Understanding Modern Turkey

For leftists in the west, the struggle by the Kurds in Rojava has captured their imagination, and people have been so inspired by the Rojavan Revolution that they fly to Syria to fight with them in the International Freedom Battalion (IFB). The love for the Rojavan People’s Protection Units (YPG) is so pervasive within the American left that Fascists are afraid to attack armed antifascists due to the fear that members are hardened YPG veterans. With all this love for the Syrian Kurds, the recent Turkish military actions against Rojava has resulted in a wave of anger that borders on vitriolic anti-Turkish racism among the American left. Surprisingly, with so much love for the Kurdish struggle, there is little English language material on Turkey and their motivations for fighting Kurdish militants. Even for those espousing the ideology of the Rojavan Revolution, Democratic Confederalism (or Apoism), there needs to be an understanding of the great historical enemy of Kurdish militancy, Turkey.

The Republic of Turkey is a unitary parliamentary constitutional republic that is located mostly on the Anatolian Peninsula, also called Asia Minor, with 97% of its land being in Asia, and 3% of its land being located in Thrace.1 Being roughly 780,000 square km, and hosting a population of nearly 83 million, Turkey is a sizable country.2 A regional power, Turkey boasts a nominal GDP of 904 billion dollars USD, and has the second largest army in NATO.34 The Turkish military, with over 380,000 active, and 360,000 reserve, personnel, over 400 combat aircraft, and over 2400 combat tanks, is comparable to that of Iran, but better equipped. The Turkish Armed Forces have far more soldiers than those of Germany or France.5678

Fundamentally, there are two main questions that need to be asked. The first question is: “What is the political climate of Turkey?” The second question is: “Why is Turkey currently invading Northern Syria?” With these two questions, hopefully a YPG-sympathetic reader of this article will come away with a broader grasp of the Turkish-Rojavan conflict. For the pro-Turkish readers, hopefully this article seems reasonable in its assessments and does not appear too partisan.

To answer the first question there needs to be a brief historical backdrop to the country. The political climate of a country is inseparable from its past, as it informs how the People think and view the world. The historical context is even more crucial for Turkey, as the current ruling party’s ideology is based on restoring former glory.

Turkey, as we know it today, has a long and eventful history that extends back to pre-history. Despite what the notorious Turkish Fascist, Nihal Atsız, may contend, modern Turks are far from being ethnically homogeneous. Anatolia has been changing hands since the time of the ancient prophets (PBUT). As such, the mixture of ancestral blood is fairly diverse, but aside from this, the modern Turkish language and people can be traced back to the Turkic steppe tribes of Central Asia. Like many other steppe people of the early to middle 2nd millennium of the Common Era, they swept westwards until they decided to settle permanently in their conquered lands.

The story of Turkey begins in the 13th century C.E. with the declining dominance of the Seljuk Empire in Anatolia. The decline of the Seljuks, an empire ruled by the originally Caucasian Oghuz Turks, resulted in small principalities, called Beyliks, declaring sovereignty for themselves. One particular Beylik, the Ottoman Beylik, ruled by Osman I, made extensive territorial gains in the early 14th century C.E., and his success resulted in the founding of the Ottoman dynasty. The Ottoman Beylik would continue to grow in strength and power until it became the well-known super-power of the near-east, that frightened the Austrians to their cores, and became the Caliphate that led the Muslim world until its abolishment in 1924. It is of particular importance that the Ottoman Beylik was not structured around loyalties to blood, but necessity, and to some degree, merit. This is important as nationalism based around civic duty, and not ethnicity, was integral to the republican ideology of the founder of the modern Turkish state, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

The long standing Ottoman Empire began its long decline from its powerful peak, of controlling almost the entirety of North Africa, the Middle East, and the Balkans, during the rise of Europe as the prominent military and economic powerhouse. The Ottomans began stagnating in their ability to fully embrace new technologies and the new, and revolutionary, capitalist mode of production. The Ottomans, despite major attempts at reform that allowed it to survive as long as it did, did not have the resources, or ability, to maintain their massive and diverse empire. As ethno-nationalist movements swept Europe, they eventually spread into Ottoman holdings as well. Armed independence movements, and a declining ability to defend against foreign European threats, eventually took its final toll with the defeat of the Ottomans in World War I.

The Ottoman defeat at the hands of the Allied Powers was the final nail in the coffin, and the humiliation and loss of the Ottoman Empire scarred the popular Turkish consciousness. The crushing defeat saw European imperial powers lunging at Ottoman territory like dogs tearing at a carcass. The proposed Treaty of Sèvres, like other Allied treaties, carved up Ottoman lands and gave huge swaths of land to the Greeks, Armenians, Italians, British, French, and most notably, the Kurds. Only a small enclave of central Anatolia would remain under Ottoman control, albeit as a protectorate. The proposed Kurdish state highlights the international community’s acknowledgment of the Kurdish identity as separate from Turkish, and more importantly, that foreign actors are willing to weaponize the Kurds to weaken a predominantly Turkish state.

Far more important than the proposed Treaty of Sèvres, is the Turkish War of Independence (1919-1923), lead by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938). It is easy to view the Republic of Turkey as a liberalized Ottoman Empire, however, it is the Turkish War of Independence, and not the Turkish Revolution. 1919 saw the start of a nationalist republican movement to create a, as Ataturk put it, “modern and western state”. The War for Independence was for a Turkish state, separate from the Ottoman government, as Kemal viewed the Ottomans as not of, or for, the Turkish people. Like the liberal ethno-nationalist movements in Europe that strove for a unified Italy or Germany, and the ethno-nationalist movements that tore Macedonia, the homeland of Mustafa Kemal, and Bulgaria, from Ottoman control, the Turks needed one of their own. Kemal understood the Republican movement as a war for self-determination against both foreign Allied powers, and the, albeit Turkish run, occupying Ottoman Sultanate.

It is the independence of Turkey in 1923 that shapes the country’s modern political climate and culture. What resulted from the war for independence was a Turkish state that went to extreme ends to distance itself from its Ottoman past despite the lack of popular support for these anti-Ottoman reforms. While Kemal’s Republicans (Kemalists) during the Turkish War of Independence had a significant degree of popular support, their rank-and-file soldiers were fighting to free themselves from foreign occupation (particularly the Greeks), not for the radical ideas of Kemal’s republicanism.

Kemal’s republican ideology (Kemalism) is described by the Six Arrows of Kemalism. Each “arrow” being a central tenet of Kemalist ideology. They are republicanism, populism, French secularism, reformism, nationalism, and statism. Republicanism being self-explanatory, populism refers to the transfer of political power to the people as opposed to a certain class or group. French secularism is an extreme form of secularism where all displays of religion are banned from the public sphere. Kemal’s reformism refers to the replacement of traditional institutions with modern ones. The fifth arrow, nationalism, deals with the creation of a nation-state for the Turkish people. Of particular importance is the Turkish nationality is different than the Turkish ethnicity. For the sake of Kemalist nationalism, to be Turkish does not refer to being descended from the ancient Oghuz Turks, but those who live for the nation of Turkey. Finally, statism is the belief that the state has an obligation to intervene in the economy if doing so will benefit the people. Especially in the early history of Turkey, this has meant direct state control over industry in the style of Soviet industry.

After the Kemalist victory, Mustafa Kemal became the head of state. While holding no official power, his Kemalists ruled the country as a one party state. While it might seem odd that a man who believed so strongly in the western system of Liberal Democracy, particularly the traditions of the United Kingdom, would rule in such a way, Kemal, later receiving the surname Atatürk (Father of the Turks), feared the reactionary and conservative beliefs of the masses. So, Kemal became what can only be described as the quintessential paternal autocrat. While desperate to enact the reforms he believed would save, and propel, the Turkish people, he knew that the masses would never accept it willingly. His only option was to force his own brand of progressive reforms on the country by any means necessary. The dubbed Father of all Turks believed he knew what was best for the people, whether the people knew it or not. Even though Kemal worked tirelessly during the independence war to ensure that the new country would be a republic, as opposed to a constitutional monarchy, he believed that the reactionary and conservative beliefs of the people would result in the democratic restoration of the Ottoman Empire.

The Turkish political scene must be understood in this context. The struggle between Kemalists and the still prevalent right-wing attitudes of the people continues to this day. The Turkish political scene is one of instability, resurging reactionary political movements, and Kemalist military coups that overthrow the government when these resurging reactionary political movements gain control.

Turkey is a country of contradictions, and just as the Anatolian peninsula sits as a land caught between Europe and Asia, the Turkish political scene is similarly divided between the European inspired Kemalist ideology and the Middle-Eastern inspired ideologies of Neo-Ottomanism and Islamism. Turkey has always been this way. Ataturk’s fears were not unfounded. Rebellions broke out due to Kemal’s westernization campaign, notably the Hat Riots over the banning of the Fez, and the Kurds, led by Sheikh Said, who rebelled to try and reinstate the Caliphate.

The conservatism that characterized the Ottomans cannot be defeated overnight. The material conditions that gave rise to these beliefs did not change with the initial Kemalist victory. Much of the rural areas of Turkey retain characteristics of the feudal mode of production, and since ideology arises from the mode of production, reactionary attitudes continue to prevail. Despite massive efforts by the Turkish government to development the rural regions, many rural areas in the east of the country remain isolated from the modernization of the urban areas. Many still live a fairly traditional way of life that dates back to the Ottoman Empire, and this throwback to the pre-capitalist mode of production creates a fertile ground that allows conservative beliefs to continue to grow. Even in the urban areas, there is a strong presence of conservatism as people from the rural areas move, or commute daily, to Istanbul.

Conservative beliefs were strongly suppressed by the Kemalist Turkish government, and discontentment among, otherwise tame, conservative elements provided a strong base of support for, otherwise fringe, reactionary movements. These reactionary attitudes take the form of Islamism, Economic Liberalism and a longing to return to Ottoman, or Ottoman-esque, rule.

These forces are counteracted by the Turkish military. Ataturk once said, “I do not call upon the youth to serve the republic, but to save it.” To many, this has meant the military. After the death of Kemal, the military took it upon themselves to protect the legacy of Kemal by any means necessary, and so coups are a frequent occurrence when the military deems the current government to have strewn too far from the designated path by violating principles of the Kemalist constitution. After a coup, the military inevitably restores the civilian government with the Kemalists in power. The military is an independent institution to the civilian government, and is ideologically required to overthrow the government if it is deemed necessary to protect the Kemalist nature of the Turkish republic.

Time and time again, this can be seen in the recent history of the republic. The first coup occurred in 1960 against the Democrat Party (DP) government lead by Adnan Menderes. Before this point, Turkey had been run staunchly by the Kemalists of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) until their electoral defeat in 1950. The DP favored the loosening of the extreme secularism of the CHP that rivaled only that of France, or the Soviet Union, in its opposition to public displays of faith. Menderes even made comments regarding the democratic reinstatement of the Caliphate. In addition, the DP favored the liberalization of the Turkish economy. Before 1945, the Turkish state owned almost all industrial enterprises through the, virtually socialist, economic policies of Ismet Inönü.9 By this time, the Kemalists had been ruling Turkey since 1923, and as a testament to survival of conservative attitudes, in 1957, the DP won over 50% of the vote.10 Another coup occurred in 1980 against, Suleyman Demirel, of the Justice Party (AP), which was itself a descendant of the DP of Menderes. The AP and DP share striking similarity in their policies towards secularism and the economy.

Currently, Turkey is being led by Erdoğan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP). The AKP is by far the most extreme example of what political forces can be brought to power by the conservative currents of the country. The AKP, founded in 2001, is a de-facto Neo-Ottomanist political party that has been in power since winning a supermajority in the 2002 elections with less than a third of the popular vote. In addition to the other conservative parties, which gained power to challenge Kemalist ideals, the AKP is openly calling for a return to the Ottoman past through seeking close relations with former imperial Ottoman territories.

The AKP is part of the long conservative political tradition of the Turkish republic. Erdoğan, in 2014, publicly stated that they “are realizing Menderes’s dream,” and a former adviser of Erdoğan, Etyen Mahcupyan, said the AKP’s Islamism “has roots and is part of an older political tradition.”11 This deep-rooted dream of Mederes has always been the rejection of Kemalism. Erdoğan has overseen a massive campaign of neoliberal privatization, greater than that of Demirel, and has pushed for the reversal of secularism in favor of Islamism.

As is to be expected, there have been several attempts by the military to oust Erdoğan, but unlike before, each one has failed. There have been four potential coups of note. The first three, Sarıkız, Ayışığı, Yakamoz and Eldiven, the Sledgehammer Plot, and Ergenekon, were merely plots by the military that were exposed before they could carry them out. In 2016, there was an actual coup attempt. After each supposed coup, Erdoğan used the fear that the Turkish People felt as an excuse to purge the military, executive branch, and courts, of alleged Kemalists. After the 2016 coup attempt, Erdogoan used the incident to mass arrest civilian and academic critics of the government. All this has only emboldened the AKP as now the military has lost many of its hardcore Kemalists, and the potential for the AKP to lose power looks slim. Building off of this, in 2017, Turkey held a constitutional referendum to reform the government into an executive presidency, giving Erdoğan a massive boost in power, and an extension of his term limit.

At this point, the second question can begin to be answered. What makes the political climate relevant to understanding the Turkish involvement in Syria, is that in contrast to the relatively tame Kemalist governments, the conservative Turkish governments are predominantly responsible for the egregious acts that currently dominate leftist perceptions of Turkey.

It was Turkey, under Menderes, that joined NATO in 1950, drawing the country into greater military responsibilities, and it was also the DP government that cracked down on Kurdish culture that partially resulted in the formation of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). It is the AKP government that has invaded northern Iraq and northern Syria. However, as it seems the AKP is resistant to potential coups, their jingoism is allowed to go unchecked and grow.

This increased Turkish jingoism has culminated in the recent Operation Olive Branch. On January 20th, 2018, Turkey invaded the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS), at Afrin, with the explicit goal of destroying the PYD and the YPG. Since the YPG is the leading force in the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), it is clear that Erdoğan feels increasingly confident with his control over the country if he is willing to challenge United States dominance and risk inflaming the conflict with the Kurds and the Syrian government.

The answer to the second question has two parts. The first is that a solidified non-Kemalist Turkish government increases the likelihood of an offense military operation, and the second is the long history of the Turkish conflict with the PKK. The first part is important because even with the PYD controlling territory in northern Syria, a Kemalist government would have a degree of hesitation that the AKP does not have. The AKP desires to invade Syria for the additional reason of regaining the old Ottoman borders.

However, the main reason for Turkish involvement in Syria is for fear of their greatest enemy, the PKK. The PKK originated as a non-armed student political group in 1978 that was based out of Diyarbakir, in the Kurdish-majority region of south-eastern Turkey. The group was Marxist-Leninist, and advocated for a sovereign Communist-lead Kurdish ethno-state called Kurdistan. Kurdistan would include the south-eastern portion of Turkey, northern Syria (Rojava), northern Iraq (Iraqi Kurdistan), and north-western Iran. Over time, the group developed into a highly militant group that continually engaged in violent confrontations with state security forces. Eventually, in 1984, the PKK formally announced a Kurdish uprising to achieve the independence for the Kurdish nation.

The PKK was very well organized and motivated, and had the personnel and material to wage a full-on war with the Turkish state. The frequent bombings and shootings took a serious toll on the government and civilians, who were both considered fair targets to the PKK. It would not have been unreasonable to assume that the PKK could win in their struggle, such was the conflict that engulfed Turkey from 1984-1999 and again from 2004-2014. After Operation Euphrates Shield, in 2015, the PKK called off the 2014 cease-fire, and both sides brace for another war.

The PKK is itself a part of the long standing history of Kurdish militant resistance to occupation. Similar to that of the Poles in Eastern Europe, the Kurds have been continually occupied by larger neighboring powers for much of their history.

From the position of Turkish state interests, a militant Kurdish state on its southern border is unacceptable. While the PYD claims to have no ties with the PKK, the Turkish government claims the PYD to be the Syrian branch of the PKK. As such, the sudden rise of a state, that they view as synonymous with an armed militant group that are currently fighting, causes a degree of alarm. Turkey fears that if the DFNS is allowed to survive and grow, they will bolster the PKK and intensify the ability of the PKK to engage in ever greater, and more numerous, military attacks against Turkish targets. Even if Erdoğan does not believe that the PYD and PKK are one and the same, the DFNS adheres to the ideology of the PKK’s ideological leader, Abdullah Öcalan. It would not be unreasonable to expect the DFNS to assist the PKK in some capacity.

Now with the original two questions answered, Turkey can be understood in the context of Rojava. Turkey is a relatively new country that was formed as a progressive, and western styled, republic, but the underlying social currents of Turkey remain very conservative. This underlying conservative current results in reactionary political movements building off of the discontented conservative elements of Turkey, continually aggravated by state repression, to gain political power. Once in power, these far-right governments pursue an agenda of militarism, economic liberalism, and de-secularization. Frequently, these governments are then overthrown by the Turkish military when they cross the line and violate the Kemalist constitution. However, the current reactionary government in power, the AKP, has resisted all military coup attempts, and is free to take greater risks. This confidence has resulted in Turkey invading Syria to destroy the Rojavan Revolution’s PYD, which is being viewed as being in league with the PKK, who have been embroiled in a long-lasting military conflict with Turkey.

Hopefully, this analysis of Turkey will prove useful to those watching current events unfold in Rojava as Turkey continues their military offensive.

1 Jerzy Zdanowski, Middle Eastern Societies in the 20th century (Cambrige Scholars Publishing, 2014).

2 “Population by years, age group and sex, census of population – TÜİK,” Turkish Statistical Institute (December, 2016).

3 “Report for selected countries and subjects,” IMF World Economic Outlook Database 2017 (October, 2017).

4 Caroline Mortimer, “Nato’s second biggest army just bought nearly £2bn of weapons from Russia,” Independent (September 12, 2017).

5 “2017 Turkey Military Strength,” Globalfirepower.com. Accessed February 12, 2018.

6 “2017 Iran Military Strength,” Globalfirepower.com. Accessed February 12, 2018.

7 “2017 Germany Military Strength,” Globalfirepower.com. Accessed February 12, 2018.

8 “2017 France Military Strength,” Globalfirepower.com. Accessed February 12, 2018.

9 Mehtap Sooyler, The Turkish Deep State: State Consolidation, Civil-Military Relations and Democracy (Routledge, 2015).

10Erdoğan lauds role of former Premier Adnan Mederes,” Anadolu Agency. Accessed May 6, 2018.

11 Ishaan Tharoor, “The execution of a former Turkish leader that still haunts Erdoğan,” The Washington Post. Accessed May 6, 2018.

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