Erdogan and ISIS: Brothers in Thought, Brothers in Arms?

A tragic terror attack occurred at Istanbul’s Blue Mosque this week, killing 1 Peruvian tourist and 9 German tourists, and injuring another 15 people. It was quickly blamed on Da’esh and is already being used to support Turkish President Erdogan’s militaristic policies as well as his crackdowns on free speech. Before we fall for the hype, however, it behooves us to take a look at Erdogan’s recent, and not-so-recent, flirtations with fascism and unspoken friendship with Islamic State. In a modified excerpt from The Forgotten War Crimes: State Sovereignty, Ethnic Cleansing, and the Autonomist Revolution, we revisit the overlap in interest between ISIS and the Turkish state. For documentation, citations, and further evidence, you can downloadThe Forgotten War Crimes here.

Upon moving to Berlin, Germany, the Western world’s little-known capital of privacy, free speech, and activism, the closest thing the transatlantic community has to an “opposite” of Britain’s surveillance state, I had arranged, after much hard work and gaining the trust of several local activists, a coveted meeting with a member of the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK). Kurdistan has been working peacefully for its independence from what is now Turkey for centuries, often making alliances with western states like the United States and Britain and finding themselves shocked when they were betrayed. Betrayed after being promised by those two Great Powers a nation of their own after the First World War. Their brothers betrayed again when the United States promised the Kurds of Iraq support if they rose up against Saddam Hussein in 1991. They then failed to deliver on that promise and watched as hundreds were massacred. The PKK had grown tired of this game and begun in 1984 to fight an actual armed fight for independence, and had just signed, after 29 years, a peace accord with the Turkish state. The conflict had brought about the deaths of as many as 150,000 people and the displacement of nearly 3 million. The man I was to meet had spent the last three decades as a fighter in the PKK’s militant wing, the People’s Defense Force (HPG). He had spent many of those 29 years in prison and had seen many of his friends and family members killed in Turkish oppression. In mid-June, 2013, I could not have been more excited to meet him after finally passing all the security checks and vouchsafes his handlers put together.

The week before, however, The Guardian had begun publishing Edward Snowden’s leaks on the scope of the NSA’s data collection, and their unbelievably wide reach into other national security agencies. The articles came first as a stream and then as a flood of information on the vastness and interconnectedness of the world’s intelligence-gathering services. The café in which I was to meet this man had been, I was later to find out, a favorite of another Turkish citizen who had taken his own life in a suicide bombing of the US embassy in Ankara three months before this scheduled meeting. Naively unaware of the delicate nature of this meeting and meetingplace, and of the impact the Snowden revelations might have upon my interview partner’s willingness to remain a source, I found myself genuinely offended when not only did the man never show up, but his handlers stopped answering their phones and the people who had connected me to the handlers in the first place pretended, when I complained, as though the connection had never taken place. They were absolutely in the right to do so, as it turned out. A scan using the Amnesty-International-supported and Electronic-Freedom-Frontier-assisted malware detection software known as Detekt showed my communications devices to be targeted by government-sponsored surveillance malware, though it did not specify precisely which government was responsible.

This man was not the first of my connections and sources to use what might have seemed excessive precautions, they are a necessary survival tactic. Revolution is a dangerous business, and revolutionaries in the modern era are forced by a panoptic global surveillance regime down one of two dangerous paths. The first is the path of paranoid purpose: they continue to work collaboratively, as they had in days before iPhones and internets, using hand-written notes or typewriters or face-to-face meetings, studiously avoiding the trappings of the security state but continuing to fight as underdog brothers in arms against great evil. With this purpose, this path is far less damaging to all involved than the latter possibility: those who, like the bomber of the US embassy, are effected by the knowledge that they are always under surveillance and feel that the only method left to them to affect change is to act as a lone wolf and strike out without mitigating input from other like-minded revolutionaries or softening influences. In an era where peoples are crying out like never before for freedom, the sovereign-obsessed surveillance state has only increased the likelihood of unpredictable, seemingly-random terrorist strikes such as that which occurred in Ankara.

What is more the point, however, is that armed struggle in the quest for independence meets with the full force of not just the state whose power is challenged, but all powerful states. The PKK is recognized as a terror organization not just by Turkey but also by the USA, the EU, NATO, Australia, Canada, Japan, and even Iran. The IRA is recognized as terrorist by the UK and the US, but is also forbidden in Ireland. Not only is independence not the best way to ensure the continuity of a people: in the context of today’s international obsession with state sovereignty and power, the armed struggle for independence is the most surefire way to get one’s people slaughtered, sometimes even wiped out. In fact, in Turkish Kurdistan, the threat is renewed by the emergence and strengthening of the Kurdish region of Iraq: whispers have been heard of plans by the government of Turkey to ethnically cleanse their Kurds into Iraq, as Assad’s Syria had done with the Syrian Kurds, as the new ethnic-majority nation evolves in, and secedes from, Iraq. This ethnic cleansing, however, has not pushed the Kurds into statehood, but towards extinction.

The Yazidis, a non-Muslim subset of Kurds the majority of whom live in Iraq and Syria, have been threatened with genocide by the militant organization Islamic State (formerly Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, previously acronymed ISIS or ISIL, now simply IS) in a statist push that proves better than any other example the violence inherent in the sovereign system. The group believes themselves to be a caliphate representing Muslims across the globe, and their name itself is the goal: a state, a pure ethnoreligious state, spreading across the Levant region, including Cyprus, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and some of Turkey, achieved, like any state, through armed struggle and bloodshed. While they claim to be borderless, with their official spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani al-Shami declaring “Our goal is to establish an Islamic state that doesn’t recognize borders, on the Prophetic methodology,” the reality of their ideology does in fact permit border treaties, so long as each treaty is renegotiated after no more than ten years. Doctrine mandates a state of constant jihad, but that simply means the fight must continue, at least on a small scale, somewhere, not globally. Their means are brutal, but their goal is no different than the Manifest Destiny of the United States, than Russia’s ethnonationalist imperialism, than the Serbian world domination slogan “Serbia to Tokyo,” and on and on for the past 300 years.

In the second half of 2014, the world’s eyes finally turned, after a century, to Kurdistan, when the Kurds took the fight to IS. But the gaze was fixated not on the PKK, but on the YPJ, the female fighting brigade, a true threat to IS in Kurdish territory.  They often serve alongside male fighters, as shown in a letter from a YPJ fighter in the Kurdish town of Kobani (also written as Kobanê, also called Ayn al-Arab) to her mother posted in October 2014. Within the same week, exposes on the YPJ were being published in every kind of outlet, from Kurdish nationalist websites to magazines where you might not expect such political hot topics like Marie Claire as well as more political interviews like that in The Rojava Report, a website that heralds itself “News from the Revolution in Rojava and Wider Kurdistan”, with the General Commander of the YPJ in the Kobanê Region, all of which are mandatory reading to understand the complexities of the struggle in Kurdistan.

The International Business Times also picked up the trend with a ten-page interview with another Kurdish fighter, this time a woman named Bejan Ciyayi who had fought with the PKK for 16 years and then joined the YPJ to defend Kobani against IS. Ms. Ciyayi made statements on the subject of parenthood and a future in a hellhole, “I was never married; it seemed pointless to me to get married and bring a child to this world, before making it a nice place to live for children,” similar to other female fighters I’d interviewed on the skills that set women apart, “[o]ur female fighters are well trained in using all the weapons we possess… But women are best at using the Dragunov sniper rifle, because women are very good at taking aim. It requires calm, patience and finesse; women excel at these.” But what set this one apart from the General Commander’s interview was a focus on her views on statehood, autonomy and a Kurdish future, first calling Turkey to account for the attempted annihilation of the Kurds and implicit support for IS.

The Turkish state has made it an ambition to exterminate the Kurds. There is not a single alliance that it will refrain from in order to accomplish this ambition. There is a revolution in Rojava. The Turkish state is worried about this revolution spilling across its own borders.

This is why IS is attacking Rojava and why the Turkish state is supporting their effort.

Ms. Ciyayi’s statements suggesting the Turkish government supports IS might have seemed excessive, almost to the point of discrediting her arguments. But in response to the attacks by IS on the border of Turkey in October 2014, only a town away from Kobani, the Turkish government finally roused its military and struck back — against the Kurdish soldiers fighting against IS on the Turkish border. The Turkish government was so afraid of the prospect of freedom and autonomy for the Kurds that instead of fighting against a clear and present threat from IS, they attacked their own last line of defense against a strong and fearsome enemy. Sadly, several more of the non-militant Kurdish citizens fleeing these bombings and the fighting in Kobani have been killed not by ISIS but by landmines laid by the Turkish government.

Interesting, is it not, that terror attacks in Turkey tend to target not Turkish state apparatuses but American embassies or German tourists? Interesting as well that in the fight against Islamic State Erdogan’s government has shot down Russian airplanes and blown up Kurdish villages instead of actually targeting IS? Certainly, the evidence is merely circumstantial, but perhaps Ms. Ciyayi is not too far off the mark, that Erdogan’s Turkey and Islamic State have no interest in major interference with one another as they  pursue similar goals through similar means.

Many might suggest that a strong independent Kurdistan could have prevented the IS threats, attacks, or even the movement itself. Yet Assad’s Syria was one of the strongest states in the region, and the puppet-state of post-Saddam-Hussein Iraq is as strong as the US-led coalition forces therein, and neither have stopped IS’s progress. The ideal of the strong sovereign state with strong sovereign borders requires brutality for any form of social change, as true of the Islamic State as it is for Russia as it was for the Nazis as it will be of the next brutal ethnically-or-religiously-pure movement intent on changing borders. If we are to be clear and honest, we might also include Israel’s excesses among the brutality of the sovereign state and remind ourselves that, according to a Jewish survivor of the concentration camp Theresienstadt quoted in Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann In Jerusalem, “Zionists, according to the Nazis, were ‘the <decent> Jews since they too thought in <national> terms.’” (p. 60). And of course that parallel to Nazism can be seen in Erdogan’s praise for Hitler’s fascism as a governing style and his attempts to mimic them.

In addition to being responsible for millions of deaths and hundreds of thousands of rapes and injuries in the past 40 years (the numbers skyrocket when we extend the timeline earlier), this form of brutal pure-sovereign conflict-oriented change-making is the force behind much of the current global refugee crisis. The war in Syria, with factions from both Islamic State and Kurdish independence groups, has resulted in over 4 million refugees. Another million Kurds have become refugees through the conflict with Turkey. The equally brutal process of Zionist statehood and expansionism, as well as the attempted annihilation of the emerging Israeli state by neighboring countries, has created over 5 million Palestinian refugees through the same model of pure sovereignty and ethnic purity. Additionally, 800,000 Tamils,330,000 post-Yugoslavs, and 900,000 Ukrainians have become refugees through the same type of sovereignty-based ethnic conflicts, yielding a minimum total of 12 million refugees. Certainly, pure ethnic sovereignty is not solely to blame for the refugee crisis, with non-ethnic-based conflicts, and even non-sovereignty-based conflicts, such as those in Afghanistan, Somalia, and Iraq, turning millions more into refugees, but these 12 million additional refugees have pushed the global refugee situation from tragedy to crisis.

The necessity for such conflicts and movements themselves, and the crises that follow them, are the basis of both Erdogan’s form of governing and ISIS’s mode of conquering. This necessity could in itself be undermined by destabilizing the power of the idea and the ideal of sovereignty. By outlawing separatist and autonomist parties, states such as Turkey, as well as Britain or Indonesia or Sri Lanka or Spain, have significantly contributed to political violence and what they refer to as terrorism. Peace was possible, but by forbidding the involvement of opposition forces in the political process, a peaceful resolution like devolution was preempted, the independence-oriented activists were forced underground and into extremism, and violence was all but mandated by state action.


Originally published (The Leveller) 

Zachary Gallant is lead journalist for The Leveller. He is the author of “The Forgotten War Crimes” (available at and “War: A Children’s Book”, both due in bookstores in early 2016. He took a Fulbright Scholarship in the former Yugoslavia to research post-conflict redevelopment strategies for Baltimore City. He holds an M.A. in International Politics from the University of London’s Goldsmiths College.

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