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Politics of fear are paying

Nov 07,2018 - Last updated at Nov 07,2018

The politics of fear are ruling much of the world these days. Politicians employing fear include Donald Trump in the US, Victor Orban in Hungary, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey. In the US, citizens are urged to be fearful of immigrants, coloured minorities and Democrats. In Hungary, Third World migrants are rejected as "foreigners".  In Brazil, the poor are demonised as criminals. In Israel, Palestinians and their friends are demonised. In Turkey, the supporters of the exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen and the Kurds are touted as major dangers. In all these countries, free media are classified as "enemies of the state".

Erdogan introduced the politics of fear in June 2015 following his Development and Justice Party's (AKP's) loss of its majority in parliament in the general election. The party blamed for garnering rightful AKP seats was the newly minted pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party, a grouping of progressives which sought to bring Kurds into the political mainstream. Until then, Kurds living in the cities and the southeast voted for the AKP due to Erdogan's pledge to negotiate a peace deal based on shared religious values with the leftist Kurdish Workers' party (PKK), which has revolted against Ankara for decades.

The campaign was dominated by popular dissatisfaction over corruption, the faltering economy, the government's fight against the highly influential movement headed by Gulen and Turkey's involvement in Syria. The AKP's loss of seats dealt a blow to Erdogan's ambition to transform Turkey's presidency into an executive rather than a largely ceremonial office and assume the empowered office.

The post-election mix of parties resulted in a hung parliament, prompting Erdogan to call a snap election that November.

Since talks with the PKK had stalled, Erdogan stirred ethnic Turkish nationalism by mounting a verbal and military offensive against the Kurds, resuming bombing of Kurdish bases in north-eastern Iraq and Kurdish areas in southeast Turkey. The AKP won back its majority, at the expense of both the main secular and nationalist parties. The politics of fear had paid off.

In response to the July 2016 attempted coup against him, Erdogan has again targeted Gulenists and Kurds. At least 143,000 people have been detained, 82,000 jailed, 170,000 dismissed from their jobs, 189 media outlets closed and 319 journalists arrested. Among those arrested were senior members of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party. According to the International Crisis Group 4,134 people, including 461 civilians, were killed in anti-Kurd operations between July 2015 and October this year.

In 2016, Turkey opened up a new front against the Kurds by invading and occupying more than 3,460 square kilometres of territory in northern Syria, including the towns of Azaz, Dabiq, Al Bab and Jarablus and the strategic north-western district of Afrin, from which the Turks and their Syrian militia allies expelled more than 130,000 Kurds.

Since 2016, Erdogan has also threatened to seize the town of Manbij, which had been liberated by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is dominated by the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG). Erdogan has vowed to capture Manbij as this would complete the cleansing of the YPG from the border region east of the Euphrates River. However, Turkish forces have paused at Manbij because the US had deployed special operations troops there. Last week, the two sides began joint patrols around Manbij to prevent clashes between pro-Turkish militiamen and Kurdish elements.

Coinciding with the initiation of patrols with US forces, Turkey unleashed artillery barrages against border towns and villages held by the SDF/YPG on the eastern side of the Euphrates. Erdogan argues the presence of the SDF/YPG is a threat to Turkey. Erdogan's objective is to drive armed Kurds from the entire band of Syrian territory south of the Turkish border.

As Turkish artillery went into action Erdogan vowed, "We will destroy the terror structure east of the Euphrates River." He claims rightly that the YPG is an offshoot of the PKK but argues wrongly that the YPG has ambitions in Turkey.

Kurdish spokesman Nur Mahmoud said Ergodan's "threats to invade our lands coincide with our campaign to push [Daesh] out of the remaining parts of Deir Ezzor province. This is [Daesh's] final stronghold. Eliminating [Daesh] means a new era of stability in Syria. But such Turkish threats create more instability".

By lifting Kurdish military pressure from Daesh, Turkey is prolonging the battle against the takfiris. Ankara previously mounted attacks on the YPG while it was fighting Daesh in the town of Kobane/Ain Al Arab.

For Erdogan, Daesh is not the main target. The Kurds are, because their demands to speak Kurdish and have a certain degree of autonomy have classified them as "enemies" of the Turkish state under both secular and fundamentalist governments. Erdogan has adopted the long-held view that all residents of the Turkish mainland are "Turks", even though around 20 per cent of Turkish citizens are Indo-Aryan Kurds. Therefore, the politics of fear come naturally to Erdogan as he engages in warfare in northern Syria.

However, Erdogan has to calculate his moves carefully as the US is the patron of the SDF/YPG, which waged a successful campaign against Daesh, resulting in its expulsion from the city of Raqqa and a vast expanse of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor provinces. Ergodan does not want to take on the US, which has its own interests in the perpetuation of the Kurdish occupation of this territory.

The US supports the Kurds not only to battle Daesh, but also to use them and the territory they hold as leverage against Russia and Iran, which are allied to Damascus. They have enabled the Syrian army to extend Syrian sovereignty to most of the areas seized by takfiris and insurgents since 2011-2012. Some 2,000 US special operations troops and scores of US contractors could be caught in crossfire if Turkish forces advance into the borderlands east of the Euphrates. Turkey's relations with NATO and the US have been strained in recent years, partly due to Erdogan's policy of backing takfiris in Syria. He does not want to court an antagonistic divorce.

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