Doğa Ulaş Eralp
Jan 28 2018

Three evils and Turkey’s Afrin operation

On August 31st, 1967 Martin Luther King delivered perhaps one of his most powerful speeches at the National Conference on New Politics talking about three evils that hold American society hostage: racism, poverty and militarism during a time when the war in Vietnam was escalating. Dr King’s speech has a lot to offer for the understanding of Turkish politics in 2018.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last week launched an offensive against the northern Syrian town of Afrin. Turkish society has always been patriarchal. Dominant patriarchy becomes accentuated in times of heightened conflict. Turkey’s largest opposition, the social democratic People’s Republican Party (CHP) officially voiced its unquestioning compliance to the decisions of the Turkish state in its foreign affairs especially in terms of supporting the military incursion against Kurdish elements on Turkey’s borders.

Militarism in Turkey operates through convincing narratives that strictly limit the extent of democratic opposition to wars with a clear threat of calling opponents traitors. An anti-war, pro-peace stance easily gets altered via the government-controlled media as unpatriotic or treasonous. Intellectuals, actors and journalists who speak against the war are targeted in social media; some are arrested by security forces.

Newspapers, prime time news are full of interviews with celebrities who happily share their photos on social media in military gear, praise the commitment of troops who might lose their lives as future martyrs. Politicians, with the clear exception of the pro-Kurdish HDP, either praise the war effort or remain silent for fear of getting blacklisted. The necessity of showing a unified front against international criticism primarily from the United States silences the most ardent critiques of the Erdoğan government.

The fact that very close relatives of Erdoğan are involved in military industries and test the effectiveness of their products in the Afrin operation does not seem to cause any concern for the tamed Turkish opposition. Erdoğan’s top foreign affairs consultant Ibrahim Kalin also praised the social democrats’ silence and compliance with the war effort as a great example of patriotism.

Turkey has had mandatory military service in place ever since the republic’s inception in 1923. Over the last decade though, the majority of those completing compulsory service are from the lower socio-economic strata of Turkish society, from villages, rural towns, the shanty towns of the big cities who see military service as a rite of passage into full manhood.

Amidst a life of on-and-off unemployment, unpaid credit card debts, cheap mobile phones, and unrequited romantic fixations, military service emerges as one area where 19-20 year old young men can prove their manhood. When the news of the deaths of troops make the headlines of the evening news, it is always the politicians posing next to the coffin of a poor kid - family members are pushed to the back to make space for the political elite praising their glorified martyrdom.

The sad reality is many of the family members of pro-war politicians either get exemptions from military service or do a paid three-week training course instead. For example out of Erdoğan’s two sons, the older one, Burak, was exempted from military service on health grounds, while younger one, Bilal, recently photographed at a top secret military command centre, paid to do only the three-week training course.

Turkey’s Afrin operation once again confirmed the unchanged status of the Kurds as Turkey’s permanent enemy, uniting Turkish social democrats and right-wingers. The Turkish armed forces and the ultra-nationalist and Islamist coalition led by Erdoğan share the same political unease about the growing political influence of a Kurdish entity in northern Syria capable of doing deals with Washington and Moscow at the same time.

The nationalist-Islamist discourse tolerated the control of Turkey’s borders by murderous Islamic State gangs for years but the effectiveness of Syrian Kurdish force against the extreme jihadist and the fast-paced transition of northern Syria into a unified political entity is seen as a threat to Turkey’s territorial integrity.

It is not surprising that Erdoğan openly threatened pro-Kurdish parties in Turkey against holding any anti-war rallies in Kurdish towns in eastern Turkey. Each war creates its own internal enemies, political Kurds in Turkey are now once again and this time more forcefully under the government’s scrutiny. State of emergency measures instated after the failed 2016 coup attempt have already largely targeted Kurdish politicians, but now more than ever speaking in Kurdish in western towns of Turkey may prove very dangerous.

Dr. King’s praise of non-violent opposition against these three evils rings true in Turkey. The extent to which labour unions, business chambers and academia begin to voice their democratic opposition to the rationale of Turkey’s Afrin operation, the sooner Turkey’s military adventure may end with minimal losses on both sides.