On January 20, Turkey, a NATO ally of the United States, launched a military offensive, including a massive ground operation supported by air strikes, against the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units [YGP] in the northwestern Syrian province of Afrin. Turkey considers the YGP, which is supported by the United States in their joint effort to eradicate Daesh [ISIS] in Syria, a "terrorist" organization. Ironically called "Operation Olive Branch" (a traditional symbol of a peace offering), this military action seeks to eradicate the YGP rebels, which Turkey also believes is part of that country’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party [PKK], operating in Afrin province. This is Turkey’s second major military incursion into Syria since 2011 and to date dozens of Afrin civilians have been killed or wounded in the latest operation.
Yesterday the Turkish Interior Ministry in Ankara announced that it has detained over 300 Turkish civilians, including pro-Kurdish politicians and journalists, for their condemnation on social media of Turkish military operations against the Syrian Kurdish enclave in Afrin. The Turkish government believes these individuals are involved in "propaganda for a terrorist organization." Hundreds of others are under suspicion and are being investigated. Accusations also included the very murky charge of "insulting the government" and the unity of the Turkish republic. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdo an has also accused the Turkish Medical Association of treason for its opposition to the military offensive, calling them a "gang of slaves" to [US] imperialism and their opposition to war "real filth." Today Turkish authorities arrested eleven members of the Association’s Central Council for opposing the military incursion into Afrin province. The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders has called these detentions nothing more than a "witch hunt against critics."
Many international organizations, including Human Rights Watch, are warning people living or traveling in Turkey to be cautious when expressing political opinions in public or on social media. These recent arrests make ever clearer the increasing restrictions on freedom of speech in Turkey as the government continues to crackdown on opponents real and imagined since the failed military coup attempt in the summer of 2016. Over 60,000 people have been arrested while 150,000 have been fired or forced to resign from their jobs and positions.
Yet there is more to this current military offensive than meets the eye. Washington-based al-Monitor reported yesterday that Erdo an aims to resettle Afrin province with "the real owners of the area." This includes pro-Turkish Syrian militias along with the thousands of Syrians who have fled their homeland during the civil war and who are now housed in refugee centers throughout Turkey. This new offensive will continue, the Turkish government claims, until the province is cleansed and the so-called terrorists, whom we should not forget, are backed by the United States, are eradicated. Erdo an has gone a step further claiming he would destroy all Kurdish "terrorists" in Syria. Furthermore, the Turkish government has warned that a confrontation with US troops is not of out the question as long as they continue to arm and support the YPG. More ominous, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozda warned yesterday that US troops will be targeted if they are discovered openly supporting YGP troops. Although Bozdag stated further that the chance of such a confrontation with the US is slim, Turkey has shown it has no problem clashing with a NATO ally considering its numerous confrontations with neighboring Greece, including a brief one only yesterday in a disputed area in the Aegean Sea. Given these threats I fear that somehow the US will bend to Turkish pressure and abandon its YGP ally, as well as the broader Kurdish anti-ISIS forces in Iraq, who helped destroy ISIS in that country and in Syria.
Regardless of the military operations in Afrin and throughout the rest of Syria, which are becoming increasingly complex, I am most deeply troubled by the domestic instability in Turkey which has resulted in a quickening deconstruction of basic human rights and personal freedoms, including the freedom of expression which has targeted domestic and foreign writers and journalists. The Turkish constitution and various penal codes restrict various freedoms of expression, including prohibitions against insulting the government and the institutions and symbols of the "Turkish nation." These restrictions apply to speech, print, and the Internet and social media. Turkish courts have blocked access to websites that insult "Turkishness," whatever that might include.
These most recent arrests announced yesterday are yet another 300+ nails in the coffin of free speech and democracy in Turkey. As long as these threats and restrictions exist, Turkey can never assume a place in the community of civilized nations.
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