Turkey Is Using ISIS as Cover for Its War Against Kurdish Activists

Turkey Is Using ISIS as Cover for Its War Against Kurdish Activists

Turkey Is Using ISIS as Cover for Its War Against Kurdish Activists

Exclusive interviews with survivors and witnesses of an Islamic State bombing show that the Turkish government has finally declared war… on the activists ISIS attacked.


In the days and even hours before the bomb went off, the atmosphere among Turkey’s young leftists had been hopeful, even upbeat. The country’s Islamist government had just failed to win a parliamentary majority, and socialist feminists in Kurdistan were managing to simultaneously keep the Islamic State, or ISIS, at bay and experiment with a new kind of local direct democracy. While some had worried that a violent backlash by the conservative ruling party might be brewing, the usual repression and harassment had somewhat ebbed. For the country’s progressives, it felt as if the region might at last be ready for a politics of secularism, environmentalism, and women’s rights.

The hundreds of student activists arriving in the southern city of Suruc last month were therefore feeling jubilant and encouraged. Coming by the busload to the Syrian border, they intended to conduct a humanitarian mission to the city of Kobani, which was still struggling to rebuild after its destruction and attempted occupation by ISIS. Kurds in northern Syria have recently worked with the US military to beat back ISIS’s advance, and have formed the most formidable front against the Islamic State. American officials are careful to specify that they work with the Syrian Kurds of the YPG, but not the closely aligned Turkish Kurds of the PKK, whose organization is banned in Turkey. Kobani’s resistance has been a major source of inspiration for the Turkish left, with autonomous municipalities in the Rojava region embodying the dual ideals of anti-Islamism and anti-capitalism. For young Turks weary of their country’s religious and autocratic leadership, Kurdistan’s experiments in self-governance were a promising realization of left-wing values.

On the morning of the trip, July 20, the group gathered in the garden of a cultural center in Suruc, and prepared to cross the border into Syria. They brought piles of boxes, filled with toys and baby care supplies for Kobani’s children, plus materials to construct a kindergarten and plant a forest. They milled about happily, drinking tea, singing songs, and making sure all of the paperwork for the trip was in order. People were raising a banner and taking pictures. In conversation, they spoke to each other of a new phase, in which Turks and Kurds would finally unite in democratic peace. On that warm Monday morning, it almost felt possible.

The bomb, however, would change everything.

* * *

Oğuz Yüzgeç appears an unlikely candidate to help lead the movement of pro-Kurdish leftists in Turkey. He is a clean-shaven, bespectacled 23-year-old journalism student, warm and polite. He is not Kurdish himself, nor does he have any special personal connection to the cause. Oğuz says he became politicized at 14, when a government push to privatize schools caused him to think about youth issues and “made me feel as if the state was stealing our future.” At the same time, Oğuz says, as he gradually realized the extent of his government’s oppression of minorities, he committed himself to the struggle for democracy. Now, he co-chairs the Federation of Socialist Youth Associations (SGDF), which organized the aid mission to Kobani.

The SGDF’s goal is “freedom for the young,” and they describe themselves as ecological and anti-fascist in orientation. Oğuz strongly emphasizes the centrality of feminism to their mission, and a subdivision called the Red Stick Women organizes defense training against sexual harassment and rape. The SGDF has also dedicated itself to creating memorials for the victims of forgotten atrocities. The group recently built a memorial museum in remembrance of the 2011 Roboski airstrike, in which at least 34 Kurdish villagers were killed by a Turkish fighter jet dispatched to attack the PKK.

Being a leftist in Turkey has never been easy. Oğuz calls Turkey a country with a “history of its own war against its own people, a history of massacres,” with dissidents and minorities always heavily persecuted. Leftist groups, he says, face arrests, bans, and occasional killings. Indeed, in the lead-up to the Kobani trip, the police conducted raids on SGDF members’ homes, and smashed the stalls from which they hand out literature.

Activists also carry strong memories of Gezi Park. In 2013, when the government announced that a park in Istanbul would be turned into a shopping center, a small protest by environmentalists blossomed into a country-wide outpouring of dissent. In a remarkable act of rebellion, millions of people turned out to protest the authoritarian rule of Erdoğan. The Gezi Park uprising was met with a swift and violent backlash, during which multiple activists were killed, countless more were tear-gassed, and scores were arrested, including a number of SGDF members.

Yet up until a month ago, the usual grim situation for leftists had somewhat abated. The legacy of Gezi Park had helped to spur political opposition. Rallies for worker rights that would once have attracted dozens of people now attracted thousands. Gezi had been a debacle for the government, and outside of his ardent base of supporters, Erdoğan’s image was badly damaged. The post-Gezi political surge reached a high point in June, with an election in which the leftist, pro-Kurdish HDP party produced massive gains. AKP, the conservative ruling party, was unable to form a government.

The other exciting development for the left was Rojava, in Syria. A small region of Kurdistan along the Turkish-Syrian border, Rojava has been on the front lines of the Kurds’ battles with ISIS. But even as the Syrian Kurdish militia (the YPG) fought desperately to maintain control of the city of Kobani, the area was trying out a new form of vaguely socialist local governance. A visiting delegation of academics praised their “popular assemblies and democratic councils,” where “women participate on an equal footing with men at every level and also organize in autonomous councils, assemblies, and committees to address their specific concerns.” The anthropologist David Graeber called Rojava a “remarkable democratic experiment,” and an example to the left that needed defending.

Despite the signs of light, however, there were also ominous signs of escalating repression. In Istanbul, the annual gay-pride parade, which had proceeded unimpeded for 13 straight years, was immediately broken up by police, using tear gas and rubber bullets. “At the smallest demand for liberation or freedom, the state moves with massacres and attacks,” laments Oğuz.­­ Soon after the march, anti-gay posters began appearing in the capital city of Ankara, using Islamist language and giving an instruction to kill all homosexuals on sight. And with President Erdoğan eager to regain power in the next round of elections, and tensions building with the Kurds after their strong showing in June, there was a sense that conflict was on the horizon.

In the meantime, the city of Kobani was still in desperate need of support. Kobani’s infrastructure had been decimated by the ISIS occupation, and it was in need of both supplies and assistance in rebuilding. Seeing an opportunity, the SGDF began to organize a relief mission, timed to coincide with the anniversary of Kurdish control of Kobani. They held meetings in multiple cities, coordinated with authorities in Kobani, arranged buses and accommodation, and launched a massive publicity campaign.

The organizing effort was extraordinarily successful; hundreds of people volunteered. Sercan (who asked to be identified by his first name to protect his safety), a 28-year-old sociology PhD student, saw the event on Facebook and felt he had to go. “When I learned about the situation of Kobani and the Rojava Revolution,” he says, “I saw it as a very positive development and I thought it should be supported on a humanitarian and political basis…. I found it meaningful to go there.” Oğuz Yüzgeç himself was with a group from Istanbul, which took an 18-hour bus ride to Suruc, featuring periodic stops for dancing.

Also traveling to Suruc were Christopher Wohlers and Claire Keating, the sole Americans who would be present at the bombing. They had been visiting from Los Angeles, where she teaches high school and he is a physics tutor and an incoming radiation oncology student at Loma Linda University. Neither of them is either Turkish or Kurdish. But Christopher says he was compelled by a “region where people are experimenting with direct democracy, experimenting with socialist economy, with feminism.” While studying abroad at Middle East Technical University in Ankara, he was introduced to the young left in Turkey, and it energized him. When he saw the experiments in Rojava, he wanted to go back. Christopher calls the region the “bright spot of the results of the Arab spring,” and the closest existing embodiment of his libertarian socialist politics.

Christopher and Claire spent several weeks in Turkey before ending up in Suruc. Driving around the country in a rented sedan, they visited LGBT centers and a socialist bookstore. There was an atmosphere of tension among the young activists they met. “Everyone was waiting to see if the government would push the country to war,” says Christopher. But for leftists, fresh off the electoral victory, there was also a great deal of optimism and a sense of unified purpose. Claire describes meeting people from HDP, labor activists in Istanbul, LGBT activists in Ankara, social ecologists who were doing work around the reconstruction in Kobani. All of these groups finally felt as if they were part of the same enterprise, she says, making it “an incredibly hopeful political moment to be in Turkey. Political space was opening up that hadn’t existed before.” Traveling around, they saw a flurry of left-wing political activity, and in each city they visited, there were flyers promoting the trip to Kobani.

Arriving at the Suruc cultural center on the night before the Kobani trip, the two found what Claire describes as a “massive street celebration.” Their fellow activists were celebrating the Rojava anniversary with singing and line-dancing. The attendees were diverse, from Istanbul anarchists to Syrian refugee workers. One man had traveled from France, and a family with young children drove all the way from Switzerland, a distance of over 2,000 miles. Christopher and Claire enjoyed the fireworks and excitement for a while, then finished the evening in a café, where they tried some lung and spleen kebabs, and the owner told them with pride that Suruc was a city of the PKK.

The next morning, as the group gathered again at the cultural center to await the border crossing, the suicide bomb exploded. It killed 33 young activists and injured many others, and set off a chain of events that would destroy much of the Turkish left’s tentative political progress. The bombing was carried out by ISIS to send a message to those who would assist the Kurds in Kobani. But in its effects, the massacre benefited the ruling AKP party just as much as it did ISIS, creating a state of war in which the leftist victims of the bombing would be targeted a second time by the government.

Christopher, Claire, and Sercan escaped the blast through a fortunate inconvenience. Christopher and Claire had decided not to actually cross into Kobani, for fear the Turkish government might not let them back in once they had left. But Sercan was still going, and realized he ought to bring toilet paper, in case the war-torn city was in short supply. The three were leaving for the shop precisely at the moment of the explosion.

The garden of the cultural center, which had so recently been full of song and celebration, instantly became a scene of horrific carnage, with blood, limbs, and tattered SGDF flags scattered across the ground. The joyful rebuilding of Kobani was not to occur.

The immediate aftermath of the bombing was predictably gruesome and tragic. But one especially shocking aspect of it was the bizarre response of government forces. Within a few moments of the explosion, heavily armed police and tanks surrounded the cultural center. Yet instead of aiding the victims, they immediately aimed their weapons at the devastated survivors.

“They just pointed guns at people, but didn’t do anything at all,” says Sercan. As people tried to give first aid to the wounded, and carry them out of the cultural center, the police formed a blockade of armored vehicles at the exit, pointing machine guns at the crowd. The police, wearing full riot gear, closed rank and tried to keep anyone from leaving the area.

With hundreds of injured and traumatized bombing victims, the priority was to get as many people to hospital as fast as possible. But the officers stood motionless, their barricade keeping people from taking the victims to safety. Claire Keating says she was shocked to find herself suddenly confronted with hostile militarized police, many of whom stayed motionless in their vehicles. “You couldn’t even see their faces,” she says. “Nobody could communicate with them…. They were not emerging from the vehicles to help.” The police blocked off the road in front of the cultural center so nothing could get through, including the cars full of victims that people were attempting to drive to the hospital.

Instead, police began to fire tear gas at the victims. “People were trying to remove the injured and the dead,” says Oğuz, “but instead they were faced with police water cannons and gas bombs.” Claire says “it was clear that in their minds, we were the guilty ones.” Eventually, some of the survivors were allowed to take the wounded away, and ambulances showed up. But, Oğuz says, “the first reaction of the state was an indication of what was to come.”

The almost instantaneous appearance of the police directly after the attack, combined with their total eerie absence in the hours before (unusual for any kind of leftist demonstration), has raised some questions over whether the government had foreknowledge of the plot. The Suruc survivors insist there was no way for the Turkish government not to have had prior intelligence about ISIS’s intent. Oğuz says it is certain “that this attack took place with the knowledge of government forces,” since the surveillance levels in Suruc had been incredibly high. The government had known all of the names of people who were going on the trip, and the families of some SGDF members had received phone calls before the Kobani trip, warning them that their children were attempting to “join the terrorists” and risked arrest. Given the government’s tight control on social media, and the heavy presence of security around Suruc, it would have taken colossal oversight for the state not to have somehow been alerted to the risk.

But whether the government had direct knowledge or not, many still blame it for the attack, saying the President Erdoğan has turned a blind eye towards the Islamic State from the beginning. Erdoğan has consistently talked of ISIS and the PKK in the same breath, suggesting the real threat in the region is not the Islamic State but Kurdish autonomy. While the government has vowed to stop “terror” in all its forms, it is no secret that “terror” largely refers to the Kurdish movement rather than ISIS, and that Erdoğan is, as The New York Times puts it, “less interested in fighting the Islamic State than suppressing the Kurds.”

After the bombing, the fragile peace unraveled very quickly. A retaliatory attack by the PKK, which killed two Turkish police officers, ostensibly for supporting ISIS, came two days after the bombing. Since then, the government has operated in a state of quasi-war, violent clashes with the PKK intensifying, and a harsh domestic crackdown targeting anyone suspected of being aligned with “terror.”

The change was felt immediately. In the few days after the bombing, after Christopher and Claire left Suruc, they found that the Kurdish city of Diyarbakır had instantly been heavily fortified. Undercover officers were monitoring a small vigil there, and when Christopher attempted to take photographs of the gathering, police seized his phone. A peace march they attended in Istanbul was violently broken up by police. Claire found the experience bewildering. “It was very confusing to try to understand how this could possibly be the response of the government to an ISIS attack, to go in and treat the Kurdish community, which itself had been the target of this attack, as the criminals.”

For left-wing activists, this has meant an extraordinary new state of fear. Sercan says that “huge operations against leftists” have been occurring, and that while the government claims to have arrested hundreds of ISIS and PKK terror suspects, the vast majority of the arrested are pro-Kurdish leftists rather than Islamists. In the city where Sercan heads a local chapter of the HDP, 18 members of his party have been arrested. Oğuz says that numbers of home raids have sharply increased, targeting members of socialist groups, and that SGDF members have been rounded up and arrested. “Even the most legal and democratic actions can be deemed criminal activity,” Oğuz says, “and one can end up being detained or arrested.” Membership of SGDF or HDP can be deemed a terrorist activity.

“The state is using ISIS as an excuse for this, but doing nothing to arrest ISIS members,” he says angrily. This is not strictly true, since Turkey has arrested a number of suspected ISIS members in the last month. But it is the case that while suspected Kurdish militants are often fully prosecuted, ISIS members have a tendency to be released. Likewise, while much was made of Turkey launching its first strikes against ISIS on July 24, the country’s new supposed anti-ISIS resolve last only a single day. Since then, the country’s bombing campaigns have been entirely directed at the PKK instead of ISIS. This failure to adequately pursue ISIS infuriates Oğuz not just because the left is being targeted instead, but because the SGDF despises ISIS’s values, and sees it as an existential threat to the promise of Rojava. Oğuz calls them a “fascist gang” who are “at war with all humanitarian values,” and cites their heinous treatment of women as the direct enemy of his group’s feminist socialism.

But the opinions of those attacked in Suruc matter little to the Turkish government, which made clear its level of regard for the victims. The very day of the bombing, police tear gassed a protest in Istanbul held to condemn the government’s tacit support of ISIS. Then the government refused to declare a national day of mourning in honor of the victims, despite having declared three such days after the death of Saudi King Abdullah. The victims themselves have been offered no financial support or state recognition, and Oğuz says that a number of the victims’ families were refused access to their loved one’s bodies and permission to hold funerals, seemingly out of concern that the memorials would fuel opposition politics.

The belief that Erdoğan is escalating the conflict for political gain, attempting to build nationalist fervor to salvage his electoral position, especially angers them. Devrim Gündüz, a 19-year old physics student who was badly injured in the attack, and remains in hospital, is furious that the AKP government “dragged the country and our peoples to this situation just for its political gain.” After seeing so many of his friends killed, Devrim resents the fact that their deaths are being used to excuse the destruction of the cause they fought for.

In fact, politically speaking, the targeting of the SGDF by ISIS was extremely shrewd. A group of young Turkish socialists may have seemed an odd target for the group, which had been refraining from carrying out attacks within Turkey, but the consequences favored the Islamic State’s interests. The Turkish left’s attempt to build bridges with the Kurds received a heavy blow, and the Turkish government was given an excuse to escalate its assault on IS’s Kurdish enemies.

It is a tragic irony that the massacre of pro-Kurdish socialists could lead to further government repression of pro-Kurdish socialists, and that it is the victims of the bombing, rather than the perpetrators, who are now on the run. But in the eyes of the government, the leftists who were drawn to Rojava, and who were killed there in the dozens, are little more than terrorist sympathizers.

Yet anyone who speaks with these activists firsthand will find the description strange. They are radicals, to be sure, but radicals who detest all forms of oppression whether from ISIS, Turkey, or the United States. They praise revolution, but call fervently for peace. Sercan, though a self-described anarchist, is skeptical of the effectiveness of small armed attacks like those on the Turkish policemen, and believes the electoral victories are heartening.

For being socialists, their rhetoric is not particularly Marxist, perhaps because the tangles of the conflict are too intricate for the usual materialist dogmas. Rather, they talk of democracy and the liberation of women. They praise localism and community participation, often sounding more like ancient Athenians than turn-of-the-century Bolsheviks. Even the PKK itself has mellowed in recent years, its philosophy evolving from hardline communism to a more gentle kind of local democracy inspired by the Vermont “libertarian municipalist” thinker Murray Bookchin.

The survivors of Suruc are hopeful that these values will someday find a place in the world. “The general rule here,” Oğuz says slyly, “is that wherever the state attacks, that area or that group gets stronger,” and he boasts that SGDF membership has grown. Asked what outcome he ultimately wishes for, he replies that “in an ideal situation, different peoples in this region would live equally together in peace, where youths and women are free…and where capitalism doesn’t damage the environment.” Sercan says he believes “the Kurdish movement’s ideas will eventually go beyond the Kurdish population,” and notes the uniqueness of a national liberation movement that is also critical of the idea of the nation and the state. Finally, Devrim Gündüz, the hospitalized 19-year-old physics student, speaks for many when he insists that the bombing is not the end:

“My friend who was beside me before the explosion was hurled away, [and] was lying down 3-4 meters away. I could not feel my feet…. I did not know what to do…. I panicked, [but] I noticed something at that moment. [My friend] was only smiling…. smiling and hope and light was bursting out of his eyes…. [In the time since] the explosion, I have had numerous operations. My femur is broken in five places, I can’t walk, there is damage in my ankle, it gives me trouble, I lost one of my kidneys and spleen, [and] most importantly I lost my close comrades, but I have not lost one thing…I have not lost hope…. That bomb only had a physical impact, it has not affected our smiles, our resistance, or our dedication to our struggle.”

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