Last Saturday Turkish troops crossed into Iraq in a dangerous escalation of the conflict in the Middle East. Supported by helicopter gunships and artillery, they attacked an alleged group of fighters belonging to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) Kurdish nationalist guerrilla organisation.
The same day thousands demonstrated for peace in the town of Merzan, in Hakkari, the Turkish province from which the attacks were launched.
The authorities had set up roadblocks in an attempt to stop demonstrators reaching the protest called by the pro-Kurdish nationalist Democratic Society Party (DTP). Still a large crowd assembled with placards saying, “We don’t want a Turkish-Kurdish war” and “No to cross border operations”.
DTP co-president Emine Ayna criticised Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. She said, “Erdogan told us to take peaceful politics into the cities, not to fight in the mountains. Now he has gone back on these words. We are pursuing our aims in parliament, not in the mountains. But still Erdogan has started a lynch campaign against the DTP”.
The demonstration was broken up by police using tear gas. Emine Ayan was take to hospital suffering from the effects of the gas.
Turkey’s involvement in northern Iraq is not new. More than 20 cross border operations have been mounted in the last 15 years.
However, the Turkish ruling class also has extensive business interests in Iraq. Many large Turkish companies are involved in construction projects. Most consumer goods in northern Iraq are now imported from Turkey. Even food comes mostly from Turkey.
The US government is desperate to maintain the fragile stability of Iraqi Kurdistan, the one relatively peaceful part of post-invasion Iraq. However, the Turkish military is an important potential ally in any action against Iran and George Bush is also anxious to keep Turkey’s generals “on-side”.
The Turkish government has given the army authority to carry out a series of cross border operations against the PKK. The US is providing intelligence on the guerrillas’ positions as part of what is probably a deal to try to avoid a large scale Turkish intervention triggering a new civil war in the north of Iraq.
However, any military operation develops a logic of its own and it would only take a small accident to escalate into a wider conflict. There are many in Turkey’s military who would like to see that happen.
The Turkish General election in July this year had brought hope that democracy and peace would be on the agenda. The 46 percent vote given to the soft Islamist AK Party was a slap in the face to the generals, who had threatened a coup.
The election of 20 independent Kurdish MPs was a beacon of hope. They had campaigned in an alliance with the left and were committed to a peaceful political solution to the Kurdish question.
But Turkey’s generals fought back. They played the nationalist card. Since 2004 the generals have stepped up the military conflict with Turkey’s Kurds, forcing the PKK to break its unilaterally declared ceasefire, which had lasted from 1999 until 2004.
In June this year the PKK attempted another ceasefire and the military responded in the same way. A series of killings – some clearly not carried out by the PKK – were blamed on the PKK. Alongside a media barrage against “terrorism” these were used to whip up nationalism.
Both the main opposition parties – the fascists of the MHP and the right social democrats of the CHP – were using nationalist rhetoric to attack the government. It was in this atmosphere that a parliamentary motion to permit the government to order Turkish army into Iraq was passed in October.
This was a difficult time for the anti-war opposition on the streets and in the campuses. Pro-war, pro-invasion demonstrations were larger than those for peace.
The first real success for the peace movement came when 40,000 marched in Turkey’s capital Ankara on 3 November.
The demonstration had originally been called by the civil servants federation, KESK, along with the engineers and doctors professional associations. They were demanding free education and health care, and opposing the built-in neoliberalism of the proposed new Turkish constitution.
But in the immediate aftermath of the motion to invade northern Iraq, the dominant slogans were for peace, against an invasion and for a political solution to the Kurdish question.
When Prime Minister Erdogan met George Bush on 5 November, many were tempted into passivity by the assumption that the US would not allow Turkey to cross the border.
The nationalist hysteria was now turned against the 20 Kurdish MPs and the party whose parliamentary group they have now formed, the DTP. All the media were calling for the DTP to denounce “PKK terrorism” or be excluded from the democratic process.
The Kurdish MPs were elected to parliament with the votes of Kurdish people who have seen 3,000 Kurdish villages emptied and destroyed by the state and who for decades have been denied the right to speak their own language.
Compulsory military service means that most families in Turkey have a natural sympathy for soldiers in the Turkish army. When soldiers get killed, the media use this to whip up nationalism.
However, when eight Turkish soldiers were captured by the PKK and taken to northern Iraq, the hypocrisy of the media and the state was revealed. Three Kurdish MPs travelled to Iraq and secured the soldiers’ release.
The three MPs now face prosecution. The soldiers, far from being welcomed back by the top brass of the army, have been put in military jail accused of, among other things, “leaving the country without permission”.
Now, in the last week, the chief prosecutor in the capital Ankara has started a court action to close down the DTP. The indictment calls not only for the banning of the party but also for the exclusion from organised political activity of all 150,000 members of the party and would result in the expulsion of the 20 DTP MPs from parliament.
There is an open witch-hunt against the DTP and against its MPs. Party offices have been attacked and party rallies broken up. The instability created by the invasion of Iraq now means that Turkey’s Kurds face increasing repression.
The fightback, first against the threat of invasion, and now against actual military operations in Iraq is building. A “peace week” at a key university, the Middle East Technical University in Ankara brought hundreds of students not previously political active into the fight for peace.
There will be a series of actions against military operations and to support the imprisoned soldiers throughout this week. Turkey’s operations in Iraq – and the Turkish army is promising more – require a response from the world anti-war movement.
Despite the nationalist hysteria that has been whipped up by the army and the media, opposition to cross border operations has been growing in Turkey’s main cities.
The Peace Parliament, an organisation of intellectuals and others committed to a peaceful solution to the Kurdish problem, has called a demonstration for the evening of Tuesday 4 December. Activists are hoping to get all anti-war groups to participate.
On Saturday 9 December a demonstration has been called in Istanbul as part of a rolling wave of anti-war action planned for the next few months.
Turkey’s capitalists are in as much of a bind as George Bush. They fear the instability that will result from any adventure in Northern Iraq by the generals. However, they are also dependent on Turkey’s military strength for their business success in northern Iraq. So, while leading capitalists have urged caution about cross border operations, none has come out an opposed the military’s plans.
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