Turkey’s War in Syria Is a War for Fascism

Turkey’s military invasion isn’t just about wiping out the Kurds in Syria — it’s a bid to bolster the far right in Turkey. We must oppose this unconscionable act.

People hold a Turkish flag as they give their support to the Turkish military during the deployment of tanks to Syria on October 12, 2019 in Akcakale, Turkey. Burak Kara / Getty Images

On October 9, after receiving the green light from President Donald Trump, Turkey realized its long-standing ambition of invading northeastern Syria (Rojava). Spearheaded by up to fifteen thousand jihadist fighters operating under names like the “Syrian National Army” (SNA), the offensive has been bolstered by heavy artillery shelling and air support from the Turkish army all along the Turkish-Syrian border line. While the jihadist forces serve as a sort of cannon fodder for the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF), more soldiers in the regular army are expected to be deployed as the war progresses.

As Turkey’s autocratic president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has stated, the operation seeks to “cleanse” an area in Northern Syria 30 kilometers deep and 400 kilometers long from “terrorist elements” and resettle up to 2 million Syrian refugees from Turkey. Since the area encapsulates nearly all of the bigger cities under the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, what began as the leftist “Rojava uprising” in 2011 stands on the brink of destruction.

The news on the ground is dire: multiple civilian casualties, damaged civilian infrastructure, reports of destroyed or hijacked ambulances, bombed-out or abandoned hospitals. Already, up to 130,000 people have fled their homes, and a humanitarian disaster seems imminent. Horrendous pictures and videos of atrocities at the hands of Turkey and allied forces are circulating on social media. The Turkish army appears to have deliberately bombed Kurdish-controlled prisons holding up to fifteen thousand ISIS suspects in a bid to help them escape. According to local reports, several hundred ISIS suspects already have. If things continue as they are, we might even witness the revival of ISIS.

Much attention has (rightly) been paid to Trump’s approval of the invasion, as well as the United States’ about-face with regard to the Kurds. But here, we want to focus on how Turkey’s internal political dynamics gave rise to the invasion.

Partial Liberalization

There are multiple reasons for Turkey’s incursion, the first of which is obvious: the Turkish government has wanted to destroy Rojava’s autonomy since its inception in 2011 — first by tolerating and supporting ISIS (which Kurdish forces played a central role in wiping out) and later by launching limited military invasions in 2016 (in the cities of Jarabulus and al-Bab) and 2018 (in Afrîn).

For the dominant powers in Turkey, the mere existence of Rojava is seen as a danger in that it strengthens pro-Kurdish and pro-democratic forces in Turkey. It is also seen as a model of organizing the state and society that is antithetical to Turkey’s autocratic, hyper-nationalist neoliberalism — and, as such, constitutes an existential threat. In fact, war against the Kurds was one of the main elements that brought Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) together with some of its nationalist rivals following the strong showing of the leftist, pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in the June 2015 elections.

Second, this more general reason is linked with specific circumstances — namely, the regime’s acute hegemonic crisis in the wake of local elections in March and June. As we have analyzed in detail before, the elections laid bare the widespread discontent with the economic and political status quo in Turkey. In particular, the rerun of the Istanbul elections in June — which witnessed the stunning defeat of the AKP’s mayoral candidate — proved that the party and its allies can no longer enforce their will with brute repression and fraud.

With discontent already simmering, cracks spread throughout the entire system following this year’s local elections. The nation’s highest judicial body, the Constitutional Court, ruled by a single vote that lawsuits against the antiwar group Academics for Peace (BAK) constituted a breach of freedom of expression. In the wake of the decision, hundreds of academics that had been persecuted for their beliefs were acquitted.

Notably, the Constitutional Court judges that voted in favor of the antiwar group were mostly appointed during the presidency of AKP cofounder Abdullah Gül, who is now teaming up with the AKP’s former “economy czar,” Ali Babacan, to form a new party. Babacan and his entourage criticize the AKP for straying from the center-right neoliberalism of the party’s early days, which they seek to revive. Similarly, former AKP foreign minister and then prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu is working to form an Islamic conservative party as an alternative to the AKP. While it is far from guaranteed that these two parties would enjoy immediate success, capturing even a minority of the AKP’s voter base would deepen the embattled party’s crisis. Both Babacan and Davutoğlu have sped up their respective efforts since the local elections.

As for the Academics for Peace ruling, it was not a singular event but rather a reflection of a broader trend. Among other revolutionaries, Sırrı Süreyya Önder, a former member of parliament for the HDP, was acquitted on all charges after serving ten months in prison. And one of us — Max Zirngast — was recently acquitted for “membership in a terrorist organization” after facing charges for more than a year.

Still, the pressure on the various factions of the opposition hasn’t abated entirely. In August, the co-mayors of the three biggest Kurdish-majority cities were deposed on terror charges, and last month the Istanbul chief of the main opposition party, the centrist Republican People’s Party (CHP), was convicted and sentenced to nearly ten years on absurd charges. Osman Kavala, the famous liberal patron, also remains in prison after two years on trumped-up charges.

In short, a contradictory process of partial liberalization has occurred in which the regime focuses its energy on those it deems its most important political enemies and temporarily reduces repression against those it no longer sees as an imminent threat. Oppositional and dissident forces, meanwhile, have felt emboldened to act. All of this flows directly from the severe blow that the AKP and its state alliance sustained in the local elections.

The contradictory nature of this partial liberalization process can also be seen in the actions and relationship of the opposition’s newly won municipalities — especially Ankara and Istanbul — to the reigning regime. On the one hand, the municipalities are intent on exposing the corruption and waste of the former AKP administrations, and the regime alliance — the AKP, plus the fascistic Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and other right-wing factions — has displayed a hostile attitude toward the new municipal administrations. Istanbul’s mayor, for instance, was excluded from a high-priority disaster meeting following a small earthquake near the city. On the other hand, Erdoğan has invited all mayors to a conciliatory meeting in his palace for “the sake of Turkey,” and the opposition mayors, as is their general wont, refrained from displaying any combativeness.

These contradictory tendencies correspond to the ever-shifting balance of power within Turkish society and the ruling bloc. The government was forced to adopt a strategy of partial liberalization after its defeat in local elections — and now, the war is the AKP’s bid to shift things back in its favor.

A War for Fascism

Following the AKP’s setbacks in local elections, Turkish authorities began to push the United States even harder to gain approval for a military invasion. When that approval came, Turkey immediately launched the incursion, seizing on the disarray in the US state apparatuses. Despite lacking international support, the AKP and its allies thought themselves backed against the wall and chose to risk potential conflict with its international allies in order to create a new status quo on the ground.

And the calculation appears to have worked: the severely weakened regime has managed to regain the initiative, buoyed by strong public support in Turkey for the incursion. The entire parliamentary opposition aside from the leftist, pro-Kurdish HDP has joined in the hyper-nationalist euphoria, be it the right-wing-nationalist İYİ Parti or the Islamic Saadet Partisi or the centrist CHP, the largest opposition party. Only a fringe minority of CHP functionaries, such as the Kurdish member of parliament Sezgin Tanrıkulu and the Istanbul party chief Canan Kaftancıoğlu, have come out against the war.

Once again, the military invasion has demonstrated in the most despicable way that all parties of the bourgeois order in Turkey unite once the “existence of the state” is supposedly at stake. In this regard, it is almost impossible to distinguish between the “Islamists” and the “secular Kemalists” — supposedly the two main clashing factions in Turkey, according to the liberal reading.

What is at stake, though, is neither “Turkey” nor the “existence of the state.” This is not a war to “defend Turkey” from an imminent “terrorist threat.” It is not a war to let the “fountains of peace” spring forth (as the military offensive, ironically titled the Peace Fountains Operation, would have it). It is a war by the forces of the far right in Turkey to regain lost momentum in order to institutionalize themselves. That is, it is a war for the sake of fascism. Rather than stand against such barbarism and attack Erdoğan and his allies’ regime head-on, the major opposition parties have helped restabilize a crisis-ridden regime and given it carte blanche to continue its atrocities.

The other important source of destabilization for the government, at least since last spring, has been the economy. As we analyzed earlier this year in detail, frequent currency shocks are a major source of turmoil thanks to the country’s debt-driven economic model. The private sector, weighed down by external debt levels reaching 40 percent of GDP, is permanently confronted with bankruptcy threats and repayment problems. In contrast to government officials’ claims that the economy is on the rebound, industrial production, a crucial indicator of economic performance, has been contracting since the beginning of 2019 when compared to the same period in the previous year.

Residents have recently been hit with tax and price increases ranging from 15 to 25 percent on transportation, electricity, gas, milk, sugar, tolls. The government’s response was a quick fix: tinkering with the measurement itself, artificially dropping inflation to single digits.

The ongoing crisis, which manifests itself as a persistent decline in living standards rather than a sudden collapse, has undermined Erdoğan and his party’s popularity. Voices in the pro-government press have even begun to criticize the presidential system that Erdoğan pushed through via referendum in 2017 and that greatly expanded his powers. With numerous polls showing a significant, unequivocal fall in Erdoğan’s support, the invasion of Rojava is a clear bid to shore up the AKP’s standing.

In addition to diverting attention from socioeconomic grievances and consolidating the nation against the “eternal enemy” yet again by means of chauvinist mobilization, the military incursion promises an (at least marginal) economic recovery for Turkey. Just after Erdoğan announced his occupation plans to the entire world at the UN General Assembly late last month, his office published a booklet detailing potential projects for Rojava once occupied. Before relocating 1 to 2 million Syrian refugees to these lands, Turkey would invest an estimated $26 billion (151 billion Turkish lira) for construction and infrastructure. Turkish capitalists are waiting for this (presumably state-assisted) opportunity with sparkling eyes, which is one of the reasons why all their chambers and associations immediately declared full support for Turkey’s “heroic armies.”

Last but not least, Erdoğan’s government seeks not only to strengthen itself and its immediate allies but to weaken its opposition. In recent weeks, pro-government media and some in anti-Kurdish opposition circles complained of an alleged rapprochement between the CHP and HDP. Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the fascist MHP and a key ally of Erdoğan, said that “the road for the CHP leader Kılıçdaroğlu to walk is the one to the court.” Already, dozens of people have been detained for speaking of a “war” rather than an “operation against terrorism.” Interior minister Süleyman Soylu insists: “This is not an invasion. Calling this a war is treason.”

Fascism is a beast that devours its opposition, be it left or right, and even its own dissident elements once it is thriving on the blood it spills. This is why it must be confronted with resistance on all fronts. The CHP and other bourgeois opposition parties seek to weather the storm and tame the beast by making compromises. But appeasement is a deadly choice.

World Hegemony No More?

What about the United States?

It is clear that Trump’s decision to give Turkey the go-ahead, however ambiguous it might be, is not just attributable to the American president’s capriciousness. US imperialism itself is torn between competing impulses: one part of the ruling bloc aims to perpetuate an international arrangement where the United States leads the states and institutions of the western capitalist hemisphere; another bloc desires unilateralism and self-sufficiency from the United States as a more effective way to maintain power and profits.

While the first tendency wants the United States to work with other nations and co-opt as many actors as possible on an international scale (including the Kurds in Syria, as a supposed card to play against Assad and Iran, and maybe even Turkey), the other tendency wants to reduce the United States’ international engagement as much as possible and devolve responsibility and security tasks to other states — in this case, its NATO partner Turkey.

No matter what these contradictions mean for US imperialism, as of today, Russia seems to be the primary winner of the imperialist proxy war in Syria. On Sunday, Kurdish forces and their allies announced that they had agreed to cooperate with Assad (and Russia) to avoid the genocidal progress of Turkey and its jihadist allies. The Syrian Arab Army quickly entered many cities and crucial areas in Rojava (though it remains to be seen whether Assad and the Kurdish-led administration can agree on political matters like a process of working toward a new constitution).

From Russia’s point of view, the United States has shot itself in the foot. Kurdish forces on the ground are totally cut off from the United States and are bitterly accusing the US of betrayal. The United States’ relationship with Turkey has also taken a hit, with mounting political reaction in the “internationalist-interventionist” faction against the invasion and political and economic sanctions on the way. Russia, at least for now, seems to be the imperialist game-maker in the region.

The War Must Stop

As we write, the Syrian Arab Army is progressing to the north and approaching the Turkish border. The future of not only northeastern Syria but the broader region is up in the air. The world might have to deal with a reborn ISIS, and what was known and celebrated among many leftists worldwide as Rojava might be destroyed.

But the war will also affect Turkish society in a way that some aren’t taking seriously enough: if the military invasion succeeds, Erdoğan and his fascistic allies will increase their power enormously. All the political ground won over the last months and years might be lost. All those small, partial victories and the general breath of air might disappear.

It is paramount to stand against the military invasion — because it is also the only way to stop fascism from gaining momentum in Turkey itself.

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Güney Işıkara is a PhD student in economics at the New School for Social Research.

Alp Kayserilioğlu is an editor at re-volt magazine and is working on his PhD on political economy, hegemony, and popular dynamics in the AKP era in Turkey. He currently lives in Cologne, Germany.

Max Zirngast is an independent writer studying philosophy and political science in Vienna and Ankara.

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