Turkey’s Enigmatic Alliances

By | March 12, 2013 at 1:04 pm | No comments | Blog | Tags: , , ,

In 2012 the New-York based Committee to Protect Journalists described the imprisonment of 76 Turkish journalists, mostly on anti-state charges, as “one of the world’s most widespread crackdowns on press freedom in recent history.” CPJ warned that this had “sown widespread self-censorship as news outlets and their journalists, fearful of financial, professional, or legal reprisals, shy from sensitive topics such as the Kurdish issue and the crackdown on free expression itself.” Following a visit to Turkey earlier this year, the Kurdish Iraqi journalist Ayub Nuri considers Ankara’s support for Syrian rebel forces and its own record of silencing domestic dissent. 

Freedom abroad but censorship at home

Ayub Nuri

Ever since their foundation in the aftermath of the First World War, the relationship between the modern nation states of Syria and Turkey has had its ups and downs. Both have conflicting territorial claims over land and waterways. Ottoman Turkey once ruled Syria and both countries came close to war in the late 1990s when Turkey accused the regime of Hafez al-Assad of harboring the rebels of the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK)—a group that has been fighting Turkey since 1984 for Kurdish rights. Now, history seems to be repeating itself, but this time around Syria is the one paying the price. Since the start of the revolution against Bashar al-Assad in March 2011, Turkey has been the main backer of rebel and opposition groups that fight to topple the regime in Damascus.

In their fight against the regime violence is a major tool for the Syrian rebels

It was Turkey that first brought together various Syrian political groups in Istanbul and urged them to form an alliance called the Syrian National Council (SNC). Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was one of the first foreign leaders who called on Assad to listen to the demands of his people and step down.

Syrian rebels have since then had free access to Turkish territory for training and regrouping. They cross the Turkey-Syria border with ease and have full support of the Turkish army and police.

Assad’s government brands these groups terrorists, criminals and Islamic extremists who try to destabilize Syria. Given the regime’s dictatorial nature and brutal repression of the Syrian people, hardly anyone would believe this kind of branding. But there is some truth to it.

In their fight against the regime violence is a major tool for the Syrian rebels. Sometimes, when they enter a town they line up and execute — against walls, or on the ground — government sympathizers, civilian members of the Baath party and soldiers who have put down their guns and surrendered. The United Nations, human rights organizations, and Western governments have condemned these acts, particularly in recent months as the bloodshed in Syria has reached new heights.

Why does Turkey support these groups that often do not shy away from using violence against their opponents and have little regard for human rights?

It is difficult to hold any particular group accountable for these summary executions and human rights violations since there isn’t just one group fighting the regime in Damascus. The best known rebel group is the internationally recognized Syrian Coalition for Opposition Forces under Moaz al-Khatib, which is treated as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people and their revolution. But there are also more than a dozen other groups fighting President Assad on different fronts. Among them are Islamic extremists such as Jubhat al-Nusrah – recently branded as a terrorist organization by the United States. Members of this group have engaged other Syrian opposition groups in violent clashes and killed many Syrian citizens, particularly in the city of Serekaniye (Ras al Ayin) where dozens have lost their lives.

Jabhat al-Nusrah is of special interest in terms of Turkey’s support for Syrian rebels. Serekaniye is close to the Turkish border and residents of the Syrian side of the border claim that these Islamic fighters come from inside Turkey and carry Turkish weapons.

The question is: why does Turkey support these groups that often do not shy away from using violence against their opponents and have little regard for human rights? Some believe Turkey aims to regain the influence it once had over the region and that this has been used to justify its unqualified support for Syrian rebels. Others say that the Turkish moderate Islamic Prime Minister Erdogan has religious reasons for wanting Bashar Assad toppled. Erdogan is a Sunni Muslim while Assad hails from the minority sect of Shiite Alawites with close ties to Iran.

Whatever the complicated politics of the Syrian revolution and regional support for the rebels might be, one thing cannot be denied: apart from the everyday violence and the loss of life, the Syrian people have lost the freedom to choose. Not every Syrian citizen supports the regime and certainly not everyone supports the rebel fighters.

In 2012 around 94 journalists were in jail in Turkey, far exceeding the number of journalists jailed in China and Iran

The Syrian dictator has already made it clear through imprisonment, torture and bombings that he does not tolerate dissent. But the irony is that the rebels who claim to be fighting for democracy, freedom of speech and human dignity also seem to be walking the same path.

Turkey’s involvement with Syria and Ankara’s fierce opposition to the Assad regime have also overshadowed big issues inside Turkey itself. In the past two years, Turkey has been considered one of the major imprisoners of journalists. In 2012 around 94 journalists were in jail in Turkey, far exceeding the number of journalists jailed in China and Iran. Most of these journalists were and still are from the country’s second largest ethnic group, the Kurds.

Last year, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists described Turkey as “the world’s worst jailer of the press.” The government of PM Erdogan has branded many journalists who criticize his Justice and Development Party (AKP) as “terrorists.”

Turkey criticizes the regime in Damascus for oppressing its people and silencing any voice of dissent. True, but imprisoning dozens of journalists for criticizing the performance of the ruling party in Turkey is also suppression.

Given the current economic and political power of the state, there is little chance that Turkey would ever listen to calls from international human rights or press organizations to release the imprisoned journalists or to give only conditional support to Syrian rebels. So the hope lies with the European Union and members of NATO to exert pressure on the government in Ankara.

Ayub Nuri is managing editor of Rudaw English and worked as a journalist during the US occupation of Iraq.

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