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Spring of blood and tears

In war, Turkey’s Erdogan appears to have even fewer friends than he does in peace. Yet he continues anyway, writes Sayed Abdel-Meguid

Sayed Abdel-Meguid , Wednesday 16 Oct 2019
Spring of blood and tears
Syrian Kurds protest the Turkish offensive against Syria in front of the UN headquarter in Erbil, Iraq (photo: Reuters)
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Not since the “coup attempt” of mid-June 2016 has there been such a boisterous mobilisation of pro-Erdogan media. The drum rolls thundered and the fanfare blared, ushering in the so-called “Spring of Peace” operation. State-run media are on duty 24/7, less to run the latest “live” coverage from the front than to refute foreign lies and slander about Turkey’s unprovoked attack against Syria, and Ankara’s territorial, demographic and real estate designs. Officials and opinion pundits are also tasked with sending the clear and unequivocal message to the international community, the majority of which has condemned the operation, that the Turkish people are so solidly behind the aerial bombardment and ground offensive that Ankara launched on 9 October that not a peep of opposition can be heard.

There are a number of contradictory and disturbing currents beneath this uniform national stance (Kurds excepted, of course). For one, anyone who has followed developments in Turkey closely cannot miss the increasingly loud grumbling at the attrition to human and economic resources caused by each new military intervention across the border, from “Euphrates Shield”, to the occupation of Afrin and to this. They will also have noticed that the actions to silence criticism at home have been tougher and swifter each time. Within two days after the start of the current offensive, “the necessary actions were taken against around 500 people who insulted Operation Peace Spring by defining our country as an invader on social media,” announced Interior Ministry Suleiman Soylu. Of these, 121 are now in jail.

The previous day (Thursday, 10 October), Hakan Demir, the digital services manager of Bir Gün daily, and Fatih Gokhan Diler, managing editor of the Diken news website, were detained because of their social media messages about the operation.

Criticising the current operation courts such charges as “attempting to defame Operation Peace Spring”, “propagandising for a terrorist organisation”, “inciting hatred and animosity among the people”, and “carrying out terrorist organisation instructions to make calls on social media to encourage protest actions against security forces”.

“We’re afraid to say anything at all for fear that we’ll be seen as opposed to the operation,” said a local resident in Ankara who refused to reveal his name. Was he afraid to speak out? “You would be too, if you were me. You’d be terrified.”

A second person, a man in his fifties who also spoke on condition of anonymity, told Al-Ahram Weekly how sorry he felt about the schools that were bombed and the children that were killed. A third person approached by the Weekly refused to discuss the subject.

Still, not all are silent on the domestic front. Nine lawyer syndicates from south and southeast Anatolia have strongly condemned the operation and called for its immediate halt. “Wars are not a measure of whether either side is right or wrong. They just show which side is stronger and which is weaker. The losers in this war are the Turkish and Kurdish peoples and all other peoples of the Middle East,” they said in a joint statement. Warning that the consequences will only make the situation worse in every possible way, the statement added: “Warmongers have prevailed over advocates of peace. They will all bear the responsibility for the humanitarian, ethical and moral consequences of this war. They will be responsible for the deaths of all the mothers, children and other civilians who are not parties to this war, for the harm that is inflicted on the environment, and for destroying the prospects for peaceful coexistence between the two peoples.”

In 2015, hundreds of academics signed a petition calling on the government to resume negotiations with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in order to resolve the longstanding Kurdish question and bring peace. Erdogan, who had jettisoned the negotiating process and reignited warfare in the southeast shortly after the AKP’s electoral setback in June 2015, accused the “peace academics” of “treason”, setting into motion a wave of arrests and prosecutions that continue to this day. Observers fear that the lawyers who signed the above statement will meet the same fate.

Before initiating the incursion into northern Syria, Erdogan hoped to drive a wedge between the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the People’s Democratic Party (HDP). The two main opposition parties were getting too close for comfort, especially since recent municipal elections that brought such a reverberating setback to his party and to his person. One key to this end was a bill to renew the government’s mandate to conduct military operations abroad. As anticipated, the HDP voted against and the CHP voted in favour. But ultimately, the ruse didn’t work.

Despite his party’s vote on the bill, CHP Vice Chairman Fayek Ozturk warned against an action that would drag Turkey further into the Middle East “quagmire”. In a press statement 7 October, he slammed the government’s decision to launch a military operation east of the Euphrates. The government has brought the economy to ruins and society is falling apart, he said. “So now they are looking for a way out and have no compunction about driving the country into the Middle East swamp.” He stressed that if the government were truly serious about fighting terrorism and safeguarding Syria’s territorial unity, it would work together with Damascus. “The shortest way to peace in Syria passes along the road from Ankara to Damascus.”

Then, the day after Ankara launched its incursion into Syria, CHP Parliamentary Group Leader Engin  Ozkoc warned of the “grave situation” created by Ankara’s “erroneous policies”. In a press conference following an extraordinary CHP Central Management Board meeting on 10 October, he suggested that the operation was informed not just by Erdogan’s domestic political and economic troubles, but also by Turkey’s current predicament in Idlib. Rhetorically addressing Erdogan, Ozkoc said: “You say you brought an end to the humanitarian plight in Idlib. Idlib normally has a population of a million. At Russia’s request, you gathered together all the terrorist organisations that you took in from Al-Nusra Front there. You’ve given homes to the blatant terrorist organisations that you claim to have saved from a humanitarian plight. You made observation towers and then handed the protection of our soldiers over to Russia. What kind of presidency is this?”

Picking up on the discrepancy between Erdogan’s rhetoric for foreign audiences and his rhetoric for local consumption, Ozkoc wondered how anyone who claimed that the military operation was to safeguard Syria’s unity and territorial integrity would use the term “conquest” when launching it. “‘We’re acting in the spirit of conquest, we’ve gone in to conquer,’ you [Erdogan] said. ‘Conquest’ means to occupy a foreign country or city by means of war. It means you said, ‘We went there to occupy and to populate it with the people we like.’ Soon we’ll watch you moving your friends from Idlib into there.”

The HDP, for its part, stressed that what Syrian people needed most was the beginning of a democratic dialogue and a comprehensive and inclusive negotiation process to bring an end to the civil war. But who listens to the HDP?

While Erdogan and his AKP may have anticipated such reactions, they would be blindsided by an attack coming from a totally unexpected direction, one from which Erdogan would have expected unreserved ethnic solidarity. Commenting on the operation east of the Euphrates last Friday, the fourth day of the operation, the President of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus Mustafa Akinci called for a halt to the hostilities and an immediate return to dialogue and diplomacy. Alluding to the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, he said: “We might have called it Operation Peace in 1974, but it was a war and what flowed was blood. Today, we might call it Spring of Peace, but what is flowing is not water, but blood.”

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