Discussing peace during wartime

By looking at mainstream media, military salutes of popular figures or twitter trending topics, one might assume that Turkish people were heavily supporting the military operation in Northern Syria -officially called “Operation Peace Spring” ending in 8 days- no matter what the rest of the world says. When there is any military action in Turkey or outside its borders, it becomes even harder for critical voices to be heard.

Mainstream media, trending topics on Twitter and the military salutes that were flashed by popular figures might suggest the Turkish public largely supports Ankara's recent operation in Northern Syria, regardless of condemnations from the international community.

The majority of the country does indeed endorse military action against the PKK. Since the SDF are seen as an offshoot of the PKK, the Turks fear a Kurdish statelet will be carved out at the Turkish border. And as a general rule, when military action is carried either within Turkey or outside its borders, critical voices are further muzzled.

One must not forget the governmental alliance between the Justice and Development party (AKP) and the Nationalist Movement party (MHP) was brokered on the grounds of relinquishing the Kurdish peace-process in 2015. Heavy clashes between the Turkish armed forces and the PKK as well as the bombing of Kurdish cities kicked off right after the general elections of June 2015, when the People's Democratic party (HDP) became the third largest party in terms of number of seats in parliament, gaining 13% of the votes. A curfew was imposed in major Kurdish cities and according to the Ankara-based NGO Human Rights Association (İHD), at least 170 civilians were killed. By then, the press had already endured a great deal of censorship from the government. In my case, my reporting on the clashes in Kurdish cities for the Milliyet daily ended in my dismissal by the paper's administration.

Later, the coup attempt of July 2016, attributed to the Gülenist movement, was followed by a widespread crackdown on dissident voices which targeted every layer of society. And of course, the media.

Since then, President Erdoğan's Justice and Development party (AKP) and the far-right Nationalist Action party (MHP) have continuously criminalized and targeted the People's Democratic party (HDP) and people who dare to call for peace. Thousands of academics, dubbed the "Academics for Peace", who issued a call in 2016 to end the fighting and resume the peace-process were investigated on charges of "terrorist propaganda" and stood trial.

Besides, the Republican People's party (CHP), Turkey's main opposition force, has partly supported the government in this process, when it wasn't indolent. Back in 2016, it was thanks to the CHP's support the AKP was able to lift the immunity of parliamentarians. This decision led to the jailing of many HDP MP’s, including the party’s co-chairs Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, who are still in prison.

Later still, thousands of HDP members were charged, tried and imprisoned, the government appointing trustees to municipalities formerly held by the HDP. Each election that followed the coup attempt was controversial. And if Erdoğan succeeded in realizing his dream of adopting a presidential system, the AKP-MHP alliance became fraught.

In the local elections of March 2019, the opposition gained major cities while the HDP again won in many Kurdish cities. Vowing to take back these HDP-held cities, Erdoğan appointed trustee mayors in Diyarbakır, Van and Mardin. Timewise, the military operation launched in Northern Syria coincided perfectly with such a move. In total, 12 municipalities are now ruled by trustees. Along with Diyarbakır’s former co-mayor Selçuk Mızraklı, the co-mayors of Kayapinar, Kocakoy and Ercis were arrested with charges of terror.

Even prior to the March elections, Erdoğan had made it clear he wouldn't let opposition mayors 'do their jobs'. In this war setting in which the archenemy is the Kurdish political movement, no criticism is tolerated and every citizen must be united behind the 'right cause'. With Trump's blessing, 'Operation Peace Spring' was a great opportunity to exert yet more pressure on the opposition.

As tanks and heavy artillery were being deployed in border towns, the Turkish parliament ratified a military operation motion, extending the state's authority to launch cross-border military operations in Northern Iraq and Syria for another year. Except for the HDP, all political parties backed the “Operation Peace Spring”. "It's tearing our hearts but we do give our approval so our soldiers don't get hurt," said the CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu.

Two days later, the Chief Public Prosecutor Office of Istanbul and the Security General Directorate issued a statement. It warned that any news, analysis or social media comments "targeting the Turkish army and its operation, attempting to destroy public peace and unity", would be investigated under Turkey's Penalty Code and Anti Terror Law. As of October 19th, repressive “social media operations” continued. 186 people were taken under custody, 28 of them were imprisoned. 

While it is unclear what these people were tweeting about, the government refers to it as "black propaganda". The Interior Ministry proudly announced that “cyber units” now patrolled the social media 7/24. Meanwhile, politicians like CHP MP Sezgin Tanrıkulu, a renowned human rights advocate, is now being investigated because he declared that “this is a war against Kurdish people”. Cem Yilmaz, Turkey's most popular comedian was singled out because he did not openly support the operation. 

It is perhaps no surprise that a host of public figures including football player, TV hosts, artists and even opposition politicians stated their support for the intervention of Northern Syria. In what became a popular way of showing support, many such figures have flashed a military salute, especially after the Turkish team did so after its national games with Albania and France.

As notable media icons such as TV host Ece Üner followed suit with the military salute, another journalist went as far as posing brandishing an antique double-edged sword and a battle axe. The chairman of the Turkish Bar Association Metin Feyzioğlu also announced live on TV that “if terrorist organisations are using civilians as shields, the government is immune from its responsibility to protect them”.

Not every journalist and civil society member joined the choir. yet those voices urging peace and pointing out that military intervention will destabilize the country can only be heard in alternative digital media. A meeting in Istanbul organised by the Union for Democracy (DIB) in support of the deposed HDP mayors was banned, as was another meeting in Ankara that had been organized by the HDP. 

One might wonder whether the vast majority of Turkish society really is opposed to the prospect of a peaceful solution and a more democratic society. When asked in public, many would refrain to express their opinion freely. Except for the ruling elite, everyone in Turkey is getting poorer every day with inflation and unemployment rates skyrocketing - even discussing such facts has become problematic.

Does society feel more empowered and unified by increased militarization? More than anything else, it is an effective and proven way to ensure one-man rule.