Chaos, violence, and authoritarian rule reign in Turkey. Is there any opening for the Kurdish liberation movement?
by Guney Işıkara, Alp Kayserilioğlu, & Max Zirngast
Turkey is descending ever further into chaos. The ruling AKP’s policy on Syria has led to the rise of extremist Islamist groups within Turkey’s borders and introduced serious tensions into its relations with Russia, as the Turkish state wages war again in North Kurdistan and cracks down on every form of opposition.
How did the war escalate so quickly? Only a year ago, representatives of the state and the Kurdish movement presented their first written agreement at a press conference held in Istanbul’s Dolmabahçe Palace. Shortly thereafter, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) — an alliance of the Kurdish liberation movement and left and democratic forces in Turkey — concluded a triumphant campaign in the June elections.
Yet within months the Turkish state launched a full-fledged war in the southeast of the country against organizations affiliated with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) and the civilian Kurdish population. These recent developments are an expression of a hegemony crisis for the AKP that threatens to spin out of control.
The Nature of the Crisis
The rise of the HDP and the crisis of the AKP is part of a longer trajectory of conflicts within the Turkish state and society.
By the 1990s the old military-dominated state was no longer able to cope with the changing political and economic landscape in Turkey and globally. Kemalist ideology, touted as Turkey’s modern foundation, was too elitist and failed to include broad layers of the population via active consensus. The entire political system in Turkey was in crisis through the better part of the 1990s. On top of this, the economic crisis of 2000–1 was the most severe the country had sustained.
Amid this political and economic crisis, the AKP emerged as a party that successfully reorganized the hegemony of the leading fractions of Turkish finance capital. It did so by further enforcing and deepening neoliberal policies while at the same time constructing a particular mode of consent vis-à-vis popular classes and thoroughly restructuring the state apparatuses. This kind of consent, as well as the restructured state apparatuses, made possible the thorough implementation of neoliberalism in Turkey.
At the peak of the AKP’s success, however, the contradictions of the neoliberal order and the country’s inability to grow into a strong sub-imperialist power led to the 2013 Gezi Uprising. In its wake, and with the revolution in Rojava, the party began to lose both passive and active consent from the popular classes. At the same time, splits and divisions began to develop within the ruling class, the economy’s fragility became increasingly apparent, and the country’s international stature was diminished.
What has unfolded since 2013 is a hegemonial crisis: a crisis of legitimacy of the ruling party combined with a shakeup within the order of the dominant fractions of the ruling class. The AKP’s decision to cling to power by repression has only deepened and intensified the crisis.
The point of no return came in 2015, when police violence and public scandals involving leading AKP officials alienated a large enough segment of the population to rule out de-escalation and the regular transfer of power. AKP officials had to choose between clinging to office by force or facing severe consequences after the fall.
In this context the HDP rose quickly to become a central actor in Turkish politics. Despite the AKP’s massive state media campaign, some two hundred attacks on HDP officers or campaigners, and the bombing of an HDP meeting that killed four and injured hundreds just two days before the election, the young party entered parliament with 13.1 percent of the vote, while AKP’s share fell by almost nine points. The AKP began the campaign hoping to win enough seats to amend the constitution, but failed to gain even a simple majority in parliament, crushing Erdoğan’s dream of a dictatorial presidential system.
The success of the HDP in the June elections would have put an end to the AKP’s thirteen-year reign, but Erdoğan and his party refused to accept the result and found the means to undermine it.
From June to November
It is clear now that the AKP never intended to form a coalition government, and that its negotiations with other parties were a ploy to buy time as it prepared a strategy of escalation and war. By creating a climate of fear, the party hoped it could regain the initiative and win a snap election.
The AKP’s war with the PKK in Kurdistan was renewed, curfews were declared in several Kurdish cities, and police special forces were deployed against the insurgent population.
Amid these machinations, a series of suicide attacks, supposedly carried out by ISIS, shook the country. The horrific apex came on October 10, when two bombs exploded at a peace demonstration in Ankara, killing 102 people. It was the deadliest terror attack in the history of the Turkish Republic. The war, suicide attacks, and rising police repression clamped down on the democratic potential that expressed itself in the Gezi Uprising and the electoral victory of HDP. People retreated from the streets.
The AKP also began forging a sturdier alliance between the leadership of the Turkish Armed Forces, the party-controlled police, special forces, and other elements of the state. Long-time enemies — or at least competitors for decisive power over the entire state — the military and the AKP-controlled parts of the state set aside their differences and came together.
This collaboration is in keeping with the Turkish state’s traditional reaction to gains made by the Kurdish liberation movement or popular democratic movements. Capitalist hegemony in Turkey was historically founded on, and remains structurally dependent on, the slaughter, pillage, and colonization of Armenians, Greeks, and Kurds, among others. Any effort to tie the democratic aspirations of these groups to left forces in Turkey, which the HDP’s rise seemed to augur, poses a threat to Turkish capital. In the history of the modern Turkish Republic, such a threat has always been met with military coups or the escalation of war.
The AKP managed to trigger these traditional reactions and to present itself as the political subject that can counter the threat to the state and reorganize the hegemony of the leading fractions of the dominant class.
The new balance of forces also explains why the AKP’s return to single-party rule after the elections of November 1 was celebrated by the very same finance capital lobbies — like the Turkish Industrial and Business Association (TÜSIAD) — that had pushed for a coalition government in June. For them, what matters most is the continuation of polices that augment capitalist accumulation.
Threatened by strong, militant movements against the state, these interests are willing to support aggressive policy and warmongering against the Kurdish movement and democratic forces when the AKP appears to be strong, and to call for cooperation with opposition forces when the party is weak.
The AKP’s strategy of violence and fearmongering succeeded, securing the party a resounding victory in the November 1 election. The roughly 5 million votes the party added to its June tally came partly from the Kurdish bourgeoisie, who had backed the HDP in June, but returned to the fold after the PKK came back into the game.
More importantly, the AKP was able to mobilize voters who had not gone to the polls in June and pick up votes from smaller conservative and right-wing parties as well (like the more than 1 million votes from the fascist Milliyetçi Haraket Partisi), thus reestablishing its absolute dominance over the right-wing bloc.
As we predicted, the AKP’s November victory led to continuing attacks on the opposition, both left and right, but it was clear from the outset that warfare and state terror alone were not enough to reconstruct the hegemony that was lost after Gezi and Rojava.
Instead, Turkey has found itself in a perfect storm of state terror and war on one side, and armed resistance by the Kurdish people on the other. Further compounding their position, Turkey’s international standing has plummeted because it shot down a Russian plane in November, launched a military incursion into Iraq in December, and is struggling with a persistently volatile economy.
The combination of these factors, along with the risk that political and military conflict will spread to the country’s interior, has made the alliance of the various elements of the state and the dominant class in Turkey more fragile than ever. An escalation of the war combined with a political or an economic crisis could easily result in a complete systemic collapse.
The War on the Opposition
Even before all the votes had been counted on November 1, the AKP leadership began to set the tone for what was to come. Just two days after the elections, a court confiscated the passports of fifty-four state attorneys and judges — all of whom had already been removed from office, on terror charges — signaling the continuation of the government’s war against the religious community of preacher Fethullah Gülen, a former ally who turned against the AKP after Gezi.
On the same day, the chief editors of the Gülen-affiliated journal Nokta, which had published sensitive details about internal conflicts within the AKP, were taken into custody and charged with “armed uprising against the Turkish Republic.”
A few days later, the offices of the Gülen-affiliated employers union TUSKON were raided. Within three days sixty-six more people had been taken into custody and three people had been imprisoned for political crimes such as “insulting the president.” Two people had also been injured, and six killed in conflicts.
Soon thereafter, Can Dündar, editor in chief of the newspaper Cumhuriyet, and Erdem Gül, head of the paper’s Ankara bureau, were both arrested and imprisoned on terror charges — punishment for publishing photos that revealed the transport of weapons to extremist groups in Syria in trucks owned by the state’s National Intelligence Organization.
And on December 2, prominent Kurdish human rights lawyer Tahir Elçi was shot while holding a press conference in Diyarbakır, the biggest city in the largely Kurdish southeast. Elçi had been harassed by the state after saying on television that he did not consider the PKK a terrorist organization. Government officials claimed that Elçi was caught in the middle of gunfire between police and an unnamed party, while state media outlets would later pin the blame on the PKK.
The lawyer, who was the only casualty of the shootout, was found with a single bullet wound to the head, suggesting an execution-style killing. Elçi’s relatives and HDP representatives have publicly charged the government with his assassination, sparking protests amid a sluggish, negligent investigation by the state. Elçi was well known as an advocate for peace, at times as critical of the PKK as of the Turkish state. Like the imprisonment of Dündar and Gül, Elçi’s killing is meant to send a clear message to liberal-democratic critics of the AKP government.
Most recently, Erdoğan has launched attacks on over two thousand Turkish academics who signed a call for peace that blamed the state for crimes against its own population and called for a return to negotiations with the Kurdish movement. Erdoğan accused the signees of treason and terror propaganda, demanding that universities and courts “do what is necessary” to silence the academics.
Sedat Peker, a notorious organized crime figure with ties to fascist organizations, and a supporter of the AKP, threatened the academics in a blog post: “We [the children of this homeland] will let your blood flow and shower in it.”
Erdoğan’s calls were answered quickly: all of the original signatories have been “investigated,” some fired from universities, and, in the more extreme cases, taken into custody by the police anti-terrorism unit. Peker’s call for violence has been partially taken up by fascist militants, who have so far have vandalized the office doors of some academics and delivered threatening letters to others.
War and Terror in Kurdistan
Directly after the November 1 elections, important AKP spokespeople, including Deputy Prime Minister Yalçın Erdoğan, Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioğlu, presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalın, and President Erdoğan all made statements indicating the war on the Kurdish liberation movement and the Kurdish people would be intensified. Shortly thereafter, the PKK reported an increase in the army’s attacks on their positions, and the YPG — the PKK-tied Kurdish militia in Syria — reported Turkish strikes on its positions in Rojava.
Since the government reignited its assault on the Kurdish liberation movement in July, neighborhood curfews throughout North Kurdistan have been routinely enforced. The curfews, sometimes lasting only a night, other times continuing for many days or weeks, are targeted at neighborhoods and cities known to house large rebel populations.
On November 3, after a curfew was declared in Silvan and a massive series of arrests began in Kurdish cities, the KCK — the confederation of PKK-affiliated associations — declared an official end to the cease-fire. On November 11, the Turkish Air Force entered the war, bombing Silvan, where the curfew had been in place for nine days.
According to the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, at least 58 curfews in 7 provinces and 19 provincial districts were declared between August 16 and February 5, affecting a population of more than a million people. At least 224 civilians were killed — at least 53 of which died in their own houses due to shelling by heavy artillery or sniper fire, and 31 who perished because state forces blocked ambulances. More than 1,300,000 are affected by the curfews, and at least 200,000 people have reportedly been forced to migrate.
There was further escalation on December 15, when heavily armed police special forces proved unable to contain resistance from the militant Kurdish youth group, the YDG-H; Ankara sent in the army with around 10,000 troops, light and heavy artillery, and parts of the air force.
In districts like Sur, in Diyarbakır, the curfews have become more or less permanent, pausing only a day or two at a time to allow civilians to flee. Over 50 percent of Sur, a historic district and tourist landmark, has been under curfew for over eighty days, and its historic core, like the quarter of Hasırlı, has been completely destroyed.
Of the 130,000 inhabitants of Cizre, nearly 100,000 have fled, and the entire city has been under siege over 60 days. In both Sur and Cizre, commando forces of the anti-sniper specialist Bordo Bereliler (Purple Hats) and even of the SAS (Underwater Defense) units have moved in as of early January.
Sur/Diyarbakir and Cizre are the two cities where the war is now being decided; these are the places putting up the fiercest resistance and, likewise, are experiencing the fiercest state assaults. While in Silvan, Dargeçit, and Silopi the state has been victorious, the resistance in Nusaybin was able to fend off the siege. It is likely that another round of curfews will be declared. Already on February 16 a curfew was declared over Idil.
The state moves in an indiscriminate manner where it lays siege. Cizre, for example, is surrounded by mountains on which dozens of tanks and other artillery have positioned themselves and are firing down into the city. In all high areas and buildings, snipers are positioned to shoot at anything that moves, including civilians. In Silopi, Cizre, and Sur/Diyarbakir, the entire civilian infrastructure has been devastated; educational and health services have ceased and civilian casualties are rising.
The state’s indiscriminate approach is designed to sever the ties between the organized Kurdish liberation movement and the Kurdish people by applying so much terror and destruction, and blaming the PKK for it, that the people shy away from organized struggle or at least adopt a stance of non-affiliation.
But the state has failed to provide the other half of this “rational” tactic — to give full support to the civilian population that was forced to leave the areas under siege and thus present itself as the good state that fights the bad terrorists. On the contrary, excessive use of force and mistreatment of the civilian population is reportedly widespread. Hatred for Kurds and social chauvinism are so much a part of the Turkish state that it is not able to solve the “Kurdish problem.”
The escalation of state terror has not gone unmet by the Kurdish liberation movement. In the lead up to the November elections, self-rule was declared in several Kurdish cities, defended with light to medium arms, barricades, and trenches. For now, armed resistance in Kurdistan has largely been shouldered by the PKK-affiliated, non-professional urban guerrilla forces of the YDG-H and the YPS, with help and coordination from the professional guerrilla units of the HPG.
Major clashes between the Turkish army and the HPG itself, however, have occurred with lower frequency than in the inter-election period, as winter conditions have made larger guerrilla operations impossible.
The Case of the Downed Plane
In late November, the Turkish state’s international standing hit its lowest point after a Turkish F-16 fighter jet shot down a Russian SU-24 bomber. The Russian bomber was accused of violating Turkish airspace on the Syrian border for seventeen seconds.
While it obvious the Russian plane posed no real threat to Turkey, the real motivation behind the attack remains unclear. Plausible theories abound: some suggest the state was acting as a proxy, sending a message to Russia on NATO’s behalf; others charge that elements within the military still hostile to the AKP were trying to precipitate a crisis to bring the party down; still others think the AKP leadership was trying to create a crisis of its own in order to force NATO to act more decisively against Russia and Syria.
Prime Minister Davutoğlu accepted responsibility for the action and defended it. Russia reacted decisively, stationing anti-aircraft batteries at the border, and ordering Russian armed forces in Syria to annihilate any forces at the first sign of threat. The Turkish air force can no longer enter Syrian airspace without risking immediate destruction by Russian missiles.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has also ordered strict sanctions, targeting Turkish agricultural products in particular. Since January, Turkish construction, tourism, and hotel companies have been prohibited from contracting with the Russian state.
Russian officials now employ a much harsher tone with Turkey, and have released material said to prove Turkey’s involvement in ISIS oil smuggling operations, echoing accusations made by Iran and Shia militias in Syria. Even worse from the state’s perspective is the growing possibility of collaboration between Russia and the Kurdish liberation movement.
NATO has defended Turkish actions, citing its right to defend territorial integrity. US officials, however, have become more stern in their criticism of Turkey, and warned the government that it must reconsider its priorities in executing the fight against ISIS and the PKK. Turkey’s allies, especially the leading powers within NATO, are finding it increasingly difficult to back government actions that run counter to NATO’s general strategy.
Another serious blow to Turkey’s standing came in December, after an army contingent crossed the Iraq border and arrived in the Bashiqa camp north of Mosul. Regarding the move as an unprovoked aggression, the Iraqi central administration brought the matter to the UN Security Council.
The Turkish government claims the troops were sent as part of an agreed-upon operation to train Iraqi militias for the war against ISIS. But what happened was actually quite different: Kurdish forces of the YPG/YPJ and the peshmerga of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) had at last come to a fragile agreement on a joint operation against the strategically important town of Shengal and commenced an operation against ISIS, successfully liberating Shengal on November 13.
Masoud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan and a close ally of Turkey and the US, has been worried for some time (along with Turkey) about the increasing relevance of forces close to the PKK in the fight against ISIS in North Iraq. Turkey’s flexing of its muscles by sending more troops and artillery close to Mosul to remain there “until Mosul is liberated” — as Turkish Prime Minister Davutoğlu said in December — is part of an attempt to shift the balance of power within the Kurdish parties in favor of Barzani. It can also be read as another attempt to block, encircle, and eventually eradicate Rojava.
And of course, Russia’s rising level of intervention in Syria has dealt a serious blow to forces openly backed by Turkey (al Nusra, ISIS, Army of Conquest, etc.), further diminishing Turkey’s role in Syria. The central administration of Iraq in Baghdad, however, is leaning more and more toward Russia, both to counterbalance dependency on the US and because Russia’s interventions have been much more effective than those of the US-led coalition. Russia’s rising tensions with Turkey, as much as Iraqi central administration’s strained relations with the KRG, explains Baghdad’s intense reaction to Turkey’s incursion.
The diplomatic thunderstorm that followed found even Obama calling on Erdoğan to withdraw Turkish forces, and the state was forced to accept a major setback and remove their troops (though some sources claim Turkish soldiers have only dispersed to other parts of Northern Iraq).
As Turkey struggled to reestablish power and influence in the region, Kurdish forces of the YPG/YPJ, in alliance with Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), were capturing the Tishrin Dam from ISIS — and, in the process, crossing the Euphrates, which the Turkish state has repeatedly declared a red line.
Historically, the Euphrates had constituted the westernmost border of Kurdistan in all visions of the state. Now, the small strip of land between the river and the Afrîn canton in western Syria (currently held by ISIS and al Nusra) is the last obstacle to the latter’s unification with the other three cantons of Rojava.
The whole conflagration saw Turkey lose ground in the region to its most bitter enemy, while becoming mired in a risky conflict in the interior.
Fragile Economy, Bleak Outlook
The AKP’s comeback in the November snap elections had the immediate effect of strengthening the Turkish lira (TL), which had been in free fall against the dollar and the euro since 2013. But the Turkish economy remains structurally unstable, and suffers from weak foreign exchange, mass outflows of capital, and decreasing exports.
Devaluation of the TL has meant an appreciation of foreign liabilities held in euros and dollars — a major concern in an economy whose foreign debts total around 49 percent of GDP, the costs of which are borne primarily in the industrial sector.
The TL was devalued in anticipation of the Fed’s interest rate increase, and in order to manage certain political risks. Higher interest rates would make investment in American financial assets more profitable, potentially leading to capital outflow from Turkey (and other countries of the capitalist periphery) to the US. Moreover, political instability encourages capital flight, due to investor insecurity and economic uncertainty.
Political instability has also damaged other parts of Turkey’s economy. Over the course of a year, the tourism sector has shrank by nearly 9 percent, and the Istanbul stock market has lost 20 percent of its value. Russian sanctions have had serious, but not yet quantifiable, effects on tourism, agriculture, and construction.
Typically, a country’s exports increase after a currency devaluation, but the opposite has happened in Turkey, where exports have dropped around 10 percent in the last year, primarily as a result of crumbling foreign demand due to the ongoing world economic crisis (particularly severe in the EU and Russia, two of Turkey’s main trading partners).
Since 1980, Turkey has followed an export-oriented capital accumulation model. The inability of exports to pick up displays another structural weakness in this peripheral economy: a low-technology, low-productivity industrial structure, dependent on high labor input and imports.
It is obvious that this economic structure has reached its limits. It has, in recent years, only remained competitive through the super-exploitation of the workforce, leading to very low wages and dramatic deterioration in working conditions (in 2015 alone, 1,712 people died in workplace accidents). Workers have responded with a series of actions, including a wave of wildcat strikes across the metal and automotive sectors in spring 2015. Since then, the minimum wage has increased, but is being paid for with state subsidies and a rise in indirect taxes.
Together, these developments have seriously depressed Turkish industry: according to Erdal Bahçıvan, chair of the Istanbul Chamber of Industry, the operating profits of the country’s five hundred largest industrial enterprises decreased in 2014. The only way industrial companies could return to previous profit levels was through an increase in non-operative profits, which they could make through currency exchanges in anticipation of the devaluation.
While big financial enterprises managed to reap high profits, there is trouble on the horizon there as well. The ratio of total debt to equity capital in the five hundred biggest industrial companies has reached 132 percent, while the ratio of household debt to disposable income has climbed to an immense 51 percent. Any major liquidity or refinancing crisis within households or industry would have immediate repercussions in the banking sector.
These fragile economic conditions have become the AKP’s achilles heel. They’ve put the party in conflict with capital, which now demands swift processes for peace and reform, as well as the adoption of economic policies that foster technological development. The very real possibility of sinking into a major depression has put enormous pressure on the ruling party.
A Divided Country
The AKP’s intensification of violence and repression since November, and its evolving intra-state alliances, including reconciliation with its former archenemy, the military, has resolved the hegemonic crisis in the short term. But it deepened it in the long run, rendering both the Turkish state and society ever more vulnerable to systemic shock and crisis.
The country today is deeply divided. In most places people lead normal, relatively peaceful lives as long as they don’t engage in political activity or voice dissent. In the southeast (called Bakur or, to the Kurds, Northern Kurdistan) there is constant warfare in wide and densely populated areas, with fire from heavy artillery, special forces of the police, and commando units of the army that do not distinguish between civil and military targets.
Living conditions within each of these de facto countries-within-a-country are now diverging so sharply that reconciliation between the two, built around a common popular democratic project, is becoming ever less likely.
In this wake of rising terror and war in Kurdistan, a specifically colonial dynamic has taken hold. As in any national liberation struggle, a colonized population subject to massive onslaught by the colonizer’s state forces that also lacks support from the population of the colonizing power is likely to find that terrorism is a legitimate means to destabilize the economy and society of the colonizer.
It has happened before in Turkey, and can easily happen again. The December attack on Istanbul’s Sabiha Gökçen airport and the recent bombing of a military convoy in Ankara by a Kurdish splinter group show there are Kurdish forces prepared to take this step.
As things stand, there is no end in sight to Turkey’s escalation of violence and the consequent political destabilization. If the current war continues through spring, the PKK will send its professional guerrilla into the cities, as already announced by PKK commander Cemil Bayık.
Neither the Turkish state nor the Kurdish liberation movement is capable of completely eliminating their opponent. Kurdish forces can, however, claim decisive success if they are able to fight the second largest land army in the world to a stalemate. If they can prevent Turkey from gaining any meaningful ground in Kurdish-controlled territories, the liberation movement could inspire the renewal of popular movements in western Turkey, and accelerate the AKP’s economic and political crises.
The fragile alliance between the AKP and the other elements of the state, as much as with the ruling class, could break apart. This would make possible further moves in Rojava for the Kurdish liberation movement. A Kurdish Spring may be on the horizon.
On the other hand, a decisive success for the AKP would result in a massive retreat by the PKK from areas it now holds, endangering the revolution in Rojava.
Unable to build active popular consensus, the leading factions of the ruling class then would attempt to achieve stability through the iron fist of the state. “Obey or die” would be the only choice left for the people, and the democratic potential expressed in the Gezi Uprising would recede.
Turkey’s integration within the capitalist world system, its diminishing international position, and the fact that pure authoritarian regimes in peripheral countries tend to lag behind in capital accumulation and capitalist competition after some time makes it unlikely that such an authoritarian regime would last too long. Nevertheless, from the point of view of the popular forces, an AKP victory against the Kurdish liberation movement would signal the onset of a long, dark Turkish Winter.
If the war doesn’t de-escalate, and neither the PKK nor the AKP secure a decisive victory, a third possibility is full-fledged civil war. While the PKK is surely strong enough to bring the war into the main cities of the west such as Istanbul, Bursa, and Izmir, and occupy wide swaths of rural and urban areas in Northern Kurdistan with its professional guerrilla, the Turkish state can choose to activate the entire military and especially the air force. Chances then are high that Turkey would descend into Syria-style chaos.
Whatever happens, 2016 surely will be a decisive year for the future of Turkey, Kurdistan, and their respective peoples.[/logged_in]