Turkish Human Rights and the Syrian Conflict

October 19, 2012

Recent tensions along the Turkish – Syrian border have captured the world’s attention and sparked tough talk in Ankara.  Turkey’s parliament has approved cross-border operations and the Turkish military has increased its presence on the border.  Artillery fire across the border is a daily event and, after Turkey stopped and searched two flights bound for Syria, each country has banned the other from using its airspace.  Yet, there is no war fever on Turkish streets.  Part of the reason for this lays in longstanding Turkish traditions; an important strand of Republican popular memory highlights the “foreign entanglements” of the Ottoman Empire as a mistake not to be repeated.  Just as important, however, are the ways in which the Syrian crisis is understood within the context of Turkish domestic politics and the on-going repression of activists and dissidents within the country.

Although Turkey has been touted as “a democratic model for the Middle East,” the reality is far more complicated.   This, after all, is a country where expressing unpopular views can land you in jail.  World renowned pianist, Fazıl Say, for example, is on trial for tweets deemed “insulting to religious values.”  Poking fun at politicians can also land you in big trouble.  Recently, a man was sentenced to more than a year in prison for making fun of the Turkish president, Abdullah Gül.  Needless to say, there is no Turkish equivalent of the Daily Show.  The Turkish record on press freedoms continues to be “bleak” according to a recent review by Marc Pierini for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, with many journalists in prison or on trial and a growing culture of self-censorship.

Hanging over all of this is a marked increase in sectarian tensions and ethnic violence and it is precisely on these issues that many Turks see a “domestic angle” to Turkish – Syrian tensions.  The Syrian Civil War has added a new wrinkle to the tragic and increasingly violent conflict between the Turkish government and the Kurdish PKK.  As part of its campaign, the Turkish government has not only targeted militants, but also Kurdish politicians and peaceful advocates of Kurdish rights.  Kurdish journalists have been jailed in large numbers.  At the same time, tensions between the Sunni majority and Turkey’s Alevi population has also been exacerbated by the Civil War in Syria.  The Alevi are a distinct sect from the Alawites of Syria (who comprise the base of support for the ruling Assad regime), but they are related and, as the Syrian Civil War has taken on sectarian qualities, some of those tensions have seeped across the border.  Turkish Prime Minister Tayyıp Erdoğan, in particular, has seemed willing to leverage disdain for Alevis among devout Sunnis for political gain.

There is much to admire in the Turkish government’s tough stance against the brutality of the al Assad regime.  The Syrian dictatorship has shown no compunction about targeting civilians and even children in its fight for power.  More than 30,000 have been killed in the Civil War and more than a million have been displaced.  Hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled to neighboring countries, including more than 100,000 in Turkey.  Clearly, Turkey is right in calling attention to the human rights disaster that is taking place there.  At the same time, the Turkish government must look more carefully at its own record. Human rights are gravely at risk in Turkey and the war in Syria seems to be exacerbating the situation.  As the Turkish government continues to advocate for international pressure on Syria, it needs to do more to protect the rights of its own citizens.

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