On Saturday, an explosion rang through the streets of Istanbul’s Istiklal Avenue, killing four and injuring 20. The day before, Turkish police were seen attacking Kurds during their new year celebrations (see video on right). A bombing also occurred on the previous Sunday, with the Kurdish Freedom Falcons (TAK) claiming responsibility. About three weeks before that, a severe bombing in central Ankara occurred. Blasts, subsequent deaths, and fear of both Kurdish militant forces and the Islamic State are now a regular occurrence in Turkey.
“After the Ankara explosion, I can see that streets are completely empty, and the busses are filled with a fewer number of people,” said Tunca Öğreten, a journalist living in Istanbul.
Explosions & Protests: “Like Flame”
These recent attacks are part of an overwhelming trend that has been ongoing since the summer of last year–since the attack at the Diyarbakir pro-Kurdish rally in June and the Suruç bombing in July 2015. While both of last year’s attacks have been attributed to the Islamic State, the events since have sparked tensions and political polarization between the AKP (current President Tayyip Erdoğan’s party) and the Kurdish people.
The HDP (pro-Kurdish and pro-minority party) serves as part of the political opposition to the AKP, while the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party) serves as the most active militant Kurdish group and has been designated as a terrorist organization by the United States. While the PKK is willing to compromise for peace with the Turkish state, breakaway factions like the TAK are adamant about establishing an independent Kurdish state.
According to those on the ground, the political climate is more than ripe for a groundswell of widespread, public opposition to start up. It’s only a matter of time.
“Erdoğan wants the society to be divided into two. After the Ankara explosion, he declared that there are two kinds of people in society: who are with us and who are against us,” said Öğreten. “In my personal opinion, the current situation is much more difficult and dangerous than Gezi Protests. In my foresight, the second Gezi is coming up. It has to come. We’re already past the breaking point.”
The Gezi Protests occurred in Turkey in June 2013, and originally started off as small scale protests against cutting down trees in Istanbul’s Gezi Park. Due to “excessive police force and the administration’s misdiagnosis of the events,” it soon morphed into a larger protest that lasted for three weeks. Little organization was involved in these protests, and protesters included those from very different causes and political aims from each other. Their only commonality was their unhappiness with government.
“Gezi was like flame, immediate flame. People have to believe that the moment is pure. It has to be without coordination,” said Öğreten, “It has to be like Gezi, like flame.”
The Threat of a Free Press
President Erdoğan has also been targeting the press and dissenters alike in the effort to “combat” this spike in domestic terror. From the newsroom raid of the Zaman newspaper to consistent media blackouts, it is clear that his definition of putting a cap on terrorism trumps the rights and civil liberties of those under his rule.
This past Tuesday, Turkish authorities arrested three academics on “terrorist propaganda” charges after they called for the end of “security operations” against the Kurds in the southeast. This recent case is only one of many within the past couple of years.
According to Freedom House, Turkey has been experiencing a multi-year decline in press freedom since 2010. In the years since Erdoğan has occupied the office of the presidency, Turkey’s press freedom rating has declined from “Partly Free” to “Not Free.” A total of 339 media workers reportedly lost their jobs due to government pressure in 2014 alone. Leaked conversations also show Erdoğan “giving instructions or admonishments for undesirable content.”
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest responded to the Zaman raid:
“The United States continues to be troubled by the Turkish government’s use of appointed trustees to shut down or interfere with the editorial operations of media outlets that are sometimes critical of the government. We call on the Turkish government to ensure full respect for due process and equal treatment under the law, and in a democratic society, critical opinions should be encouraged, not silenced.”
“We are not in silence mode. We keep saying what's really going on. We going to keep saying what’s really happening until they put me in a jail or any other journalists or academics into a jail,” said Öğreten.
Internal Threats from Abroad
In addition, an inflow of migrants and refugees continue to pour within Turkish borders en route to Greece and the EU. Yesterday, the EU and Turkey have agreed to a deal that would turn many from the Greek islands and back to Turkey as soon as Sunday–in exchange for 6 billion euro in aid and a reopening Turkey’s attempt to join the EU. Despite this money, there are concerns about aid allocation, resources, and the country’s outdated asylum system.
“For us, the [...] refugee issue is not an issue of bargaining but an issue of values, all humanitarian values as well as European values,” Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told the Financial Times, insisting that this crisis was not being used as leverage. “Turkey has received 2.7 million refugees without any significant assistance from anywhere.”
“Turkish people–Kurds, Arabs, the whole society–we are very welcoming people. We like to be hosts. There is the other side of the matter too, however,” said Öğreten. “I think Turkey is not the right country to support all these Syrian refugees because we don't have enough to survive, and we know the 6 billion euros will directly go to the government's initiatives, rather than those who really need it.”
While countries like the United States are concerned about the Islamic State infiltrating American borders through refugee channels, Turkey already has a strong ISIS presence within its own borders.
“We are beyond being scared that it will come with the Syrian refugees. We have Turkish ones already,” said Öğreten. “As a person, I am not afraid of the PKK as much, because they only attack cops and soldiers. As a civilian, I am more afraid of ISIS.”
Julia Arciga is the Washington Correspondent for Conflict News, primarily focusing on US foreign policy and the MENA region. Twitter: @JuliaArciga; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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