On March 19, a student club at Turkey’s prestigious Bogazici University distributed Turkish delight to celebrate the Turkish military’s victory against Syrian Kurdish (YPG) forces in Afrin. Students opposed to the campaign protested, holding up a sign declaring “No delight in occupation and massacre.” A brief struggle between the groups not only upset boxes of the sweets, but would escalate into a political crisis provoking international outcry.
In days following the skirmish, police forces swept through campus to round up more than 20 students suspected of protesting, raids that state media broadcast live as the detaining of “provocateurs.” On March 24, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the group of antiwar demonstrators “terrorists” at a meeting of his Justice and Development Party (AKP). Having been given the word, so to speak, a judicial system whose independence has increasingly been called into question arrested nine of those detained. With powerfully polarizing rhetoric, Erdogan was able to paint the actions of a small group of students as a national threat worthy of severe punishment.
Erdogan’s rhetorical strategy isn’t new
Erdogan’s use of the term “terrorist” has served as impetus for the jailing of thousands of his opponents, particularly since the July 15, 2016, coup attempt and the state of emergency that has remained in place since.
Erdogan’s strategy of rhetorical vilification works to delegitimize any type of opposition through naming, blaming and framing. During the Gezi Park demonstrations of 2013, Erdogan named all protesters “hooligans,” falsely blaming participants of using violence and desecrating a mosque, and framing them as part of nebulous, nefarious international lobbies seeking to undermine the Turkish state.
In the case of the Bogazici students, Erdogan not only named them “terrorists,” but also blamed the peaceful protesters for violent actions and framed them as part of a larger community of “communist” deviants. He then threw the behavior of the antiwar “traitor youth” into further relief by describing those honoring Turkish soldiers as “faithful, national, local youth” — buzzwords meant to appeal to his conservative and anti-Kurdish bases. Pro-government media picked up on this dog whistle, referring to the antiwar protesters as “PKK/YPG-sympathizing students.”
Erdogan’s domestic political priorities
Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian and militant domestic and foreign policy behavior can largely be traced to Erdogan’s attempts to appeal to a broad and divided base, while neutralizing all forms of opposition.
Erdogan has staked his political career on installing a presidential system that consolidates virtually all political power in the — read: his — executive. Anticipating the local, national and presidential elections in 2019, Erdogan’s positions have notably morphed in just four years. Erdogan went from vociferously defending his government’s outreach to the Kurds — including negotiations with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which both Turkey and the United States classify as a terrorist group — to partnering with the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), an ultranationalist party whose supporters have carried out violent attacks against civilian Kurdish targets.
Such a pivot signals the lengths to which Erdogan will go to secure his unchecked rule. I argue the Kurds’ withdrawal of support for Erdogan, which effectively removed the AKP’s parliamentary majority for the first time since 2002, led Erdogan to sacrifice a peace process that was poised potentially to end a nearly four-decades-long conflict that claimed the lives of approximately 50,000 for his political benefit.
How arresting students helps Erdogan
The arrests of Bogazici students might seem small in comparison, but they are indicative of a much larger strategy of intimidation and neutralization of dissenters. Erdogan referred to the coup attempt as a “gift from God,” using it not only to rout out suspected putschists who posed a genuine threat but also as a pretext for purging and arresting over 150,000 individuals from the military, education system, media and other institutions.
The Afrin campaign now serves as a vehicle for condemning and punishing citizens deemed unpatriotic for not supporting Turkey’s military’s operations. The Turkish government clearly views the YPG as a legitimate security threat given its links to the PKK. Perhaps even more importantly, however, the rally-around-the-flag effect achieved by sustaining the fight against Kurds in Syria is an invaluable political tool. Threading a seemingly impossible needle, the Afrin campaign managed to garner support from not only the religious and ethnic nationalists who usually support Erdogan, but his traditional opponents in republican and secularist camps as well.
Just 10 days after the campaign against Afrin began, more than 300 people had been detained for criticizing the offensive on the charge of “spreading terrorist propaganda.” Prominent journalists such as Sibel Hurtas and Hayri Demir were detained. For declaring “War is a matter of public health,” the head of the Turkish Medical Association and 10 other medical union leaders were detained. Erdogan vilified the doctors as “a gang of slaves” and framed them as “servants of imperialism.”
Domestic politics, foreign policy
Unlike the coup, the Afrin campaign is a foreign policy initiative, something Erdogan has used before to reduce the role of opposition actors and advance AKP interests. In my research, I highlight his party’s selective use of European Union accession criteria to remove the military’s grip on politics and reconfigure the judiciary, defanging two players that had previously vetoed the rise of similar parties. Once these obstacles were removed and the path was clear for institutionalizing a “New Turkey,” Erdogan largely lost interest in E.U. membership.
This suggests that Turkey’s campaign in Syria will not end until Erdogan achieves his real goal of electoral success. Marginalizing anyone opposed to the operation could clear the path for Erdogan’s victory. Moving up the national and presidential elections from 2019 to this year — conveniently, the July 15 coup anniversary falls this year on a Sunday, when Turks go to the polls — could also help capitalize on the current surge of nationalist sentiment.
Until those elections, Erdogan’s strategy of fighting an external enemy to unite otherwise disparate groups back home will likely continue, as will the collateral damage in Syrian towns and on Turkish campuses.
Lisel Hintz is an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. You can follow her @HintzLisel