Turkey in Syria

In Turkey, perhaps more than most other places, the significance of events is hard to grasp. One reason for this is the sheer number of major, often extreme, politically inspired actions: the murder of the Appeals Court judges in 2004; the huge Republic protests in support of state secularism in 2007; the massive Gezi Park protests against urban development in 2013; the shocking suicide bombings in Suruç and Ankara in 2015; the attempted military coup in 2016; the referendum for a new constitution in 2018, and so on. More importantly, multiple antagonistic political visions offer radically different perspectives on Turkish history and such events. Secularist (Kemalist), ‘Muslim’, liberal, Turkish-nationalist and pro-Kurdish citizens, receiving their news from their favoured sources, differ greatly in the meaning they attribute to historical incidents and thus in what they remember and forget. One feature of these polarised political emotions is the way in which each new appalling or auspicious act is obsessed over or ignored according to people’s pre-existing schemas of thought, matrices of perception and sentiment, and sedimentations of experience.

I begin with this brief discussion of ‘history wars’ in Turkey because the same disputation applies to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s involvement in Syria since the beginning of the civil war in 2011, as well as to its more recent military actions against the pro-Kurdish government in Syria’s northeastern corner. For supporters of the government, military intervention is applauded for its targeting of terrorism. For many Kurds (and others), military action testifies simply to the chauvinistic Turkish nationalism of the government.

Since the unexpected uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria in 2011, the Turkish government has hosted and supported the Syrian National Council, at first a coalition of groups opposed to the Syrian government and later a self-proclaimed government in exile. It has also helped arm its military wing. At the same time the Russian and Iranian states have been active in Syria, supporting the pro-Assad Syrian Armed Forces in military operations against both numerous rebel groups and the unrecognised proto-state ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). The result has been a vicious and internationalised ‘civil’ war that has killed at least 500,000 people and displaced a further six million. 

Although there was some Syrian Kurdish participation in the Turkish-sponsored Syrian National Council’s activities in its very first months, soon nearly all Kurdish groups disengaged. As Damascus lost control over vast areas of the country, in 2012 a coalition of groups led by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) declared de-facto autonomy in the country’s northeastern provinces—Rojava. Aligned with the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), a guerrilla and socialist political force that emerged in the late 1970s to defend Kurdish rights in Turkey, the PYD and its militia, the People’s Protection Units, have, since 2014, governed and defended the autonomous region against ISIL expansion. The progressive constitution of the Rojava cantons guarantees religious, political and cultural freedom for the region’s polyethnic population that includes Kurds, Arabs, Armenians and Assyrian Christians, and Turkmen. It also embeds principles of gender equality in its new political structures. Today the PYD advocates for regional autonomy within a federal and democratic Syria, a position apparently supported by Russia. Turkey would wish Rojava’s destruction. Curiously, the People’s Protection Units have also been an effective fighting force in the US-organised anti-ISIL coalition, an alliance recently betrayed by Donald Trump with his sudden withdrawal of US military support for the multi-ethnic Syrian Democratic Forces.

Another aspect of these unfolding developments in Syria has been the Turkish government’s creation of the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (not to be confused with the Free Syrian Army) to more directly pursue its political aims in Syria. Together with other Turkish-supported Syrian rebel forces, the Turkish armed forces began Operation Olive Branch on 20 January 2018 with a military intervention into the Kurdish canton of Afrin. As it did so, the president of the Directorate of Religious Affairs (the Diyanet) announced that every mosque in Turkey would recite the ‘Fetih’ (the Conquest) chapter from the Koran, while praying that the movement ‘begun by our heroic security forces across the border into Afrin will conclude with victory’. After Trump’s wavering policy decisions, Turkey’s present offensive against the Syrian Democratic Forces appears temporarily halted. Today Rojava, as it has been for nearly a decade, is delicately poised between powerful regional states. Its future constitutional status is uncertain.

Ever since the institution of the Turkish Republic, its governments have propagated a Turkish nationalism that has demanded the assimilation or obliteration of non-Turkish ethnic ‘others’. In particular, Turkish nationalism has denied Kurds’ self-description of their difference from Turks. In one way, then, current AKP policy towards the emergence of a Kurdish government and of a Kurdish autonomous region in Syria simply continues long-running republican policy.

But there is also a more contemporary political context to the AKP’s militaristic responses. This relates to a slow decline in the electoral popularity of the government that began in June 2015, when the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) gained 13.1 per cent of the popular vote, smashing the 10-per-cent barrier instituted by the military in 1982 precisely to stop minority representation in parliament. The AKP’s response to losing its majority in parliament was cynical and undemocratic. HDP parliamentarians were stripped of parliamentary immunity, charged with supporting terrorism, and taken to court. Since 2015 the police have detained 10,000 people and made 3000 arrests of HDP members. Selahattin Demirtaş, co-chair of the party, has been accused of sedition and terrorism, for which the prosecutor has sought 130 years’ imprisonment. Illiberal political measures have also resulted in the obstruction of Kurdish municipalism, despite HDP-controlled councils being legally elected political bodies within the Turkish electoral system. Two years of emergency rule after July 2016 has allowed the government to continue these repressive processes.

Nevertheless, the continuing popularity of this pro-Kurdish party in the Kurdish-majority regions of Turkey threatens the AKP’s hold on government, particularly as many religious Kurdish Muslims no longer choose to vote for it. In response, since 2016 the once ‘Islam-friendly’ AKP has forged a new coalition with the Nationalist Action Party, an ultra-Turkist party with links to the state security forces that interprets Turkish nationalism as a doctrine of civil war.

So there are at least two reasons for current government policy towards Syrian and Turkish Kurds. The first is the continuing influence of a powerful, century-old current of Turkish nationalism, which instituted the Turkish Republic in 1923. The second is a pragmatic response to waning electoral popularity. As many governments around the world know, there is nothing like heroic military action for shoring up jaded public support.

Today the political bloc forged in the first decade of the 2000s between the AKP, Turkish liberals and religious Kurds has collapsed. A militaristic and authoritarian ‘nationalist front’ has taken its place. But how long might this front hold sway? Early in 2019 the AKP suffered its most significant electoral defeat since its founding in 2001, losing control of both the Greater Istanbul and Greater Ankara municipalities to the Republican Peoples Party. Kurdish voters in each city were critical in the result. The AKP (and its predecessor Refah Party) have governed Istanbul and Ankara for twenty-five years. Tayyip Erdogan became mayor of Istanbul in 1994, marking the beginning of his political career.

This defeat will have significant consequences for Turkish politics, and for the future of President Erdogan. At its core, the AKP is a municipal party, and its popularity for decades has been connected to its ability to build houses and hospitals, make roads and bridges, construct transport infrastructure, establish parks, facilitate the expansion of shopping malls and regenerate Istanbul’s built environments (including its tourist infrastructure, and cultural heritage conservation). Under neoliberalism, planning is a prime method of accumulating capital. For the Republican Peoples Party, winning Istanbul is a political game-changer. Control of Istanbul’s planning and development possibilities, its marketing and organising of tourism and conferences, its provisioning, and its urban regeneration give it enormous new opportunities for business and finance, for rewarding its supporters with contracts and services, for establishing new companies dedicated to city servicing, and for setting up new enterprises oriented to cultural production, arts entrepreneurship and tourism. There is some small hope that it might also develop and publicise its own new practice of ‘democratic municipalism’.

In sum, even as the Turkish armed forces threaten further military action in ‘Western Kurdistan’, election results in Turkey’s biggest cities breathe new life into Turkish democracy, rejuvenating urban issues as a core battleground for citizens’ rights. But this also heralds a return in some ways to the late 1970s, when different political parties held power at the national and greater-council levels. That led to a crisis in council services and competencies as the national government starved opposition municipalities of funds. We can expect to witness a similar political struggle today, including disputes over financing, as well as bitter conflict over the AKP’s attempt to re-centralise Ankara’s control over urban municipalities.

About the author

Christopher Houston

Christopher Houston is Professor of Anthropology at Macquarie University, Sydney. He has carried out extensive fieldwork in Turkey on Islamic social movements, nationalism, urban processes in Istanbul, and on the Kurdish issue. His most recent book is Theocracy, Secularism, and Islam in Turkey. Anthropocratic Republic (2021, Palgrave Macmillan).

More articles by Christopher Houston

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