"The Kurdish Nation is an oppressed nation"

Why the Left must stand with the HDP in Neo-Ottoman Turkey

Yet again in Turkey, democracy goes on trial as the co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş, and former co-chair Figen Yüksekdağ, of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) face one-day court hearings – Demirtaş today (Wednesday) and Yüksekdağ the following week. The climate in Turkey at the moment is particularly repressive: some 600 people have been arrested for speaking out either at protests, or on social media, against Turkey’s war on the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin, which began on the 20th January. The HDP – Turkey’s second-largest opposition party – is the only political party in Turkey to oppose the war on Afrin, which they see not only as an unprovoked military attack on what had hitherto been a relatively safe and stable area, but President Erdoğan’s way to consolidate his support from nationalists and use the “climate of war” to further the repression of Kurds and democratic opposition. Just last week, 31 HDP officials were detained days before their party conference in Ankara, including the co-chair Serpil Kemalbay.

The Yüksekdağ and Demirtas trials have been taking place sporadically since last June, with months between each one-day hearing. The then co-chairs of the HDP were arrested on the 4th November 2016 in night raids, along with 11 other MPs (4 of whom have since been released); currently, 9 MPs, 88 Mayors and something approaching 10,000 activists of the HDP are in prison, something they justifiably describe as “political genocide”.

Turkey’s renewed war on Kurds

The arrests took place in the context of a degrading situation ever since 2014, when Kurdish forces in Northern Syria repelled ISIS in the border city of Kobanê. The strength of the Kurdish forces, and the international recognition they gained for their heroic defence of Kobanê, caused fear amongst the Turkish government about the emboldening of the Kurdish movement in Turkey, including the PKK who had entered into a ceasefire with Turkey in 2013. In the summer of 2015, the ceasefire ended thanks to continuous Turkish airstrikes on PKK bases in the Qandil mountains in Iraq, where guerrillas were being trained to help the YPG’s resistance against ISIS. That June saw the unprecedented electoral breakthrough of the HDP, depriving the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of a majority. This was met with brutal repression. The HDP and its affiliated groups were attacked by ISIS suicide bombers with the aid of Turkish state collusion; one attack killing over 30 young socialist activists gathered in Suruç on the 20th July on their way to Kobanê to assist with the reconstruction of the city, and a double attack killing over 100 demonstrators at a peace rally in Ankara on the 10th October in the build up to fresh elections in November. Kurdish majority areas in the south and east of Turkey were devastated by the Turkish military over the winter of 2015-16, including the towns of Nusaybin, Sur, and the mass slaughter in Cizre, where just under 200 civilians were burned alive in basements whilst sheltering from missiles without food, water, or sanitation.

In the meantime, the Turkish government sought ways to deal with the problem of the HDP, who could not be defeated electorally, having broken through the arbitrarily high 10% threshold in June 2015 to win 80 seats on a platform of “basic demands of the working class and the toiling peasants… [with] a clear anti-neoliberal anti-capitalist stance,” according to HDP Vice Co-Chair Alp Altınörs. After they maintained enough momentum in the following November snap election to retain parliamentary seats, the AKP government decided to revoke parliamentary immunity, leaving the HDP vulnerable to arrest and imprisonment. The failed military coup of July 2016 paved the way for intense repression following the declaration of a state of emergency, leading to tens of thousands of academics and school teachers being dismissed, described as an “intellectual massacre”, on top of the tens of thousands of sacked and arrested security personnel. It was only a matter of time before the HDP were to be targeted, and on the 4th November 2016, the abductions took place. These “war conditions”, explained Altınörs, who spoke to us at length for this article, show the limits of usual democratic politics. “Those limits became even narrower after the unsuccessful military coup d’etat of 2016 and the declaration of the State of Emergency. The National Assembly has lost all its weight. Now the country is being ruled from the Palace of Erdoğan, by Decrees in power of law. But even under these conditions, HDP plays a role in keeping the democratic front united and being a bridge between the Kurdish and Turkish peoples.”

The invasion of Afrin is the latest example of the two defining tones of Erdoğan’s premiership – a bloody war on the Kurds, and Ottoman-style ambitions to expand Turkey’s regional power. Until a few weeks ago, Afrin was one of the safest, most secure parts of Syria, housing hundreds of thousands of refugees who made up over half its population. Turkey’s attack is unprovoked and illegal. Disturbingly, the Labour Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry – whose North London constituency is full of Kurds and Kurdish-owned businesses – failed not only to explicitly condemn Turkey’s illegal, unprovoked aerial bombardment and ground invasion of Afrin, but failed to even mention Boris Johnson’s outright support of the attack and the UK government’s arms sales to Turkey. Indeed, Thornberry went so far as mitigating Turkey’s actions as being a response to rumours that the Americans were seeking a permanent border force on the Turkey-Syria border – in fact, Turkey have been threatening to invade Afrin for over a year, needing only a superficial excuse and Russian permission to carry it out. This is a war - supported implicitly or explicitly by the UK, US, Russia and NATO – and the response from the British left has been weak to say the least, with exception from strong letters from the major trade unions. Given the fact that no major power will speak out against Turkey, it is no surprise, then, that the HDP position themselves as “against capitalist modernity and both hegemonic powers”. According to Altınörs, “we are trying to form a new bloc, a bloc of democratic modernity.”

International context

The strategic importance of Turkey as the only NATO ally in the region means that imperialist countries in Europe and North America are completely, hypocritically, silent on this mass arrest of political opposition. Asked to condemn the arrest of the HDP by Chris Williamson MP, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office failed to do so, stating that they “expect Turkey, as a modern democracy, to undertake any legal processes against elected representatives and activists fairly, transparently, and with full respect for the rule of law” – a statement that would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic.

In the ‘liberal’ western media there is a reticence in discussing the death of democracy in Turkey. One reason for this is the same media’s feting of Erdoğan just a few years ago as a moderniser and liberal, a position they seem to be unwilling to diverge from. The Guardian, for instance, found space to publish an op-ed by the Turkish President, claiming that a year on from the attempted coup, Turkey was ‘defending democratic values’, despite the fact that more than 150 media outlets were forcibly shut down in the aftermath of the coup attempt, and Turkey leading the world in its number of journalists behind bars. At the same time, they failed to report on the HDP trials, and haven’t mentioned Figen Yüksekdağ’s name since last April, despite her trial hearings starting in July.

For socialists and anti-imperialists, the situation in Turkey should be of primary concern in understanding the nature of US imperialist hegemony in the Middle East. The Kurdish question goes right to the heart of Middle East politics, with the Kurds an oppressed nation whose lack of self-determination stems from the carving up of the Ottoman Empire following the First World War by imperial powers. The Turkish-Syrian border, running through Kurdish towns and cities, follows the track of the Berlin-Baghdad colonial railway. Significantly, Turkey’s assertion of its sub-imperialist interests involves support for Salafist groups in Syria – including the Sunni Nour al-Din al-Zenki group (guilty of war crimes, torture, and beheadings), as well as groups associated with Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham/Al-Nusra Front/Al Qaeda, and suspected financial support for ISIS (along with clear military links exposed a few days ago by Patrick Cockburn). Turkey attacked the YPG whilst they were fighting ISIS, killing at least one foreign fighter, Michael Israel, after whom a group of antifascists fighting in Afrin have named themselves. Turkey’s aims in Syria are not just based on reducing the power of the Kurdish forces, but are expansionist, pushing the border further south and attacking Afrin in order to expand Turkish influence; at the start of the offensive, an Ottoman military band was sent into Afrin - an almost too crude symbol of Turkey’s imperialist ambitions.

Turkey itself – as a NATO force and key sponsor of Syrian “opposition” groups – is a hugely important lynchpin for western imperialist motivations in the Middle East, and this is significant both inside and outside Turkey’s borders. The repression of the HDP is based not only on anti-Kurdish interests and expansionism in Syria but also on the potential of the party to disrupt the very foundations of the Turkish state, representing as they do the Kurdish minority, women, LGBT rights, workers and peasants, in a country built on racial discrimination, misogyny, neoliberalism, and oppressive attempts to enforce religious and racial uniformity. In doing so, the HDP provides the greatest hope for undermining Turkish fascism and colonial ambitions.

HDP: Turkey’s great hope

The HDP represents not only the hopes of millions of Turkish citizens, but is a beacon for anti-imperialist resistance in the most disadvantageous of circumstances, surviving and prospering in what is essentially a quasi-fascist state of emergency.

The HDP was founded in 2012 bringing together the various strands of the Turkish left and Kurdish movement. Altınörs described the HDP as the “child” of two big historical events, the Gezi Resistance (June 2013) and the Kobani Resistance (October 2014): “Mobilising millions of people from different social backgrounds, these two big resistances opened the way to a broad democratic front, whose political representation is the HDP.”

Altınörs explained to me how the political culture that the HDP channels, and its core principles, came from the Peoples’ Democratic Congress (HDK), which was established by a Congress of the Oppressed, on October 2011. It created a broad, non-sectarian alliance from social movements and political parties on an anti-capitalist basis. In this sense, whilst being a formal party it is also a sort of coalition, with affiliate parties such as the Socialist Party of the Oppressed (ESP), Yüksekdağ’s party, whose youth wing was the target of the 2015 Suruç attack. In all the party organs, 60% percent is represented by the affiliate parties, and 40% percent by individual members. Altınörs described the HDP as “a broad bloc of the oppressed, a historical bloc of the labouring and the oppressed sectors of the society, different oppressed nations, nationalities, beliefs.” Forming as a result of the disconnection of different oppressed sectors from the dominant classes, it is unsurprising that the HDP has the poorest social base of all parliamentary parties.
This plural model contrasts greatly with the vertical polarisations based on nationality (Turkish/Kurdish), religion (secular/Islamist), and sectarian (Alawi/Sunni) lines which dominate Turkish society. In severe conditions of sectarian and religious strife in the Middle East, where tens of thousands of people are killed for their religion or sect, HDP aims to unify democratic Muslim sectors with the Alawis, Turkish socialist sectors with Kurdish popular masses, and create a visibility for suppressed sectors like the Armenians, Yazidi, and Assyrians. Whilst Turkish politics has tended towards the powerful, dominant, patriarchal leader figures represented now by Erdoğan - and over the last century by the omnipresent figure of Atatürk - the HDP rejects this political culture, and nimbly held together the party following the arrest of the co-chairs, repression and arrest of activists.

One of the most powerful aspects of the revolution in Rojava (or “West Kurdistan”), Northern Syria, has been gender egalitarianism, with the forces of the YPJ and the YJE (the Women’s Shengal Resistance Units) fighting alongside their YPG and YJB comrades against the barbarity of ISIS, installing in its place a society based on gender equality with women taking 50% of all roles. This is a central aspect of the Kurdish struggle right through from followers of Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned PKK leader, to traditional Marxist revolutionary groups. It is also central to the HDP, which declared itself a “party of women”, applying a 50% quota for participation in all its organs, and almost reaching this quota in the parliamentary group. Issues related to women’s struggles are decided by the Women’s Assembly of the party, and the party applies these. Where the HDP governed devolved metropolitan districts in the Kurdish southeast, the party instituted special programmes and centres for women suffering from abuse. One of their senior party officials, who herself is subject to legal prosecution, told me that the AKP government’s shutdown of HDP mayoralties - 89 of its democratically-elected mayors have been arrested and the municipalities taken over by government-imposed “trustees” - was not just a move against the party, but against women, not least because they declared illegal the co-mayoral system which had provided gender balance in local government.

Time for the left to step up

The UK’s role in the oppression of Kurds in the Middle East runs deep: from the Sykes-Picot betrayal a hundred years ago, to the NATO alliance with Turkey, the UK government has turned a blind eye to Turkey’s funding and support of jihadists in Syria because it aligns with western ambitions of regime change. But the left has no excuse in its paltry attempts at solidarity. When Emily Thornberry raised Afrin in the House of Commons, she prevaricated on Turkey’s invasion by describing it as equally bad as all foreign intervention in Syria, and the general need for a “de-escalation of overseas forces.” Such a view does nothing but delay any form of solidarity until a far-off negotiated peace deal, meanwhile the Kurds in Afrin are being pummelled by a NATO partner breathing life back into ISIS, thus prolonging the Syrian civil war. Indeed, Thornberry’s response shows a poor understanding of the role of the west in the Middle East, and, even more so, the role of its regional outpost, Turkey. As Altınörs said, “the Kurdish nation is an oppressed nation and Kurdistan is an internal colony.” Since the Kurds are under systematic threat from both Ankara and Damascus, tactically, alliances were made with both the US and Russian Federation, as one YPG fighter explained, in order to play the imperial powers off one another. In the long term, Altınörs said, “the real solution for this dilemma will be a Federal and Democratic Syria, where the Kurdish people will live freely with their rights, leaving no space for foreign intervention. Those who criticize the US intervention in Syria should support such a solution, which is also proposed by the Syrian Kurds.”

This Sunday there will be a national demonstration in solidarity with the people of Afrin defending themselves from Turkish invasion. Selahattin Demirtaş’ hearing will be Wednesday 14th February and Figen Yüksekdağ’s on Tuesday 20th February. For more information about the Kurdistan Solidarity Campaign,their website is here.