region. Indefinite round-the-clock curfews were declared in Kurdish stronghold cities and towns where HDP had won landslide victories. In a couple of months, these cities and towns were fully or partially razed to the ground. Finally, the coup attempt in July 2016 in Turkey provided favorable conditions for Erdoğan to institutionalize his authoritarian grip over legislative and executive branches of the government, and to criminalize and ban all institutions and initiatives formed by the Kurdish movement, including HDP mayoralties.

From June 2015 general elections up until the 2019 local elections, the opposition parties in Turkey have been in complete disarray. The political alliance that started to take shape during the 2019 elections creates the possibility of challenging Erdoğan’s power. Although Kurds were not officially included in this alliance, the strategic decision of HDP to indirectly support alliance’s candidates proved once again the Kurds’ critical position in Turkey’s democratic politics. Unfortunately, this critical position remains unacknowledged by Turkish opposition parties forming the Nation Alliance, mainly because of their “nationalistic sensitivities,” or to put it in non-euphemized terms, their unquestioned and unapologetic prejudices, discrimination and antagonism against Kurds. Erdoğan has identified this weak spot in the opposition bloc and played his cards accordingly. Framing the incursion as a dire national security issue, Erdoğan called on the parliament to declare unconditional support to this “operation.” All parties, except the HDP, demonstrated support to the invasion either fervently or willy-nilly, united by the Turkish nationalistic fervor pumped up by Erdoğan, his party, and news media. The Turkish incursion into Rojava thus became a litmus test for the political potential of the opposition to constitute a power bloc against Erdoğan. The Turkish opposition seems to have failed this test. This attack has not only enabled Erdoğan to regain popularity among Turkish public and legitimize his authoritarian policies under the guise of a war on terror, but also casts doubt on the hopes for the emergence of an anti-authoritarian front to present a strong democratic alternative to the AKP.

Cagri Yoltar is a post-doctoral fellow and the scientific coordinator of a European Research Council-funded research project, The New Politics of Welfare, at Koc University in Istanbul. She received her PhD in Cultural Anthropology from Duke University. Based on extensive ethnographic fieldwork, her first book project examines the politics and anti-politics of care in the conflict-ridden Kurdish region of Turkey. Her most recent article, “Making the Indebted Citizen: An Inquiry into State Benevolence” is forthcoming (May 2020) in the journal Political and Legal Anthropological Review (PoLAR).

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