Erdogan, the Kurds and Legitimacy
In October, a series of invasions along the Syrian-Turkish border devastated the Kurdish people who live there. Violent displays caught on camera showed pro-Turkish forces executing nine Kurdish people, one of them the political leader Hevrin Khalaf. In the footage, Khalaf is shown being ripped out of her car and shot point-blank as her executioners shouted insults at her. However, this horrific story shouldn’t come as a surprise given the decline of democracy in Syria and President Erdogan’s consolidation of power since a failed coup attempt in 2016.
Once upon a time, Turkey was arguably the United States’ most strategic ally in the Cold War. Turkey was seen as a promising development of democracy bridging Europe and the Middle-East. There were even talks of making the NATO ally a member of the European Union.
However, EU lawmakers officially suspended talks of Turkey joining the European Union back in March. Citing reasons such as: limiting freedoms of the press, mass-incarceration, deterioration of civil rights, and jailing of journalists as disqualifiers to EU criteria for membership. What happened to make Turkey go so quickly from being “well on their way to joining the EU and establishing itself as a democracy” to authoritarian? Populism is a big part of the answer.
At first Erdogan appeared devoted to democratic ideals. He sought EU membership and his speeches spoke of harmony, pluralism and tolerance. But the world has witnessed in the most public of ways the breakdown of democracy and its values in Turkey’s through its invasion into Syria. According to How Democracies Die by Levitksy and Ziblatt, one of the first indicators of democratic erosion is a weak commitment to the rules and principles of democracy. These have been hallmark of the Erdogan presidency, especially in recent years. .
Statements made by Erdogan in addressing his critics, “We are the people, who are you?”, even though they too were Turks illustrated long before these invasions the problem that was brewing in Turkey. Like other populist leaders, Erdogan claims that he alone represents the people. This claim is something identified within How Democracies Die as well, that populist leaders claim sole legitimacy in representing the peoples’ interests. Anything that the leader doesn’t agree with is illegitimate and anyone who speaks out is a target for persecution
After the failed coup of 2016, Erdogan utilized his populist message in rallying Islamists to his defense. He began viciously attacking the Turkish media and press. According to Human Rights Watch, after the coup, 140 media outlets and 29 publishing houses were shut down through an emergency decree. In December 2016 over 149 journalists found themselves inside of Turkish prisons. Not much unfortunately has changed since then.
According to the Stockholm Center for Freedom 92 journalists are serving a sentence in Turkish prisons, 84 are awaiting trial, and over 162 live in exile and are pursued by the Turkish government as wanted criminals. These numbers make them the world leader in jailed journalists. But more tragically, Erdogan’s weaponization of his power isn’t only used against opponents in the media but also against the Kurds.
Thousands of people have fled, dozens have died during Turkey’s invasion into Syria. With this fact in mind and the fact that Turkey is infamous for targeting critics in the media it shouldn’t be surprising that once again this is exactly what President Erdogan is doing. No one should be shocked when the Turkish state media released a statement warning it would silence critics undermining the operation stating, “We will never tolerate broadcasts that will negatively affect our beloved nation and glorious soldiers’ morale and motivation, that serves the aim of terror, and might mislead our citizens with faulty, wrong and biased information,”.
Turkey has in effect thrown away whatever Western ideals it once possessed. The YPG, the Kurdish security force in Kurdish Syria, is seen positively by Westerners for aiding in the fight against the Islamic State. In contrast, Turkey depicts them as terrorists; and this is Erdogan’s justification for invading and attempting to cleanse the area surrounding their border of a Kurdish presence. Many would expect the United States and other westerners who conveniently enjoyed the help of the YPG to be inclined to help but clearly their reverence only goes so far as US troops leaving Syria sparked this tragedy to begin with. To the Kurds they know the fate Erdogan has in mind for them as one Kurdish YPG fighter put it, “Erdogan doesn’t like the Kurds. He wants us to leave.”
While Erdogan and Turkish forces are killing innocent people, Erdogan wants the press to write about their Olympic swim teams or Kurdish YPG violence rather than to focus on the actions of the government . This silence is one of the biggest problems about the invasion, the fact that many Turkish citizens are made complicit to their government’s violence because they are not informed about it. This at its core is one of the deepest issues surrounding the invasion and one that won’t go away even when the guns stop firing.
Seligman, Lara. Groll, Elias. Gramer, Robbie. 2019. “Fighting Continues in Syria Despite Cease-Fire Agreement”. Foreign Policy. https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/10/17/trump-erdogan-syria-ceasefire-major-win-turkey-middle-east-assad/
Mckernan, Bethan. 2019. “From reformer to ‘New Sultan’: Erdoğan’s populist evolution”. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/mar/11/from-reformer-to-new-sultan-erdogans-populist-evolution
Levitsky, Steven. Ziblatt, Daniel. 2018. Crown Publishing Group. New York, New York. “How Democracies Die”.
Erkoyun, Ezgi. Gumrukeu. 2019. “Turkey will clear Syria border area of Kurdish fighters if Russia fails to act: Erdogan”. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-syria-security/turkey-will-clear-syria-border-area-of-kurdish-fighters-if-russia-fails-to-act-erdogan-idUSKBN1X50C9
Human Rights Watch. 2016. “Silencing Turkey’s Media The Government’s Deepening Assault on Critical Journalism”. Human Rights Watch. https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/report_pdf/turkey1216_web.pdf
Muller, Jan-Werner. 2016. “Trump, Erdoğan, Farage: The attractions of populism for politicians, the dangers for democracy”. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/sep/02/trump-erdogan-farage-the-attractions-of-populism-for-politicians-the-dangers-for-democracy
Gol, Jiyar. 2019. “Syrian Kurds: ‘The world has closed its eyes on us’”. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-50181855
Council on Foreign Relations. 2018. “Neither Friend nor Foe”. Council on Foreign Relations Press. https://www.cfr.org/report/future-u.s.-turkey
Reilhac, Gilbert. 2019. “EU parliament calls for freeze on Turkey’s membership talks”. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-eu-turkey/eu-parliament-calls-for-freeze-on-turkeys-membership-talks-idUSKCN1QU2LD
Stockholm Center for Freedom. 2019. “Jailed and wanted Journalists in Turkey- Updated List” Stockholm Center for Freedom. https://stockholmcf.org/updated-list/
Chulov, Martin. Rasool, Mohammed. 2019. “Kurdish politician among nine civilians shot dead by pro-Turkey forces in Syria” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/oct/13/female-kurdish-politician-among-nine-civilians-killed-by-pro-turkey-forces-in-syria-observers-say
Gall, Carlotta. Kingsley, Patrick Kingsley. 2019. “ISIS Rears Its Head, Adding to Chaos as Turkey Battles Kurds” New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/11/world/middleeast/turkey-syria-kurds.html
Turkey’s invasion of Syria must be Erdogan’s worst decision: aside from killing innocent civilians, it created a more complicated situation in the war-torn region and created a more polarized society in Turkey where Syrian refugees are vilified. According to The Washington Post, more than 80 percent of Turkish population wants Syrian refugees back to Syria. Meanwhile, two-thirds of Turks openly say they are opposed to their continued presence in Turkey. Turkey, host to some 3.6 million refugees, have turned their backs on the Syrians. Abandoned by their American allies, Syrians, especially the Kurds, are left to fend for themselves.
I personally liked the blog for being well-written and how it briefly explained how Erdogan eroded democracy and norms in Turkey under his rule. It provided concrete examples and cases how the Turkish president consolidated power in the past 16 years of his rule, how he related to other countries or institutions like the European Union, and how he trampled upon basic civil liberties by jailing journalists and cracking down on activists and freedom fighters.
I think what is lacking in this blog is an explanation on how Turkey and Kurdish Syria have arrived in this melee and the role of Trump in the unraveling chaos in the two countries. It would have been more interesting to understand what pushed Erdogan to attack Syria despite the ongoing civil war there and what’s in it for the Turks.
In my opinion, Erdogan, amid his dwindling trust and approval ratings, understands what needs to be done: ride on the frustration of the Turks over the ongoing refugee crisis in their country. Use the refugees as a leverage against neighboring countries and blackmail to European countries.
I cannot help but feel sorry for Syrians, who, until now, suffer from the seemingly endless war back home.
This argument on Turkish hostilities, oppression over journalists and the Kurds in Eastern Turkey, or Northern Kurdistan and Southern Turkey, or Western Kurdistan, referred to as Rojava, are very important matters, when discussing Turkish government officials expressing a commitment to nationalistic extremisim. Butler, your discussion on an obligation to democratic rule criteria, according to How Democracies Die by Levitksy and Ziblatt, that have not been met by Turkey, is ultimately a large approach when discussing Turkish political matters. Furthermore, it is important to mention your perspective manifests a more liberal point of view; whereas, Turkey refers to their invasion in Northern Syria/Kurdish Syria, or Rojava, as an attempt to create a ‘safe zone’ for their own national interests and security in the region against the Islamic State, or Daesh.
Although this post was brief for discussing a matter that is in depth to a diverse ethnic, religious, and political sphere, you have addressed the main concern and objective of comparative politics of Turkey’s democracy overtime, viewed through a Western lens. The political oppression in Turkey for arresting journalists and any person who opposes the ruling government is a common trend in Turkish politics and history. I am glad you mentioned this in your article, because many people are unaware of the unlimited ways Turkey will interfere with the people in the nation and in the region. Not long ago, Osman Baydemir, Diyarbakir Metropolitan Mayor and Kurdish politician of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), was extradited by Turkey, when he left the country to the United Kingdom. Turkey’s request of Baydemir was an act against his words used in court, when mentioning the rights of representation of the Kurdish people in government, yet it was approached to criticism by Turkish authorities as a link to the PKK terrorist organization. The courts of Turkey have stated, through several incidents that it does not represent democratic freedom of speech; moreover, many like Baydemir, lawyers, politicians, and officials are arrested for mentioning the words Kurd, Kurdish, or Kurdistan. The issue of multiple scenarios like Osman Baydemir and executions of people with common democratic ground in Turkey have not been investigated or reported by Turkish media or international attention.
I agree with you that his acts against the media are most definitely infamous and do lead to the control of biased information and misinterpretation of Erdogan’s regime, and Turkey’s democracy as a whole. Also, to briefly mention, as the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces were holding ISIS members captive in Rojava, an increase of Turkish military hostilities in the region allowed many ISIS members to escape fueling a large attempt of re-emergence and instability in the region.