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Turkey’s Erdogan: Islamophobia’s Willing Accomplice

November 19, 2019

Shortly after meeting with Hungary's far-right prime minister Viktor Orban, Turkey's President Erdogan met with President Trump. Erdogan is spinning the war in Syria as promoting the interests of the far right in order to gather support for his policies from Islamophobic politicians.

Shortly after meeting with Hungary's far-right prime minister Viktor Orban, Turkey's President Erdogan met with President Trump. Erdogan is spinning the war in Syria as promoting the interests of the far right in order to gather support for his policies from Islamophobic politicians.


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Story Transcript

GREG WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Arlington, Virginia.

Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan usually does not separate his faith and his politics. He spent years building his reputation as a defender of the Muslim religion and of Muslim people, for example by standing up for the rights of Uyghurs in China. And yet in order to gather international support for his invasion of Syria, Erdoğan has no problem meeting with some of the world’s most rabid Islamophobes such as Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary, who he visited just over a week ago. Then, from Budapest, Hungary, Erdoğan traveled to Washington, DC to meet with President Donald Trump. Here’s a clip of third joint press conference.

DONALD TRUMP: Well, no. I think that frankly Europe should be paying for this to a large extent. As of this moment, Turkey has been paying for most of it. I think the president was saying today they’ve spent over $40 billion on the cost of that $40 billion… how much?

SPEAKER: 40.

DONALD TRUMP: 40? That’s what I said. Whatever. He spent a lot. Okay.

GREG WILPERT: In related news, Interpol is reporting that since 2016 Turkey has requested the investigation and extradition of 1,252 Turkish nationals living in Germany. Indicating that the Erdoğan government is not slowing down his campaign to silence, dissenting and critical voices inside and outside of Turkey.

Joining me now to discuss President Erdoğan’s latest moves is Baris Karaagac. He is a lecturer in international development studies at Trent university in Ontario, Canada and he’s also the editor of the book Accumulations Crisis and Struggles, Capital and Labor in Contemporary Capitalism. Thanks for joining us again, Baris.

BARIS KARAAGAC: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

GREG WILPERT: So reports from the fighting in Syria due to the Turkish invasion into Northeastern Syria seem to show a close cooperation between the Russian and Turkish forces, which makes it very difficult for Syria’s Bashar Al Assad to defend his country’s territory. It also means that the Kurdish groups that were allied with the US, are now facing very grim prospects. Do you think that a Putin is manipulating Erdoğan, or is Erdoğan successfully pursuing his own agenda in Northeastern Syria?

BARIS KARAAGAC: Maybe it’s both. So I think the interests of our both countries are at play there, Putin the has been the maybe the most prominent winner of the most recent process in Northern Syria or in Syria in general. Russia has through a very successful and skillful diplomacy, increased its influence over that part of the Middle East over the last few years, and the United States has been marginalized to a great extent, especially after what the Trump administration did a month ago when a it decided to withdraw USA troops from North Eastern Syria. So Russia I think has been the biggest winner. It’s become the most important power broker in Syria today, and it has the most influence over the Assad regime.

As regards Turkish invasion–and we should call it what it is; it’s an invasion which cost the lives of many people on both sides, but particularly in the area South of the border in Syria. Turkey has been pushing for a safe zone for a few months now, actually for a long time. But that insistence that has become more emphasized recently. Turkey wants to create a safe zone which will be about 20 miles deep on the Turkish Syrian border. The goal there is to push the Kurdish lead forces into central Syria, or towards the East, and cut off their contacts or links with the Kurds in Turkey. Again I would like to remind our audience that in Turkey they’re there are close to 20 million Kurds living there, and since the early 1980s that has been a low intensity war, however you want to call it, or conflict between the Kurdish rebels and the Turkish State that led to the loss of a 40,000 human lives; a process that is it still continuing to this day.

So Turkey is accusing especially the leadership of the policy. The political units in the Northeastern Syria, a pro-Kurdish one but not composed of Kurds only, it’s a much more multi ethnic political state or situation there. Turkey has been accusing this political unit for being a terrorist for many years. Due to its alleged links to the PKK and Turkey wants to cut off the links between this organization, and this political formation in Northeastern Syria with the Kurds living in the South and Southeast of Turkey. But in Rojava, that’s the name that the many Kurds refer to it, Northern Syria, northeastern Syria, has actually constituted no threats to the Turkish State. But this is a part of a very long historical Turkish policy, which is against the formation of any independent, any sovereign Kurdish political units, either in Turkey or around Turkey.

GREG WILPERT: I want to turn to a related issue, which is how one would explain that Erdoğan has agreed to meet and have cordial relationships with Islamophobes such as Orbán and Trump. I mean, I mentioned already that he’s seeking their cooperation of course for entering into Syria or invading Syria. But doesn’t this risk that is this Alliance, doesn’t that risk him being criticized from within his own Islamicist AKP party?

BARIS KARAAGAC: Well there’s no question that Orbán is an Islamophobe. He’s a xenophobe, but especially with regard to brown and black bodies and the Muslims. There’s no question about it and he’s been in power for a long time, he built his career based on anti-immigration or immigration of a particular kind from places outside of Europe. He’s been against this for a long time and has been very vocal about his stance within Europe and elsewhere. So at the same time, these people are very pragmatic, both Orbán and Erdoğan throughout their careers, have emerged as very pragmatic leaders. For Orbán, the goal is to prevent as many Muslims as possible from entering Europe and Hungary, and for Erdoğan, the goal is to relocate, repatriate part of the Syrian population residing in Turkey right now.

In 2016, the European Union and Turkey reached an agreement. According to this agreement, Turkey would keep Syrian refugees, people who fled there from this terrible conflict, within the borders of Turkey, and the European Union in exchange would provide some financial relief to the Turkish State, and that would be about €6 billion. In the course of the last three years, the European union sent about how half of this amount, but Turkey keeps asking for the second half of this aid, because in Turkey there are about 3.6 million Syrian refugees. And in addition to that, there are about 300,000 Kurds from Syria who have fled that the conflict, and according to Turkish authorities, this has cost the Turkish State about $40 billion.

So now Erdoğan is blackmailing the European Union. Saying that, “If you do not give me the second half of this aid, right, which had been decided on in 2016, then I’ll have to open the borders. And these people will flood Europe.” So his blackmailing Europe, and because Orbán is a very staunch and anti-immigration, but especially when it comes to Muslims, he found an ally in Erdoğan in this case. but the repercussions of such a close relationship within the borders of Turkey for Erdoğan … But I don’t think that it will have them much negative consequences for Erdoğan, because as I said, he’s a very pragmatic person, and again, the Syrian refugees have come to cost the Turkish State a significant amount of money.

Also xenophobia has been on the rise in Turkey because you see refugees in different parts of the country–especially along the Syrian border in the South, but also in big cities like Istanbul–and this has led to significant anti-Syrian sentiments among the population. So many people want these people to go back to Syria, and Erdoğan’s plan is to relocate them, re-deploy them to this as so-called a safe zone. The initial goal is to relocate about a million, but in the medium term, the Turkish State wants to relocate about two million Syrian refugees in that safe zone. Of course, this will have a significant impact on Northern Syria. It will radically change the demographic composition of that part of the country. So the Syrian Arabs will constitute the significant majority, whereas the Kurds and other ethnic groups will be reduced to very small minorities, and this is one of the state policies for Turkey right now.

GREG WILPERT: Now finally I want to turn to the issue of Erdoğan’s authoritarianism, which is certainly an issue and has been for a long time. Ever since the 2016 coup, Erdoğan has become ever stronger and stronger using that coup basically as an excuse to crack down opposition. He also won a referendum in 2017 which gave him expanded powers and is also leading now as we were talking about, Turkey into a war with Syria. So why do you think he is taking his country further and further into more authoritarian policies? Is there any real opposition left to him to threaten his rule or is he being paranoid?

BARIS KARAAGAC: Well, that tendency has its roots, or it started, the authority tendency earlier than actually 2016. It began particular with the end of the so-called peace process that had been going on between the Turkish State and Kurds, and it came to an end in 2015. since then, Erdoğan has taken a very authoritarian line, and right now in Turkish prisons there are around 30,000 political prisoners, many babies were born and are still in Turkish prisons. Turkey is one of the, if not the biggest, jail as a country, for journalists today. It’s worse than China, it’s worse than Russia, so and so forth. When you ask the question why is he becoming increasingly authoritarian? I think there are two reasons. One of them is that his support base has eroded a little bit in the last couple of years.

So a number of particular individuals have been able to challenge his power and his claims to power, still, he overcame these challenges. He’s still the most powerful leader in the country. Again I repeat, he is probably the most powerful leader the Turkish Republic has ever seen, in terms of his electoral base since the early 1920s. But over the years, the most credible opposition has come from Kurds. But Erdoğan has been able to overcome this challenge by imprisoning many of the leaders of the Kurdish movement in Turkey, usually by accusing them of having ties to the PKK, hence being a terrorist themselves, or receiving orders from terrorist leaders. The second reason is that he has a lot to lose if he loses power in Turkey.

So he has to remain in power because he’s created this circle, and that includes his family, who was become so wealthy and so powerful in the last 10-15 years. And he knows that once he loses the power, he will be held accountable for all the crimes he has committed over the years. That includes in my opinion, war crimes. Even the last invasion in Northern Syria as witnessed, according to many independent observers a number of war crimes committed either by the Turkish military, or by the forces, many of them Jihadist forces supported by the Turkish States in Northern Syria. So he be held accountable, he cannot lose power. He cannot afford to lose power.

GREG WILPERT: Okay. Well, we’re going to leave it there for now. I’m speaking to Baris Karaagac, lecturer in International Development Studies at Trent University, Ontario, Canada. Thanks again for having joined us today, Baris.

BARIS KARAAGAC: It was my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.

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