Erdoğan’s Violent Last Resort

The ongoing attacks against Kurds in Turkey are part of a last-ditch effort by Erdoğan to hold onto power.

Protesters carry a wounded man after clashes with police at a demonstration in Istanbul against the July massacre of Kurdish socialists in Suruç. Cagdas Erdogan / AP

In the months leading up to Turkey’s June 7 general election, there was widespread violence against the leftist, pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Some two hundred attacks on rallies, HDP campaigners, and party buildings were registered, culminating in bombs detonating in HDP offices in Adana and Mersin (fortunately no one was killed) and two bombs going off at a huge rally in Amed/Diyarbakir, killing four people.

The perpetrators of these attacks were rarely sought out, let alone convicted. But their source is quite clear: the environment of right-wing and Islamist paramilitary groups and several youth groups close to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), as well as the extreme-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). The Turkish police did nothing to halt this violence. Meanwhile, both the media close to the AKP and Turkish officials up to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have added fuel to the fire, verbally assailing the HDP ceaselessly.

Between Monday and Wednesday of last week, nationalist and fascist mobs attacked some 250 to 300 HDP offices. They set some party buildings ablaze, including the central office in Ankara. On Tuesday night, fascist mobs across the country held marches “condemning terrorism” that led to simultaneous attacks and firebombings of dozens of HDP bureaus.

Additionally, there have been numerous attacks throughout Turkey against civilians, workers, stores, and companies presumed to be Kurdish.

A young man was stabbed to death in Istanbul after he spoke Kurdish on the phone. Coaches traveling to the Southeast were stoned or stopped and asked for identification. Kurdish agricultural workers young and old were beaten silly. One Kurdish citizen in the southwestern city of Muğla was severely beaten and forced to kiss a statue of Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic. And in one curious case, a young man was assaulted by MHP supporters because he “appeared” to be Kurdish — yet turned out to be a MHP supporter himself.

The violence hasn’t just come from private actors. State institutions have gone after civilians directly, prompting many Kurdish cities to declare their autonomy and along with it, the necessity for self-defense. The urban guerrillas of the Kurdish youth YDG-H — perhaps surprisingly, not militants from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) — are the driving force behind this effort and are protecting the population from state force in many cities.

In the last few days, the border town of Cizre has come to exemplify the state’s war on the Kurdish population. For about a week, the town has been completely under siege by (special operation) police, and the last few days have seen twenty reported deaths in the town — many of them children and non-combatants who wanted to help the wounded or were outside of their houses after the state-imposed curfew.

A humanitarian disaster is looming, and commentators are comparing the Turkish state’s approach to Israel’s siege of Gaza. And, prevented from entering Cizre by car, a group of HDP MPs as well as the party’s cochair, Selahattin Demirtaş, are making the trek towards the city after starting from about 90 kilometers away.

All of this is happening as Turkey approaches its crucial November 1 election.

A War for Political Gains

What has happened? What is the reason for this racist outburst? Why and how did this war escalate?

The violence has its proximate origins in bloodshed this summer in Dağlıca, a military outpost in the Hakkarî province, a region in which PKK guerrillas control large swaths of rural land. On September 6, the PKK had Dağlıca completely encircled. Nonetheless a military convoy sought to reach the outpost, and mine explosions and fighting ensued, leaving at least seventeen soldiers dead.

While this came amid an ever-escalating war in Kurdistan, it was presented in the Turkish media and by AKP and MHP officials as an unexpected attack. In reaction, supporters of the MHP, the AKP, and other right-wing groups staged marches on the night of September 8, which ended all too often in front of or inside a HDP building.

There is a larger background to this recent wave of violent marauding, though — the deep political crisis in Turkey and, more specifically, the hegemonic crisis of the AKP. After the June 7 elections crushed Erdoğan’s dream of introducing a presidential system — which would have meant rule by Erdoğan alone — the AKP quickly made it clear it had no real intention of sharing power. Coalition talks were used to buy time, all while the war on the Kurdish liberation movement and the democratic and left opposition was escalated.

In the wake of the July 20 Suruç massacre, in which thirty-three young socialists traveling to Kobané were killed by an ISIS suicide bomber, there have been constant police raids, supposedly as part of the war against ISIS (or alternatively, against “all terrorism,” meaning ISIS and the PKK).

But this war on terror is a farce. According to the Human Rights Association, there were 2,544 detainees between July 21 and August 28. Of these only 136 were associated with ISIS and 22 with the organization of Fethullah Gülen, an ally-cum-enemy of Erdoğan. The rest were affiliated with the Left or the Kurdish movement. In addition, of the 301 actually charged, just 33 were associated with ISIS and 4 with Gülen. Again, the remaining people were of the Left or the Kurdish movement.

With waning support for the AKP and a declining economy, the policy of open war is the last resort for Erdoğan and his close circle. After thirteen years of corrupt, single-party rule, the AKP is no longer a “regular” party. It can’t just relinquish power. So Erdoğan and the remaining AKP cadres are doing all they can to hold on.

From Gezi to Rojava

AKP hegemony has been slowly eroding ever since it suffered its first major blow from below during the 2013 June Uprising. At the time, the AKP was involved in the so-called “solution process,” or “negotiation process,” with the Kurdish movement. That there was such a process in the first place was a result of the PKK’s superior military performance in the preceding years, which had forced the Turkish state to look for non-military means — or at least also non-military means — to cope with the PKK.

Erdoğan hoped that the negotiations would allow him to return to his Kurdish policy of binding the more conservative Kurdish vote to the AKP while marginalizing the PKK. But it wasn’t successful before the negotiations, and it isn’t successful now.

In fact, as the talks continued and the state took little or no positive steps vis-à-vis the Kurdish movement, it became increasingly clear that the PKK and the Kurdish movement were winning. That is to say, the PKK was augmenting its own position by linking a political mass movement to its guerrilla movement, as well as strengthening ties with democrats and leftists in Western Turkey — made possible by the June Uprising.

The Kurdish movement was bolstered during this period for two main reasons: the military and ideological successes of the Rojava revolution — which is closely associated with the Kurdish liberation movement in Turkey — and the rise of the HDP.

Erdoğan felt his power slipping. He turned to ISIS, giving them tacit support, if not open sympathy. But his hopes that ISIS would be able to deal a serious blow to the Kurdish movement were delusional. Instead, the opposite happened. Not only did the PYD extend its territory in Northern Syria, but the Kurdish struggle gained legitimacy around the world.

In contrast to the US — which fostered the Free Syrian Army and ISIS, but was also able to strike ISIS when it saw fit and work together with the YPG/PKK — the Turkish state has shown no tactical flexibility. It has not understood that the Kurdish liberation movement in Rojava and North Kurdistan/Southeast Turkey is too strong to be beaten militarily.

It has not grasped that from its perspective and from the perspective of US imperialism, the fight against the revolutionary elements of the Kurdish liberation movement has to be waged on other levels as well. Neither is it tactile enough to understand that now is the time to “use” ISIS and to start intervening in Syria with air strikes as the US-led coalition is doing.

In other words, the difference between the US government and the Turkish state lies not in the realm of principles, but in tactics — and in Turkey’s aspiration to becoming a stronger regional power, a goal it is unable to achieve as it finds itself in a deep hegemonic crisis.

With the rise of the Kurdish movement, Erdoğan effectively ended the negotiations long before the elections. In March he declared that there was no Kurdish problem, and PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, one of the most powerful voices in the Kurdish movement, has remained isolated on the prison island of Imralı since April 5.

This was a clear attempt by Erdoğan to prepare for open war, and it was understood as such by the Kurds, who all state as a principal demand for a potential ceasefire an open line of communication with Öcalan. After the election, Erdoğan’s efforts intensified, reaching a crescendo in the week after the Suruç massacre.

However, Erdoğan’s strategy of escalation and incitement of nationalist sentiments in order to regain the initiative and reclaim some lost votes — thus pushing the HDP below the 10 percent electoral threshold needed to stop the AKP from changing the constitution — isn’t working out so far. Most people see through this cheap game. Polls have shown the June 7 election result wouldn’t change in any significant way.

At the same time, the AKP is getting ever more pressure from where it hurts the most — the families of the dead soldiers. Hardly a day passes without news from some funeral with slogans against the AKP and its “palace war,” as the opponents of the current conflict call it.

In one case, the brother of a fallen soldier, himself a soldier of rank, made a short and tearful speech at his sibling’s coffin in which he held Erdoğan and the AKP responsible for his death. As the video spread through social media, the AKP media was forced to respond. They first accused him of being an Alevi, and then switched to asserting he had sympathies with Gülen and even the PKK! Just a few days ago, Erdoğan stated in a live interview that “some fathers of martyrs don’t have character.”

Fascism on the Rise

While Erdoğan and leading AKP cadres are pushing the rhetoric of an all-out war, even they admit that the reason for this conflict is not “terror,” but their poor electoral showing. Last Sunday, Erdoğan stated that “the situation would be different, if a certain party would have gained 400 seats [his declared goal before the election].”

And even though it is crystal clear that the PKK cannot be eliminated militarily, Erdoğan has declared the war won’t cease “until the last drop of blood” and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has said they will “eradicate all the terrorists from the mountains.” It’s a claim leading Turkish officials have been issuing ever since the PKK took up armed struggle more than thirty years ago.

The wave of racist attacks against Kurds and the HDP is a reflection of the AKP’s failed strategy, and a desperate attempt to shift the balance of power in their favor by openly walking towards fascism.

Under the direction of Erdoğan and Davutoğlu, the AKP seems to be using intensified warfare to extend and perpetuate the state of emergency. This, they hope, will stoke nationalist and chauvinist sentiments and gain them votes.

And if it doesn’t, it will provide them a pretext to cancel the snap elections — either via a coup or by using the state of emergency to prevent almost all of Kurdistan from voting, which would push the HDP vote below the 10 percent threshold.

Indications that Erdoğan and Davutoğlu are preparing for such a scenario can be found in some of their speeches from late August, in which both note that they will advise the Turkish Armed Forces to do “whatever needs to be done” during the November contest. Erdoğan stated in a recent interview that “every measure will be taken in order to not allow what happened in the June election to repeat” — this despite the fact that even the Supreme Electoral Council declared that the election took place in a safe and unbiased environment.

Still, the plan of intimidating Kurds and consolidating the rest of the country along nationalist lines will be very difficult to pull off.

Firstly, the Kurdish liberation movement has significant power and mass support. The PKK leadership has stated that up until now the guerrilla forces has only been retaliating and using their right of legitimate self-defense. As noted above, it’s the YDG-H that is leading the fight in the cities, not the PKK. But the PKK also recently said that they will not remain indifferent towards civilian massacres. From these declarations it becomes clear that the massive attacks in Dağlıca and Iğdır, where scores of police were killed, were responses to the massacres carried out by the Turkish state.

And secondly, there is fear within the power bloc that outright war is not going to solve the hegemonic crisis, and more and more people, including in the military, think the war to be senseless and only in the interest of a narrow clique. So cracks within the ruling class and the political and military elite are already forming, and the economic situation, long unstable, is further deteriorating. If the war escalates, the power bloc likely won’t hold together for long.

The entirely NATO-ized military could, under the command of the US and in view of crumbling popular consent and disgruntled big capital, launch a coup against the AKP in order to safeguard the neoliberal status quo. Or the “realist” fraction within the AKP could depose Erdoğan. There are many ways in which the power bloc could break apart if the conflict intensifies and the hegemonic crisis deepens.

Towards a Democratic Revolution

Despite his power and stature, Turkey’s democratic and revolutionary forces must avoid the mistake of viewing Erdoğan as the sole problem.

Erdoğan and the AKP were very valuable for leading factions of capital in Turkey. They dismantled the ossified military’s control over the entire society and the economy, which in the 1990s had led to deep political and economic crises and was an obstacle to the deepening of neoliberalism in Turkey. The AKP did so by simultaneously establishing a massive police apparatus, which is controlled by executive and legislative authorities.

In the entire period from 1980 until the AKP’s ascendance to power in 2002, the degree of privatizations, deregulation of labor and social rights, and influx of foreign capital was only a fraction of what it became under the AKP. Equally, the party has streamlined the state apparatuses under the leadership of executive authorities, making them much easier for capital to control.

Erdoğan and the AKP have thus overestimated their own function — i.e. installing a new regime that organizes the hegemony of the leading factions of finance capital and the political elite — and are clinging to power. Their hegemony is eroding.

Still, it shouldn’t be assumed that they’re on their death bed. Finance capital, as centrally organized in the Turkish Industrialists’ and Businessmen’s Association (TÜSIAD), hasn’t yet been able to find a viable alternative to the AKP.

Secondly, the majority of the bourgeoisie is not in principle opposed to the regime the AKP has constructed — not even the main opposition party, the secular and supposedly social-democratic CHP aims to reverse the neoliberal status quo. Neither does it challenge the Turkish state’s fundamental principles, such as denial of the Armenian Genocide. And just days ago the CHP voted to extend the military’s mandate to march into Iraq and Syria to “defend national security interests,” if necessary.

On top of this, leading members of the TÜSİAD have announced that the presidential system Erdoğan desires is not anathema to them, but only that they’re against it being reduced to personalities.

In short, there is no substantial or principled difference between the various factions of the ruling class in relation to the country’s essential democratic problems. Their only differences are a matter of who is in charge and reaping the profits, and how the hegemony of the power bloc is organized.

The Turkish bourgeoisie originated in an alliance with feudal lords and has its basis in the Armenian Genocide, the plundering of Greek and Jewish property, and the occupation, division, and colonization of Kurdistan. All this while embracing, central, if modified, elements of the Ottoman state, such as the centralized vilayet/province-system.

Both state and society in Turkey are thus anti-democratic to the core. And it’s the Turkish bourgeoisie that profits the most from this suppression of popular forces, as it facilitates the exploited to be positioned against each other along ethnic, religious, and national lines.

Democratization and freedom in Turkey are something the popular classes of the different nations, religious denominations, and nations must fight for — in contradistinction to imperialism, and to the entire Turkish bourgeoisie and its allies.

The Gezi Uprising in 2013 and the revolution in Rojava have made possible the development of a revolutionary-democratic alliance of the different popular strata in the East and the West of the Turkish Republic. In this moment of crisis, it will be especially important for the Turkish left to establish connections with the Kurdish liberation movement, which is currently at the forefront of the fight for democracy.

Now is the time to strengthen the popular democratic struggle.