Is Turkey At War with Itself?
Protests in Istanbul Against Terror (file picture)
ISTANBUL: A massive bomb went off recently in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet Square – the death toll will likely rise, but stands now at ten. This is the heart of the city’s monuments – in sight of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia.
The bomb was likely detonated by a suicide bomber. President Recep Tayyib Erdogan suggested that the bomber was of Syrian origin.
Turkey is in serious crisis. The government is at war against the Kurds in the southeast; war is raging in Syria and Iraq on the border; and Islamic State is now breathing into Turkey.
This is not the first bombing in Turkey – there is now a long string of attacks by IS, by the Turkish state itself and by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Turkey is fast becoming a complex battlefield, as the Syrian war seeps directly across the border.
Erdogan’s enthusiasm for the overthrow of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad in 2011 has undone so much that could have transpired – a peace agreement with the PKK and a new compact with Turkey’s Kurds being the heart of the agenda. All this is now done.
One turning point was arguably what happened on 28 December 2011, when the Turkish Air Force killed thirty-four Kurdish smugglers on the Turkey-Iraq borderlands.
This was at the high point of Erdogan’s Syria policy – when his government believed that at any moment Assad would fall.
Why did the Turkish armed forces fire on thirty-eight men and boys and their mules? Why did the Turkish armed forces block the smuggling paths to prevent the men and boys from flight? Only four of them survived the attack.
The government did not offer a clear answer at that time for the attack at Roboski. Nor did its official inquiry – published in 2013 – clarify anything. It insinuated that the smugglers had other motives, and that they had been infiltrated by two commanders of the PKK – Cudi Gui and Kazim.
Later it was suggested that the target of the government’s attack was PKK commander Fehman Hüseyin. The government said that these men had been with the smugglers, but when the attack began they took cover.
There is no evidence for this theory.
Reporter Fréderike Geerdink decided to follow the story with old-fashioned persistence. She visited Gülyazi, the village from which the men and boys had gone on their fateful journey.
Geerdink’s The Boys Are Dead: The Roboski Massacre and the Kurdish Question in Turkey was built on close contact with the families of the victims, particularly with Pakize, the widow of Osman Kaplan.
The stay with Pakize is illuminating. It allowed Geerdink to understand the world of these men and boys – how they made their living by smuggling cigarettes and petrol from Iraq, and how the Turkish military turned a blind eye to these activities.
Poverty in Gülyazi is striking. Without the smuggling there would be no hope for the population.
There is no question to Geerdink that these men and boys were merely smugglers. She travelled with them onto the smugglers’ routes, watching with the scouts for the mules and men to return from Iraq. The Turkish border post – within sight – is quiet. None of the soldiers rushed out to make an arrest.
Did the men and boys have any connection to the PKK?
Geerdink shows carefully that the entire Kurdish population of the region sympathizes with the Kurdish resistance. But there is little evidence of any operational ties with the PKK.
Certainly at the Nowruz events in Diyarbakir, PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan’s picture is everywhere, and his speech is the centerpiece. But even here the sympathy is with the Kurdish cause, not directly with the PKK. Would the smugglers help the PKK? Geerdink finds no evidence of any such assistance.
If the Turkish government knew that these men were ordinary smugglers and if they knew that they had no connection to the PKK, why did the F-16s target them?
Geerdink disproves the official inquiry. That is a feat itself. She has allies amongst the dissidents on the official inquiry – Levent Gök of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Ertuğrul Kürkçü of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP).
In the official government report, Geerdink writes, “the words ‘terrorist’ appears eighty-six times and the word ‘terror’ ninety-two times.”
The Turkish state has been eager to paint these smugglers as terrorists. An actual forensic analysis of the evidence is irrelevant. Gök and Kürkçü confirm her findings. They are as frustrated.
The saddest part of the book is Geerdink’s description of the drone footage from the smuggling paths. When the Turkish F-16s open fire on the men and boys on that fateful night, they do not do what seasoned combatants do – take cover.
They are all like children. They run to huddle with each other. That is why the aircraft fire was able to kill almost all of them.An unaccountable massacre opens the door for other such events. If a government feels that it can get away with it – then it does not stop such an action from being replicated.
The current Turkish state violence against the Kurds is enabled by the impunity of Roboski. Turkish operations have laid waste to large sections of its southeast, with cities such as Diyarbakir, Cirze and Silopi at the epicenter of the violence.
Local journalists say that parts of their cities now look like a “war zone.” Killings of suspected PKK sympathisers take place in the fog of the curfew. In late November, human rights campaigner Tahir Elci was killed in broad daylight. His death remains a mystery.
On January 4, three campaigners of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) were killed in the town of Sirnak (near Silopi).
Who were they? Seve Demir was a member of parliament of the Democratic Regions Party (DBP), affiliated to the HDP in parliament. Fatma Uyar was a member of the Free Women Congress. Pakize Nayir was the co-chair of the Silopi People’s Assembly. They are the second trio of Kurdish feminist socialists killed together.
The other three - Sakine Cansız, Leyla Şaylemez and Fidan Doğan – were killed in Paris in January 2013. They died in passive voice. No one will be prosecuted for their death. No one will be held accountable.
The next assassins will be emboldened to repeat the feat. This is the temptation of impunity. It is the fate of the Kurdish people. But it is increasingly the fate of the Turks as well.
(Vijay Prashad is a columnist and a senior research fellow at AUB's Issam Fares Institute of Public Policy and International Affairs. His latest book is The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2014 paperback)).