February 21, 2013

Between the Kurdistan and Syria crises lies Turkey’s moral and legal dilemma

    Thursday, February 21, 2013   No comments

by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*

Casualties of Syria's war
Turkey’s zero-problem with its neighbors foreign policy doctrine did not survive the Arab Spring test. At first, Turkey’s Justice and Development Party leaders took a cautious position regarding the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. Their confliction was especially on display during the Libyan armed rebellion when Turkey, a member of NATO, refused to take part in the military action led by that organization. But all that caution disappeared when the Syrian uprising began in March 2011. The Turkish regime, represented by its foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, effectively gave Assad, a leader of a sovereign nation, a fifteen-day grace period before Turkey went all out offering refuge, training, and support to Assad’s opponents. Perhaps they calculated that, given the success of the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, Assad, too, will quickly fall and this time Turkey should not be on the wrong side of history.

Without doubt, economic, sectarian, and security concerns motivated the Turkish leaders to help oust a leader that cannot be trusted given his connections to Russia and Iran. But Turkish leaders did not mention those reasons to explain their enthusiasm for the overthrow of Assad. Instead, the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, took the moral path. He argued that his government can no longer support a president who kills his own citizens. On the face of it, that sounds reasonable and commendable. But a close examination of Turkey’s own actions toward its citizens of Kurdish ethnicity shows a different reality. The fact is, for three decades or so, all Turkish governments—including the current one—have killed Turkish citizens.

According to official figures released by Turkey’s own military, 32,000 PKK members, 6,482 soldiers, and 5,560 civilians were killed between 1984 and 2008. The same data estimated that more than 14,000 Kurdish people were imprisoned.

Human rights organizations show a darker picture of state brutality. It is reported that 4,000 Kurdish villages have been destroyed, displacing between 380,000 and 1,000,000 civilians. Other NGOs estimated that 119,000 Kurds have been imprisoned by Turkish authorities. One specific NGO, the Humanitarian Law Project, has determined that 2,400 Kurdish villages were destroyed and 18,000 Kurds were executed by the Turkish government.  According to the Hacettepe University Institute for Population Studies, between 950,000 and 1.2 million Kurds have been displaced for security-related reasons.

These staggering figures show the level of brutality on the part of the Turkish state and the appalling suffering the Kurdish people have endured. At the heart of this ongoing crisis is the struggle of the Kurdish people who are seeking a degree of autonomy that would allow them to preserve their culture, language, and way of life.

Kurdish fighters in Qandil mountains
Importantly, it should be noted that the Kurds who took up arms against the Turkish government attempted to spare the villages and towns the horror of war by setting camps in the mountains and carrying out attacks from those camps—not from cities. Despite the legitimate grievances of the Kurdish people the current Turkish regime insists that Kurdish fighters are terrorists and must lay down their arms and leave the country or be killed. No one asked the Prime Minister: leave what and go where? Was he forgetting that they are fighting for their land and people?

Turkey’s government, this same government that portrays itself as a victim of terrorism, is now providing support to Syrian rebels who are not fighting from the mountains and who are not fighting for self-determination. Rather, they are moving from town to town and from city to city occupying residential neighborhoods, displacing civilians, declaring Syria “land of jihad,” and targeting religious and ethnic minorities. Moreover, Turkey is not only supporting Syrian Sunni rebels, but it is facilitating the transit of foreign fighters into Syria.

Rebels in Syrian cities
The contrast is clear: Kurdish fighters are fighting for self-determination. In their struggle, in most cases, Kurdish fighters live and train in mountains. In most cases, they do not invade residential neighborhoods, occupy civilian homes, and they do not endanger the lives of civilians. 

Syrian rebels on the other hand, are intentionally and systematically are engaged in urban warfare wherein fighters move into towns and cities that are not theirs, risking the lives and property of civilians. Many of the fighters are motivated by sectarianism and hatred to people of different ethnicities. They blow up vehicles in markets, places of worship, and residential neighborhoods in acts of indiscriminate killings. These practices are clear violations of international and humanitarian laws.

Outcome of urban warfare
Turkey, the armed groups it supports, and the Syrian regime all three ought to be held responsible for practices that risk the lives of non-combatants, acts of torture, and acts with genocidal intent. Turkey must respect the rights of all its citizens instead of arming fighters (who are motivated by sectarianism) to destabilize its neighbors. Indeed, no leader should be allowed to kill his own citizens, and that applies to the Turkey’s as well.

* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. He is the author of a number of books and articles. Opinion herein are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.


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