Erdogan uses Turkey’s war to stoke nationalism and crack down on critics

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gives a military salute during an address to parliament in Ankara on Oct. 30. (Burhan Ozbilici/AP)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gives a military salute during an address to parliament in Ankara on Oct. 30. (Burhan Ozbilici/AP)

Late one night in June, Nurcan Baysal, a Kurdish journalist and human rights defender, was watching TV at her home in Diyarbakir, in Turkey’s southeast. Her younger son was playing with Legos, and her oldest was busy with his phone. At half past midnight, a terrifying noise shook them all. At first they thought it was an earthquake, or perhaps a bomb. Baysal sent the boys back to their rooms and ran to the door.

Some 20 or so anti-terrorism officers were trying to break down her front door, which proved too solid; the walls cracked instead. She let the balaclava-clad agents wielding rifles in through the veranda door.

“We have a search warrant”, one of them said.

“Why didn’t you ring the bell?” she asked.

“The prosecutor said we could break the door down”, they replied.

After searching the house, they took her away. The reason for her arrest, she found out, was a tweet from January. “Children and adults die every time a bomb falls”, she had tweeted, a reference to an operation by the Turkish armed forces in Afrin, Syria.

On Oct. 19, the officers returned, this time at 5 a.m. The Turkish army had entered Syria again, and Baysal had criticized the move in another tweet. Her terrified kids jumped out of bed, and police officers ransacked the house once again. But this time, Baysal was not there. She was in England. Her reaction came in yet another tweet: “I am at the moment not in Turkey and that’s why I have not been detained. But I will file a complaint the moment I return against those who put my two children through all this”.

A long shadow has extended over Turkey as it wages war in Syria. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has used the invasion to crack down on dissent. While the benefits for national security are far from clear, the chilling effect is playing in Erdogan’s favor politically.

Not long before Baysal’s house was being raided, the police were searching the home of a popular mayor, Irfan Sari, in Yuksekova. An officer held a gun to his head, saying he had orders to “shoot him in the head if he turns his head left or right”. Sari was taken to the police headquarters some 50 miles away, hands cuffed behind him. Sari was arrested for “being a member of an illegal organization”, a reference to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Remziye Yasar, a female co-mayor of the district, was also detained and questioned in Ankara. The authorities wanted to know the meaning of one of her tweets (“War is no spear-jangling, trumpet-blowing celebration. It is a landscape of blood and death"), but rather than explain that she was quoting Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”, she used her right to remain silent.

The openly anti-war mayor of Diyarbakir, Adnan Selcuk Mizrakli, was also detained on Oct. 22 and charged with “membership of a terrorist organization” and “propagandizing for a terrorist organization”.

According to Ministry of Interior data, in the first week of its “peace operation”, more than 150 people were arrested. Even those abroad who have posted on Facebook using words such as “invasion” and “war”have faced questioning and detention upon arrival at Turkish borders — indication that the regime’s monitoring network spans the entire world.

A recent survey of Turkish citizens revealed that more than 42 percent of them oppose the intervention in Syria. But fear has gagged them. For some, praising the government opens doors and opportunities. Famous singers made a song supporting the operation. Film stars and soccer players have been rewarded with presidential treatment. The Union of European Football Associations launched an investigation into the Turkish national football team for giving the military salute at a match against Albania three days after the start of the operation. When the players repeated the salute before a game against France, they were congratulated on the phone "for their meaningful message” by Erdogan.

Harassment doesn’t come only from the state. A 19-year-old man died after being attacked in Adapazari for speaking Kurdish. An elderly man who was accompanying his wife in a Canakkale hospital was hit on the head with a glass bottle, also for speaking Kurdish.

Erdogan thrives in this climate of fear and division. After suffering electoral losses recently — including in Istanbul, thanks in part to Kurdish votes going to the social democrat Ekrem Imamoglu — the president has used the the military offensive to corner the opposition. Now the opposition social democrats and Istanbul’s mayor, a new rising star, have come out in support of the war. The war also thwarted efforts by two powerful former Erdogan allies, Abdullah Gul and Ahmet Davutoglu, to form a new party. Most importantly, however, the war has changed the conversation from the bad state of the economy, inflation and the rising cost of living — nationalism is the only item on the agenda.

No one can answer how the war in Syria might benefit Turkey, but it has already handed the government several triumphs on the domestic front. Just as he did with the 2016 attempted coup, Erdogan has turned this into an opportunity to weaken the opposition, silence and persecute critics, and consolidate his power.

It seems as though the enemies the government really wanted to target were internal rather than external.

Can Dundar, the former editor in chief of the leading Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet, is now living in exile.

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