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Socialist Project • E-Bulletin No. 1175
October 19, 2015

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The Syrianization of Turkey

Sungur Savran

The immense catastrophe that struck Turkey in the streets of Ankara, the capital city, on 10 October, when two bombs exploded in the midst of a thronging crowd of what would possibly turn out to be hundreds of thousands of people, leading to the death of an indefinite number of people, in any case exceeding one hundred, and the wounding of hundreds, some still under the risk of death, is a sharp reminder, if any were needed, that this is a country undergoing a severe political crisis. The tragic loss of life, ranging from a nine-year old boy to a seventy-year old woman and involving the deaths of a very high number of young people, has left the working-class movement, the broad left, the community of Alevis, the minority religious denomination in Turkey, and the Kurdish people, all of whom were involved in the peace demonstration that was attacked, in profound grief and mourning. It is cause for consolation, however, to witness the fact that the main aim of this hideous attack has been thwarted since, despite the grief, the masses have not been intimidated and have come out in militant mood both to protest and to bury their dead.

Protestors shout slogans against violence in reaction to the blasts in Ankara, Turkey.

In unusually precipitated fashion, the government has claimed to have carried out an investigation on what it purports to be a double suicide bombing. They point their fingers at the ill-famed ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as ISIS) and claim that this was an attack on the unity of Turkey (why those who target the unity of the country have for decades now attacked the demonstrations of the working-class or of the oppressed minorities and never a right-wing rally remains a mystery!)

The AKP Government Responsible

Whoever the real perpetrators are, it is the government of the AKP and especially what one would call the inner cabinet serving Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that is responsible for this tragedy. The responsibility could turn out to be direct. As explained in a recent article on this web site only a month ago, the Erdoğan camp, having lost the AKP majority in parliament in the 7 June elections, set out on an extremely dangerous strategic path of waging war on the Kurds of Turkey in order to erode the electoral base of the parliamentary wing of the movement, the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP). The concrete aim is to push it below the scandalously high electoral threshold of 10 per cent and to re-establish the previous AKP majority in parliament in the repeat elections scheduled for 1 November, so as to avoid the threat of a parliamentary inquiry into the well-documented corruption cases involving Erdoğan and his ministers, in addition to many other crimes for which he may be tried.

It is possible that although the government is trying to put the blame on ISIL for the crime, in reality it is the agents of the notorious Turkish ‘deep state’, now controlled by the Erdoğan camp, that has carried out the operation. Failing that, it is highly probable that the security forces and the intelligence agency, controlled single-handedly by the Erdoğan inner cabinet, looked the other way while ISIL, if indeed they were the perpetrators, committed this heinous crime. The author of these lines is convinced that information will leak sooner or later, and sooner rather than later, that this is the case.[1] The extremely tight media ban that has been imposed on the case, including not only the publishing of concrete evidence, but of critical commentary as well, only goes to confirm that the government fears this kind of leak.

Even if the government has not directly been involved, it is still indisputably responsible by sheer studied neglect. This incident is only a barbaric sequel to a series of actions that first saw bombs exploding in HDP locales or demonstrations in the pre-election period and then the killing by a suicide bomber of 34 Turkish leftists in Suruç on 20 July as a retribution to their solidarity with Kobane, the town in the autonomous Kurdish entity of Rojava inside Syria long held under siege a year ago by ISIL. In none of these cases did the government carry out criminal investigation worthy of the name. Although it abusively cited the Suruç attack for what it described as an “anti-terrorist” drive beginning in August, this ended up ignoring the perpetrators of that attack and concentrating instead on the victims’ side, i.e. the Kurdish movement and people, as explained in our previous article referred to above. So the AKP government has for all purposes given licence to ISIL for its attacks on the Kurdish and left-wing opposition movements, making it responsible for the Ankara massacre in a very real sense.

The Most Savage Attack on the Working Class Movement

It is of the utmost political importance to remind ourselves who the organizers of the demonstration so heinously attacked were. This was not an event organized by the Kurdish movement per se, as the majority seem to think, although Kurds did participate massively. This was an event organized by two union confederations and two professional associations, one of medical doctors and the other of engineers and architects, both being traditional allies of the progressive wing of the union movement. In short, this was a working-class action against the war on the Kurds. A full contingent of 14 members of the union of railway workers died as a result of the bombing, as well as dispersed casualties for other unions.

Given the working-class nature of the demonstration, one is immediately summoned to put this incident in historical perspective. The ensuing picture is significant in itself: in a country whose history is littered with working-class demonstrations violently quashed with many casualties in human life, the 10 October Ankara massacre stands out as by far the most savage attack ever. The closest one gets in historical comparison is the great provocation of May Day 1977 at Taksim Square in Istanbul, where 34 people died. This time the figure of casualties is at least three times that!

This is not a wanton act of violence. If ISIL is truly involved in the affair, its motives were probably a kind of raising the stakes. The last time when they organized a resounding attack on Turkish soil, Turkey was still underhandedly but in unabashed fashion accommodating the activities of ISIL in Syria. Now the stakes are higher. In a deceptive move, Turkey has opened its Incirlik air base to U.S. war planes bombarding ISIL territory and later joined the coalition put together by the U.S. against the latter. So for ISIL the bar had to be raised in order to convince the Erdoğan camp that this takfiri, Sunni-sectarian organization is a formidable force that is ready, nonetheless, to join hands with Turkey in the war against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and its ally the PYD, the ruling force in Rojava Kurdistan.

To the extent that the Turkish state is involved in the planning and implementation of the bombing in Ankara, the purpose was, in our opinion, to nip in the bud the nascent alliance between the workers’ movement and the Kurdish liberation struggle. We have been trying, for many years now, to explain that the key to the victory of the masses over the reactionary forces that rule Turkey lies in this kind of alliance. The ruling forces are very much aware of this and this is one of the main reasons why this demonstration was so fiercely attacked.

The Reshuffling of Cards in Syria

The intervention of the Russian armed forces in Syria has naturally attracted a lot of attention around the world. This act radically alters the concrete situation in Syria and has ramifications for international politics at large. For the purposes of this article, let us circumscribe our comments to the impact of Russian intervention in Syria on Turkey, leaving the more general aspects to other occasions. Russia's incursion into Syria is much more closely related to Turkish activist interventionism in that country than is generally admitted. It is our opinion that the timing of Russia's move is closely tied to Erdoğan's intentions regarding Syria. In our previous article referred to above, we stated that if the AKP were to fail to obtain the majority of seats in parliament in the coming elections on 1 November, the Erdoğan camp would in all probability find an excuse to send the Turkish military into Syria. As the reader is probably aware, the government has already laid the ground for such an excuse: the existence of Rojava as an autonomous Kurdish entity with ties to the PKK has already been declared unacceptable for the Turkish government. But since the U.S. cooperates with the armed forces of Rojava in fighting ISIL, Turkey would in all probability use the latter as an excuse to make a military incursion with ground forces into Syria ostensibly to fight the latter, but in reality to supplant the presence of the armed forces of Rojava.

All these plans have been thrown to the wind with the entry of Russia on the scene. The Putin administration, in our opinion, intervened precisely at this moment because the kind of military incursion on the part of Turkey into Syria that we have just described would probably result in a conflagration of unimaginable proportions in the Middle East, drawing Iran into the fray as well and ending up with an unmanageable crisis. Having sensed or even learnt through intelligence the intentions of the Erdoğan camp, the Putin administration simply made a pre-emptive move. That this is so is confirmed by the fact that Russian war planes have repeatedly violated Turkish air space and challenged the rules of engagement that Turkey had established vis-a-vis Assad's air force. So much so that the secretary general of NATO, in quite an undiplomatic speech, declared that such Russian violations were not accidental, implying that Russia was trying to tell Turkey something. We agree. Things have reached such an embarrassing point for Turkey that, whereas it was this latter country that had been demanding a no-fly zone against the Syrian air force in the north of that country for a long time, now a de facto no-fly zone has been established by Russia against Turkey itself! The more general conclusion that we should draw from all this is clear: unless the Erdoğan camp is ready to provoke a world war, the plans for a Turkish military incursion into Syria need to be scrapped for the short term.

The only option left [to Erdoğan's camp] is the Syrianization of Turkey itself ... a strategy of civil war based on home-grown takfiri, Sunni-sectarian militia forces to keep Erdoğan in power.

Where does this leave the Erdoğan camp? If the elections do not provide them with a majority in parliament, this would again raise the spectre of a parliamentary investigation that would threaten to ruin the whole political future, nay the whole future tout court of Erdoğan. Now the route to salvation through Damascus, i.e a state of war bestowing special powers to his administration, is also closed by the Russian incursion into Syria. The only option left is the Syrianization of Turkey itself. By this we mean a strategy of civil war based on home-grown takfiri, Sunni-sectarian militia forces to keep Erdoğan in power. The Islamist forces that the AKP government has protected and supported throughout the Syrian civil war may decide to reciprocate and help the Erdoğan camp in conducting what really amounts to civil war. This strategy may be summed up by the following formula: if you cannot take Turkey into Syria, then bring Syria into Turkey!

Home-Grown Sunni-Sectarian Militia

A host of events that unfolded in the course of these recent months has brought out into the open a process that evidently began after the popular revolt that was triggered by the Gezi incident in June 2013. Lasting throughout the summer, this revolt created great fear and concern in the AKP government. Two different strategies were devised. The camp that crystallised around Abdullah Gül, also a founder and leading member of the AKP and then president of the republic, eventually to be replaced by Erdoğan in August 2014, preferred a strategy of diffusion based on dividing the insurgent masses into a moderate wing and a radical one. The Erdoğan camp, on the other hand, opted for pure repression by force, based on the still strong electoral support the more conservative layers of society were prepared to lend to his leadership. It has now transpired that an indispensable component of this strategy of repression has been the preparation of an array of openly counter-revolutionary forces to be deployed in case the threat to Erdoğan's power reappeared.

Without going into the details of the matter that would inevitably be boring and confusing for the reader uninitiated in the intricacies of Turkish politics, let us quickly provide a panoramic view of the forces thus prepared by the Erdogan camp. The recent attacks have brought forward a new formation called the “Osmanlı Ocakları”. The word “ocaklar” refers to the Janissaries of the Ottomans and hence the name of this organization can best be translated as the Ottoman Corps. This formation was active in attacks on the major secular daily Hurriyet because of its critical coverage of certain aspects of Erdoğan's policy. It also made its presence felt in the raids by mobs on the buildings of the HDP, the Kurdish parliamentary party, in over 140 locations around Turkey on the night of 8 September. This formation, it seems, is rapidly growing, attracting elements of the unemployed and the lumpen proletariat with AKP money. It claims that it is already organized in 73 of the 91 provinces of Turkey.

There is then IBDA-C, a radical Islamist organization that predates the AKP, whose charismatic leader was kept in jail for long years, only to be released in the wake of the Gezi uprising under the hardly disguised protection of Erdoğan himself. This organization clearly and openly advocates the use of violent methods against the enemies of Islam. From a critical stance vis-a-vis the parliamentary Islamist tradition in Turkey in the past, it has now moved to a straightforward defence of Erdoğan's leadership.

While IBDA-C is strong in the western part of the country and has been busy attacking the student movement and, in particular, the Kurds, the Kurdish Hezbollah, another militia organization that Erdoğan has lately resuscitated, owes its strength to reactionary forces within Kurdish society. This movement was very active in the 1990s and notoriously massacred Kurdish civilian political figures in collusion with the security forces. But once Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the PKK was captured in 1999 and sent to jail, it lost its allure and was itself repressed by the state starting in 2000. However, its leaders, just like that of IBDA-C were released from prison lately, disappeared into legality and are now represented through the mediation of an innocent-looking legal party. The Kurdish Hezbollah, with absolutely no connection to its Lebanese namesake, is a civil war organization inside Kurdish society. It has been very useful in transforming the October 2014 serhildan (Kurdish for intifada) from a popular uprising into an armed struggle between two groups, the militia of the PKK and its own armed contingents. This is precisely the reason for which it is being supported and protected by the Erdoğan camp.

There are other forces., some inside the Turkish mafia, for instance. One of these, Sedat Peker, a resolute fan of Erdoğan, organized a rally “against terrorism”, by which is meant the Kurdish struggle for national emancipation, precisely a day before the 10 October demonstration. Speaking in front of Erdoğan's poster, Peker threatened the supporters of the Kurdish movement with “blood that will flow like a river”! There are also the Turkoman Brigades named after different sultans in Ottoman history, which are charged with struggling against the forces of Rojava.

All in all, this whole array of forces that are being supported and protected by the Erdoğan camp is indicative of the fact that the strategy of civil war is not alien to this camp. Now that military intervention in Syria seems to be ruled out, this alternative seems more and more the most realistic for Erdoğan's quest for survival.

Fraternity Between Peoples or Barbarism

The Middle East and North Africa is rapidly moving toward a situation of civil war within the Islamic world between the Sunni and the Shia (the latter in alliance with the Alevis). Saudi Arabia and Qatar are the main instigators of the Sunni camp while Iran, of course, is the leading force of the Shia camp. Erdoğan's dream is (or should one perhaps say “was”) to lead the Sunni populations in this kind of struggle for supremacy within the Islamic world. This is a dream that is rooted in the glory of the Ottoman past. This immediately implies the reconstitution of the umma, the Islamic community at large, under the guidance of the Caliphate, which was abolished by the young republic in 1924. This abolition the Islamists in Turkey have never been able to digest.

This kind of sectarian war within Islam will be a re-edition of the religious wars of Western Europe with redoubled violence. It is to be avoided at all costs. The Erdoğan camp, as well as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran are playing with fire. This extreme threat in the Middle East and North Africa has to be countered by those forces that have no stake in the ground rent generated by oil and natural gas and in the so-called Sharia-compliant finance of the Arab world.

Viewed from the regional angle, the Syrian civil war is precisely a proxy war between these two camps. Erdoğan is the frontline leader of the Sunni-sectarian camp. To even start to command the allegiance of the rest of the Sunni world, Erdoğan has to win his war for survival inside Turkey. In this he has thrown his lot with the takfiri, Sunni-sectarian forces inside and outside the country. This is leading Turkey to the precipice of Syrianization.

Turkey is, on the other hand, a country full of ebullition. Revolts of different kind have succeeded on each other's heels within the last two years. One year after the waning of the Gezi popular revolt, so powerful in the western cities of the country but not in Turkish Kurdistan, a serhildan, i.e. a popular uprising of the Kurdish population broke out for a week in support of Kobane fighting ISIL. In neither of these momentous events was the working-class present as a class. However, in the month of May this year a struggle that brought tens of thousands of metalworkers erupted, spreading from its original hometown in Bursa, an industrial hub near Istanbul, to many other industrial centres. After a long period of dormancy, the working-class is now back in action. So this is a society that is also full of promises. It is only by overcoming the divisions between the three forces that are represented by these three waves of struggle that the progressive forces can win. And here two things are crucial: fraternity between the Turk and the Kurd and the entry of the working-class onto the political scene. Should these two conditions come together, Turkey will not only see the domestic balance of forces shift decisively in favour of a progressive solution to its political crisis, but can also act as the triggering factor for a forward-looking solution, in a process of permanent revolution, to the problems that the whole Middle East faces.

Which tendency will eventually win will be decided by the living forces of history. It is to be seen whether the socialist left will live up to its historic responsibilities. •

Sungur Savran is based in Istanbul and is one of the editors of the newspaper Gercek (Truth) and the theoretical journal Devrimci Marksizm (Revolutionary Marxism), both published in Turkish, and of the web site RedMed.

Endnotes:

1. Post scriptum: No sooner were these lines written and the article sent out to the editors of The Bullet for consideration did the major Turkish-language daily Hurriyet reveal that not only had the names of the two suicide bombers been circulating for months as potential threats, but that fully three days before the fateful day the police were informed that precisely such an attack was being planned. Unless this report turns out to be false, the total neglect of the police, which was nowhere to be seen at the site of the first gathering where the bombs eventually exploded, is scandalous or even a wilfully criminal act.

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