Workers Hammer No. 238
Kurds under the gun
Massive repression in Turkey
The following article is adapted from Workers Vanguard no 1102, 16 December 2016. As revolutionaries in Britain, we stress our particular obligation to oppose British military intervention alongside the US in the Near East, including airstrikes and ground forces in both Syria and Iraq. All British forces out of the Near East! British bases out of Cyprus!
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Over 125,000 people fired or suspended from their jobs, tens of thousands jailed and awaiting trial — that’s the toll exacted by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the months after his suppression of the 15 July 2016 military coup. In his drive to consolidate an authoritarian Islamist state in which he would wield dictatorial powers, Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have gone after a host of opponents and critics, including Kurdish political leaders, teachers and unions. Some 150 media outlets have been closed, while more than a hundred journalists have been jailed, including a number from Cumhuriyet, one of Turkey’s oldest newspapers. Meanwhile, since last summer the military has been attacking Kurdish towns and cities in southeastern Turkey, bombarding them with artillery and tank fire and killing hundreds of Kurdish civilians.
Erdogan has also purged thousands of cops, soldiers, judges and other erstwhile representatives of the Turkish capitalist regime, accusing them of being in cahoots with the Muslim cleric and former Erdogan ally Fethullah Gulen, who has been living in the US since 1999. For his part, Gulen denies any connection to the coup. As we wrote in “Turkey’s failed coup: both sides bad for workers” (Workers Hammer no 236, Autumn 2016): “We don’t know who the coup plotters were, but one thing is clear: the only position in the interest of workers was to oppose both the Erdogan regime and the coup.”
Even before the coup, the Erdogan government had been on the warpath against critics, arresting people for “insulting” the president, stripping members of parliament of immunity and detaining the leader of the leftist Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions (DISK). After the coup, the regime declared a state of emergency, allowing Erdogan to rule by decree. Continuing the oppression of the Kurds, it used these emergency powers in November to detain eleven Kurdish members of parliament. These included Selhattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag, co-chairmen of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), a petty-bourgeois nationalist party that has considerable backing among secular Turks and leftists. Despite government intimidation, some 5000 demonstrators mobilised in Istanbul on 20 November to protest these arrests. The government also detained many Kurdish mayors and muzzled at least 20 Kurdish media outlets.
The Erdogan government is now using a 10 December bombing claimed by the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) as a pretext to further escalate its war against the Kurdish people. The bombers targeted security personnel outside a football stadium in Istanbul, killing 36 riot cops (as well as eight civilians). The TAK says it is an offshoot of the nationalist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), though the PKK denies any links to it. As Marxists, we oppose the strategy of individual terrorism, which rejects the mass mobilisation of the working class and oppressed against the capitalist regime. And, invariably, attacks like the one outside the football stadium kill innocent civilians, further driving the Turkish masses into the arms of their rulers. Since the bombing, the government has detained nearly 570 people, including politicians from the HDP, which condemned the attack, in operations spanning 28 cities, while the Turkish interior minister has vowed that Kurdish militants will be “wiped from this geography”.
As Marxists who stand for the political independence of the working class, we do not politically support the HDP, a petty-bourgeois party whose programme is by definition hostile to the historic interests of the proletariat. However, we defend the HDP and its leaders from the assaults of the Turkish state. The Turkish workers movement must oppose Erdogan’s all-sided repression, fight for the immediate release of Kurdish victims of the government’s purges and demand: All Turkish forces out of Kurdistan!
The government has also suspended or fired 60,000 teachers, although some 6000 were reinstated in November in the face of a massive teacher shortage. While the regime has accused many of the victimised teachers of alleged ties to Gulen, some 11,500 of them were accused of being supporters of the PKK. Most of these Kurdish teachers live in the Kurdish-majority southeast and belong to Egitim Sen, a teachers union that is part of the leftist public-sector workers union confederation KESK.
While Erdogan is popular among conservative and religious Turks as well as sections of the poor who have benefited from infrastructure improvements, he is widely hated by secular Turks for his growing crusade to extend the reach of Islam in public life. During his first term as prime minister, he unsuccessfully sought to criminalise adultery. In recent years, fundamentalist goons have taken to patrolling the streets and attacking bars and other establishments selling alcohol. A sign of the times was the attempt last month to pass a law that in effect would have given the state’s seal of approval to forced child marriages. Following a huge outcry and demonstrations around the country, the bill was eventually withdrawn. Nevertheless, it was emblematic of the deeply ingrained oppression of women in Turkish society, expressed in the prevalence of such vile acts of violence as “honour killings”.
The European imperialists are seizing on Erdogan’s massive wave of repression to posture as defenders of civil liberties and bring Erdogan to heel. On 24 November, the European Parliament passed a nonbinding vote to suspend talks with Turkey on its membership in the European Union (EU), throwing a wrench in the country’s years-long (and unlikely) bid to join this consortium of imperialist brigands and the weaker countries they exploit. Among other things, the Parliament cited Erdogan’s outrageous threat to re-enact the death penalty, which Turkey abolished in 2004. Erdogan shot back that the EU decision had “no value” and threatened to terminate a deal with the imperialists to stanch the flow of refugees to Europe in exchange for billions of euros.
The imperialists’ “humanitarian” pretensions are utter cynicism. For more than two decades, EU boss Germany has banned the PKK and has joined the US in arming the Turkish military to the teeth in its war against the Kurds. Across Europe, from Theresa May’s England to Angela Merkel’s Germany, the capitalist rulers have unleashed the furies of Islamophobia that embolden the fascists and other racist forces.
Turkey, the Kurds and the Syrian quagmire
The Turkish government’s decades-long campaign to root out the PKK massively escalated last year, when the Turkish army launched a furious assault on Kurdish cities in southeastern Turkey. These attacks were partly in response to military gains in northern Syria by the PKK-affiliated Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military wing, the People’s Protection Committees (YPG). They were also in retaliation for the HDP’s gains in the June 2015 parliamentary election, in which the HDP became the first Kurdish party in Turkish history to enter parliament, and Erdogan’s AKP lost its parliamentary majority.
Through years of struggle, the Kurds have clearly demonstrated their desire for independence. But far from fighting for self-determination, the petty-bourgeois nationalist PKK is using the military conflict to force the Turkish rulers to the bargaining table to achieve a negotiated settlement and expanded local control. Likewise, HDP leader Demirtas seeks a “political solution” in which the Kurds would supposedly be granted more rights within the framework of the oppressive Turkish state. Such a plan would simply renegotiate the terms of oppression of the Kurdish masses, who would remain under Turkish domination.
It is vital for the working class of Turkey to stand for the military defence of the PKK against the Turkish state. If the proletariat is to ever liberate itself from capitalist exploitation, it must oppose anti-Kurdish chauvinism and take up the struggle for Kurdish self-determination. We aim to win the Turkish working class, as well as the workers of the region, to the fight for a united, independent Kurdistan embracing the Kurds of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. That fight is part of the struggle for a socialist federation of the Near East, which would include a socialist republic of united Kurdistan.
We also support Kurdish independence from individual capitalist states — eg the right of Kurds in Turkey to secede. However, in Iraq and Syria, the Kurdish nationalists have currently subordinated the just fight for self-determination to their alliance with US imperialism. This is a crime that will redound against the long-oppressed Kurdish people.
In Syria, the YPG is US imperialism’s most reliable ally in the war against the Islamic State (ISIS). In acting as boots on the ground for the US, these Kurdish nationalists are betraying the interests of the Near East masses, not least the national aspirations of the Kurdish people. Washington’s occupations and interventions in the Near East have escalated communal tensions in the region, setting Shia against Sunni, Sunni against Alawite and Arab against Kurd.
We Marxists have no side in the reactionary and sectarian Syrian civil war, including in the clashes between the US’s Turkish allies and its Kurdish tools. But we do have a side in resolutely opposing the US and other imperialist powers. Thus, while we abhor and reject everything that the ISIS cut-throats represent, we stand for the military defence of ISIS against the US and its proxies, including the YPG. Every blow struck against US imperialism coincides with the interest of the working and oppressed masses of the world. At the same time, we also oppose the other capitalist powers involved in Syria, such as Turkey, Russia and Iran, and demand that they get out.
From the Armenian genocide during World War I to the US occupation of Iraq, the Kurdish leaders have collaborated with regional powers or the imperialists. In a 2011 interview, former national security official Brent Scowcroft remarked: “The Kurds are pawns in great power politics...as they have been for a long time.” But pawns are dispensable, and imperialist tools are discarded after serving their reactionary purpose. This is a fact that many Kurds themselves know only too well, even if some leftists and Kurdish activists justify these treacherous blocs with imperialism as clever tactics. As Joost Hiltermann commented in “They Were Expendable” in the London Review of Books (17 November 2016): “The history of the Kurds’ long struggle is therefore one of a series of fleeting alliances with more powerful states, and cries of betrayal once these alliances fall apart, each followed by atrocities from which it takes them a generation to recover.”
Notwithstanding its current relationship with the PYD/YPG, the US is and has always been opposed to Kurdish independence. When Turkey entered Syria in August, ostensibly against ISIS, its main objective was to prevent PYD/YPG fighters from linking the two semiautonomous Kurdish regions in northeast and northwest Syria. The US supported the Turkish intervention with stepped-up airstrikes and military advisers — as well as a forceful statement by Vice President Joe Biden during a visit to Ankara in which he ordered YPG forces to retreat to the east of the Euphrates River.
More recently, the 10,000-strong Turkish force has been backing fighters from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) — which is also supported by the US — poised to take the Syrian town of al-Bab, ISIS’s last significant stronghold before its Syrian capital of Raqqa. Supported by Turkish armour and warplanes, FSA fighters have clashed with the YPG-dominated Syrian Defence Forces, again pitting the Turkish military against the Syrian Kurds. US commanders struggling to co-ordinate the assault on Raqqa have been frustrated as their Kurdish proxies have insisted on attacking Arab-majority al-Bab. Meanwhile, Turkish troops continue to defy Washington by turning their fire on the YPG.
In Iraq, Turkish warplanes, with US approval, have been bombing PKK positions for over a year. Now, the Erdogan regime, which has hundreds of Turkish soldiers stationed north of Mosul, is insisting on a Turkish role in the battle to retake the city from ISIS. That battle, which began in October, is being carried out by Kurdish pesh merga fighters, Shia militias and Iraqi government forces, backed by US aerial power and Special Operations troops. Ankara’s manoeuvres in this former region of the Ottoman Empire are heightening tensions with the Baghdad government.
The growing acrimony between the US and its Turkish NATO ally has coincided with, and helped feed, a rapprochement between Ankara and Moscow, which has exercised NATO officials. As a result, Russian president Vladimir Putin has given tacit approval to Turkey’s actions in northern Syria. While Turkey and Russia have divergent interests in Syria, with the latter backing the regime of Bashar al-Assad, they agree with the US on maintaining the “territorial integrity” of Syria — ie no independent Kurdish statelet.
For a bi-national revolutionary workers party in Turkey
Millions of Kurds — many of them victims of army terror, high unemployment rates and impoverishment — have migrated to such key western industrial centres as Istanbul, Izmir and Bursa. Despite the fierce discrimination they suffer, this migration has strengthened the objective basis for uniting the Turkish and Kurdish working masses. But because anti-Kurdish chauvinism is integral to the maintenance of bourgeois rule in Turkey, unity can only be sporadic unless the Turkish proletariat is won to the fight for Kurdish national independence.
As Leninists, we defend the national rights of all peoples and uphold the principle of national equality, including the equality of languages. In defending the right of nations to self-determination, our purpose is to tear down the barriers created by bourgeois class society to keep the working people of different nationalities at one another’s throats. By championing Kurdish self-determination, the working class in Turkey would place itself squarely in opposition to its “own” capitalist class enemy. It would also undercut US imperialism’s capacity to manipulate the Kurds’ grievances in order to further dominate the region.
Erdogan has gone a long way towards consolidating his autocratic rule and strengthening the sway of Islam over Turkey. Nevertheless, the society he rules over remains a pressure cooker of social and political discontents. What is vital is the forging of a bi-national, Turkish-Kurdish workers party that would also draw in Turkey’s oppressed ethnic and religious minorities. Acting as a tribune of the people, such a party, section of a reforged Fourth International, would lead the proletariat in the struggle for its own rule. In power, the working class would expropriate the bourgeoisie and break the hold of the imperialist masters over the country; establish a collectivised, planned economy; lay the material basis for the emancipation of women; and fight to ensure Kurdish independence.
The struggle for proletarian power in Turkey, and more broadly in the Near East, must be linked to the fight for workers rule in the imperialist centres. Centrally important to this perspective is the presence of some two million ethnic Turks and a million Kurds in Germany, where they are heavily integrated into the working class. These workers can serve as a living bridge linking the fight for socialist revolution in the Near East to working-class struggle in the advanced capitalist countries of Western Europe. In the US, the working class must be won to the understanding that the American ruling class is its enemy and that it must oppose imperialist aggression abroad. Our aim is a socialist revolution to overthrow US imperialism, the greatest enemy of the world’s working and oppressed masses.