Since last week’s barbaric terrorist attack in the Turkish town of Suruc, the situation in Turkey has dramatically escalated. Under the guise of joining the war on ISIS, Erdogan has launched a major military operation against the the PKK as well as arresting hundreds of Kurdish and Turkish leftist activists.
US imperialism, who until recently had been leaning on the the PKK’s sister organisation in Syria, the People's Protection Units (YPG), has clearly made a deal with Erdogan to look the other way in return for Erdogan's cooperation with the US coalition against ISIS.
In this situation Turkey could risk a catastrophic civil war. Last week a terrorist attack in Suruc against a youth delegation headed for the Syrian town of Kobani, killed 32 people and injured 102 more. The delegation was composed of young members of the Socialist Youth Associations Federation (SGDF) and the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) which is the fourth party in the Turkish parliament. The group was preparing to travel to Kobani in order to rebuild the town after it was ravaged by ISIS attacks over the past year.
In the days following the attack, the Erdogan government announced that it is joining the US led war on ISIS who is believed to have had links to theattack. As the days pass, however, it is becoming obvious that the war he has embarked on is aimed more at the PKK and the Turkish and Kurdish left, as well as the autonomous Kurdish cantons in Northern Syria, than ISIS or other Islamist groups.
Of the hundreds of aerial bombings a day that the Turkish army is carrying out, very few seem to have been aimed at ISIS targets. In fact, the vast majority seem to have been aimed at the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) whose bases in Iraq have been under intense bombing. Furthermore, there have been increasing reports of Kurdish towns and units being targeted in the Kurdish part of Syria where the PYD - which is the sister party of the PKK - has been the main force on the ground for four years. According to CNN Turkey, on Â July 24, the Turkish army bombed more than 400 PKK targets in Iraq while it launched no strikes on ISIS targets in Syria at all.
Forbes magazine draws an even clearer picture of the attacks on ISIS:
"On the ISIS front, it’s worth viewing the video put out by Ankara of the air strikes against several sites by F-16s using laser-guided munitions. All the targets seem to have one thing in common: they’re each at a safe distance from residential complexes in ISIS territory. They’re set apart in open fields. They betray no marks of military activity. Now, humanitarian though this might seem – which itself begs the question – you still have to wonder. Does ISIS keep strategic targets clear of population centers? And, if so, why were such targets still so manifestly available. The US has waged its air war against ISIS since last September. They left a few for the Turks? The skeptic might ask if these were meaningful targets at all."
In Syria there have been increasing reports of Turkish air raids as well as artillery attacks against YPG. In a statement, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) said Turkish tanks hit its positions and those of allied Arab Free Syrian Army fighters in the village of Zur Maghar in the Aleppo province of Syria. The “heavy tank fire” injured four members of the rebel forces and several villagers, the YPG said. It said there was a second, later round of shelling against Zur Maghar and another village in the same area.
“Instead of targeting Isis terrorist occupied positions, Turkish forces attack our defenders’ positions… We urge [the] Turkish leadership to halt this aggression and to follow international guidelines. We are telling the Turkish army to stop shooting at our fighters and their positions,” the YPG statement read. Similar incidents also occurred in several places further east in Syrian Kurdistan.
It is clear that Erdogan is preparing some kind of intervention in the northern parts of Syria. The Turkish state would like to create a safe territory for its direct proxies in the civil war, Islamist outfits of different shades, to project their power into Syria. Whether they will do that directly with Turkish troops doing the fighting or by helping their proxies with bombing raids is not clear yet, but the idea of dominating a part of Syria is something that Erdogan has been pushing for several years.
At the same time the Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu has revealed a deal with the US-led coalition against ISIS whereby three airbases on Turkish territory are to be used in the air campaign against ISIS. This deal of course carries with it the condition that US president Barack Obama conveniently ignores Erdogan's crimes against the Kurdish movement which until now had been the most efficient force in the war against ISIS. This is yet further proof of the hypocrisy of US imperialism - with "democratic" president, Barack Obama - with its claims to represent democracy and civilisation. It also totally exposes the claims of the US about the declared aims of the war against ISIS. They would happily replace ISIS with fundamentalist forces equally as barbaric if they think they can control them.
For Imperialism, "minor" nations like the Kurds are nothing but small change in their dealings with other powers. While the YPG were effective on the ground for the US-led coalition, their highly democratic structures as well as their status as fighters of an oppressed nationality, made them a threat to the stability of the other regimes in the region. For them the YPG is a far bigger threat to their interests than ISIS or any of the countless Islamist groups that they continue to fund and who will benefit greatly from the weakening of their "competitor". It was in facty only a matter of time before the US turned against the Kurds and their popular movement. What is clearly shown in the Syrian tragedy is the fact that bourgeois regimes do not have any principles, but only interests that at a given time serve their ruling class.
Internal oppression in Turkey
The internal "anti-terror" operation also seems to be Â aimed at the Turkish left opposition, rather than ISIS. Of the more than 800 (and growing) people who are reported to have been arrested, no more than 100 are believed to have been members of ISIS. Feleknas Uca, an HDP MP for Diyarbakir said yesterday “The Turkish state collapsed the peace process by these air operations… The President [Recep Tayyip Erdogan] and Prime Minister [Ahmet Davutoglu] are trying to put Turkey into a war.”
“The policy of Turkey and the policy of the AKP about IS is clear and it's open. They started operations against IS and the PKK, but [until now] they arrested maybe 50 IS suspects, while they arrested 500 Kurds. There are a number of HDP and (Democratic Regions Party) BDP members, members of syndicates, civil society bodies [who were arrested].”
Yesterday, an anti-ISIS protest called by the Peace Bloc, which is a coalition of the HDP, the CHP and a series of trade unions and social organisations, was banned on the grounds that it would disrupt traffic! Other small protests were met by violence from the police. In the left-wing Alevi neighbourhood of Gazi in Istanbul, clashes developed into full blown riots after the police attempted to raid several locations to arrest left-wing activists.
Playing with fire
HDP Co-President Selahattin Demirtaş said that the attack in Suruc could not have been organized without the support of the Turkish state. Demirtaş said that the transitional government was directly responsible for the attack, and AKP had to prove and clarify whether it was with or against ISIS. He also noted that intelligence activities were intense in Suruç and that the state recorded the identity of everyone who traveled to and from Suruç. The particular convoy which was attacked, in fact, was not permitted to enter Suruç recently. He also said that in the light of the extent of state surveillance in the town, nobody could argue that one person managed to infiltrate into the crowd and carry out the suicide attack without state support.
Pointing out the relationship of the Turkish state with ISIS, he said: “Trucks carrying weapons crossed Turkey’s border. The army of inhuman rapists—ISIS—freely roams near the border. However, toys carried by revolutionary young people couldn’t cross the border. These young people couldn’t cross the border but their message reached its destination,”
For four years, in fact, the Erdogan regime has supported Islamist forces in the Syrian civil war. ISIS has been no exception to this. In exchange for letting them use Turkey as a safe haven and a supply route for arms, money and fighters, Erdogan has used the Islamists to strike blows against the Assad regime as well as the autonomous Kurdish areas run by the YPG in Syria. He has shown again and again that he is willing to drag the whole region down towards barbarism to satisfy his own imperialist ambitions.
After a recent raid of the top IS official, Abu Sayyaf, proof of an undeclared alliance has become clearer. One senior western official familiarÂ with the intelligence gathered at the slain leader’s compound told the Observer that direct dealings between Turkish officials and ranking Isis members was now “undeniable”.
He continued to say that, “There are hundreds of flash drives and documents that were seized there. They are being analysed at the moment, but the links are already so clear that they could end up having profound policy implications for the relationship between us and Ankara."
For the Turkish ruling clique ISIS is not seen as a threat as opposed to the Kurdish movement in Syria. The preparations for the present military operation started after Kurdish YPG forces seized the important border town of Tall Abyad from ISIS on 14 June. Erdogan’s attitude was clearly visible in his comments to the ISIS defeat, “The West, which is hitting Arabs and Turkmen of Tal Abyad from the air, is sadly settling the PYD [Democratic Union Party which is the major party in Kurdish Syria and the political arm of the YPG popular militia] and PKK terror organizations in their places.” He went on to warn that the seizure of the strategic town of Tall Abyad “could lead to the creation of a structure [independent state] that threatens our borders”.
In the week after the Tall Abyad battle, ISIS staged an extremely deadly attack on the town of Kobane. However, the attack was partially staged from inside Turkey, again revealing the role of the Erdogan government, which has been openly supporting Jihadist and extremist groups in general, while covertly tolerating and even backing ISIS in particular.
Erdogan’s “war on terrorism” reeks of hypocrisy. By supporting and propping up reactionary Islamist forces in Syria, he is preparing the ground for the destabilisation of Turkey itself. The thousands of radical Islamists who have developed advanced networks across Turkey and who have probably also developed links with different layers of the ruling class, cannot be swept away over night. Their influence will be a constant threat to the stability of Turkey in the next period.
All those who have tried to tame Islamists and use them for their own interests have had to reap serious repercussions. The US and Pakistan used Al Qaeda and the Taliban to defeat the Saur revolution in Afghanistan, but this led to the monstrous group which today is threatening the whole region and which is undermining the existence of the Pakistani state itself. Again in Syria the US tried to use the Islamists against Assad, but this backfired with the rise of IS in Iraq and the rest of the region. Before that of course, we should not forget that Assad housed the same Islamist groups which he used for his own interests. A similar fate could await Turkey unless this reactionary cancer is not removed by a revolutionary movement of the masses.
The crisis of the Turkish regime
The real reason behind Erdogan's assault on the Kurds, however, is not due to omnipotence and strength, but because of the accelerating crisis of his regime. Over the past few years Turkish society has been massively polarised. The economic boom of the 2000's did not benefit the Turkish masses who have seen poverty grow. In spite of +5% percent growth rates before 2012, widespread poverty still prevails in Turkey. The 10% richest people in Turkey own more than 77% of the country's wealth, while two thirds of all children live in poverty. As long as the economy was booming, all this could be tolerated by the masses. But the slowing down of the economy has starkly brought out the contradictions in Turkey.
At the same time the Islamisation of Turkey and Erdogan's imperialist meddling in Syria became a growing source of concern for many Turks who moved into opposition to Erdogan's rule. His dream of building a modern version of the Ottoman empire, with himself as the sultan, was seen as a step back for secular modern Turkish society. His open support for ISIS and other Islamist groups raised concerns for many people.
In the Gezi park movement in 2013 these contradictions were brought to the fore for the first time. This was also the first time the Kurdish and the Turkish movement embarked on a common struggle along class lines. However, due to the lack of a leadership the movement died down and Erdogan remained in power. In the parliamentary elections, the AKP saw its biggest setback in years going from 58% to 49% of the vote while all other parties who got in were campaigning as an opposition to Erdogan in particular. However, the most important change in these elections was the rise of the HDP which grew in the polls due to its radical programme and rhetoric which resonated with the Kurdish population as well as a large part of the Turkish youth and the Gezi movement in particular.
Another element in the rise of the HDP was also the battle of Kobane which lasted from September 2014 to January 2015. Here the YPG forces, who were given support by Kurdish forces from Turkey, bravely fought and defeated ISIS which was in effect supported by the Erdogan regime. Apart from refusing to allow Kurdish fighters into Syria to support the YPG forces under attack there, the Turkish regime was allowing ISIS to freely roam the area.
The YPG has been the most efficient force in the fighting against ISIS. Not only have they taken Kobane and the surrounding areas, but they have also taken Tell Abyad and rapidly moved south towards Raqqa, which is the de facto capital of ISIS. Furthermore, they have been making important gains in the city of Hassakah as well as beginning an operation to the west of Kobane. The main strength of the YPG has, however, not been the quality of its arms, but its radical programme which includes popular government of the areas they control. Their non-sectarian, egalitarian approach and their highly democratic form of government is very attractive to the peoples of the areas they operate in.
These gains and Erdogan’s support of ISIS were big factors in the HDP victory in Turkey. First of all, they led to a crushing victory of the HDP in the Kurdish areas - which traditionally expressed a split vote between the AKP and the Kurdish parties - with the HDP vote reaching 70-90 percent in many areas. At the same time, the battle of Kobane pushed many layers of the Turkish population away from Erdogan who was seen as the supporter of reactionary forces and served to further legitimise the HDP and the Kurdish movement in general amongst the Turkish part of the population.
These were important reasons why Erdogan lost his majority in parliament after more than 10 years. This also led to a stalemate in parliament which made the formation of a stable government impossible. Thus the main aim of the present campaign is to whip up Turkish nationalism and to divert the class struggle along national lines. He wants to cut through the influence of the Kurdish movement inside Turkey. At the same time he is holding the opposition as hostages by signalling that his hostilities against ISIS will stop at the same time as the hostilities against the Kurds.
This is a reflection of Erdogan's weakness. By indiscriminately attacking Kurdish areas in Syria, Iraq and Turkey he is trying to provoke civil war. However, his actions which are aimed at bolstering his own position, risk destabilising the whole country. Over the past years there has been several indications of deep divisions within the ruling class and even within the AK party itself. At a certain point Erdogan’s adventurist actions could lead to significant sections of the Turkish ruling class to move into opposition to him.
As his own base gets weaker he assumes a more and more bonapartist character. He tried to use the rising Kurdish movement to cut the nationalist vote and now he is trying to lean on the nationalists to crush the Kurds and the Turkish left which has united around the HDP. Depending how the situation develops, he may either call early elections, try to ban the HDP or even try to impose martial law. In the present situation however, this will only serve to prepare for a revolutionary backlash against him in the future.
As Marxists we utterly condemn this imperialist attack on the Kurdish people and on the left-wing activists in Turkey. They have every right to defend themselves against the violence of the Turkish state. However, unprovoked attacks on individuals is a counter-productive tactic which will only serve to strengthen Erdogan and push public opinion behind him. The only way to win the battle is to prepare for a revolutionary mass struggle of Turks as well as Kurds on a radical programme. Erdogan cannot be defeated by negotiations which he will only use to discredit the movement. Only 10 days ago the HDP co-chairman Selahattin Demirtaş told AKP officials that “a snap election is not on the list of urgent duties. Before saying ‘we will submit a request for a snap election to the president,' you should come to us [the HDP]. On this matter, our doors are open; come to us.”
With his countless actions Erdogan has shown that his interests are incompatible with the programme and the ideas of the HDP and the left in Turkey. A vacillating approach towards him will only serve to strengthen him. The only way to confront Erdogan and his regime is to wage a decisive struggle. Turkey is moving into a very explosive period. A division of the working class along nationalist lines would be a disaster for both Turkish and Kurdish workers and youth. The only way to cut through the poison of nationalism is to build a mass movement on class lines. The opportunities for this are not lacking.
Erdogan has revealed his true face to the nation and his position is weak. The HDP should build a national campaign on an internationalist programme calling for the workers and poor, whether Turkish, Kurdish or of any other nationality, to unite in struggle against imperialist war and against national oppression. This should be linked to a programme of the expropriation of the rotten ruling class which has been living like parasites on the back of the masses of all nations. Just as a radical programme was the strength of the Kurds in Syria, a revolutionary programme would be the greatest weapon of the workers’ movement in Turkey. If the HDP manages to give a clear decisive lead, the present crisis could be the beginning of a revolutionary movement to overthrow the government. This would be a major blow to all the reactionary forces in the region and would completely change the reactionary dynamic which dominates the region at the moment.