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Syria and a Critique of the Turkish Nationalist Left


Turkey is right in the middle of the situation in Syria. Not only because it is the only NATO member with a strong army bordering Syria but also politically and ideologically, especially because of the politics developing around the Syrian refugee camps in Turkey.

The refugee crisis in Turkey is growing and there are potential dangers ahead. It is estimated that there are now around 80,000 Syrian refugees in the camps in South-eastern border district of Hatay. Like many Irish, many Turks also express the sentiment of a “million welcomes”, but it looks like the nationalist left is not willing to offer this to the refugees in these camps.

At present the Turkish nationalist left is very much focused on Syria and they make a lot of noises about the developments in the neighbouring county and the refugee camps. The main arguments from the nationalist left on the Syrian question are based on anti-imperialism, as they see the fighting in Syria as the result of Western/US imperialistic intervention and support. The left groups also accuse the current right-wing government party (AKP - Justice and Development Party, in its second term in government with 50% of the national votes) of collaboration with the imperialist powers.

The nationalist left are too shy to openly defend the Assad regime but arguments referring to his “anti-imperialist stand”, his “years of relatively peaceful governance of the country” and his “defense of the oppressed people in the region” are quite common. Not to mention their love and admiration for his secularism...

In recent months there have been a number of incidents where people in the refugee camps have protested against the Turkish authorities and had clashes with the Turkish police. This was mainly to do with the conditions in the camps. But these incidents drew a lot attention from the various left groups and started a debate on “which groups may be hiding and organizing in these camps”. There is a lot of focus on foreign fighters and secret agents reportedly roaming the streets of Hatay. Reports say – which is probably true – that among the refugees, there are members of the Free Syrian Army and militants from other groups and organizations. It is also possible that some of these people may be directing rebel operations in Syria from within Turkey and they may well be going back and forward to take part in the fighting.

It is likely that some of the elements/groups in the camp have the backing of the AKP government, which is openly against the Assad regime and wants him to go. This is also the position of some other governments (such as France, recently declaring that they will recognize a new transitional Syrian government if it is established) and other NATO members. This does not mean, by any means, that any of these outsiders are in full support of the peoples' revolution in Syria. While on the one hand they want Assad to go, they have clearly other calculations in relation to the new Syria and their future influence in that country. Turkey especially would like see itself as one of the ‘stakeholders’ in a post-Assad Syria. Given the regional sensitivities and the Kurdish problem that is ever growing, Turkey would not miss such an opportunity. In the absence of a democratic and peaceful solution to the Kurdish problem, and with the continuous armed fighting, Turkey will insist on “controlling” the developments in Northern Syria, as it did with Kurdish Northern Iraq. Turkey's position on Syria has therefore nothing to do with supporting the popular uprising of the Syrian People and their revolutionary struggle. It is all about military and political dominance in the region.

After the downing of the Turkish war plane by Assad forces, Turkey has tried to get NATO involved in a possible military intervention. But despite the efforts and angry statements by the Turkish government, NATO has been reluctant to intervene. It is unlikely that Turkey will act unilaterally without the blessing and support of NATO but it is not completely impossible either.

Back to the refugee camps and developments in Hatay:

On 1st September, World Peace Day, up to 50,000 people (according to some sources), marched in the city of Hatay to raise their voices against imperialist intervention in Syria. Amongst the groups organizing this march were a number of nationalist and secularist left parties, trade unions, human rights groups and civil rights organizations.

Although not part of the organizing group of the march, one the biggest elements in the wider nationalist/secularist bloc is the Republican People's Party (CHP.) This is a centre-left, secularist and nationalist party established by Ataturk and follows the Kemalist program. CHP is currently the main opposition party in the parliament. They have been very active on the Syrian situation and they are using the language of “anti-imperialism” and “peace and reconciliation in Syria”.

All of the groups who organised the march are politically to the left of CHP, some quite further left. All of these groups are strongly against government foreign policy in general and its Syrian policy in particular .They continue to accuse the AKP government of being a tool for the big imperialist games in the region.

But this is not the full story.

In their anti-imperialist stand, these groups use a number of arguments:

Who are these people in these refugee camps?

In the days leading up to this march,the Hatay refugee camps and the people in these camps have been the focus of many of the mainstream nationalist and some leftist media. They have been reporting on the people in the camps as being “bearded”, “Islamist” terrorists. And there is now a significant barrage of propaganda against these camps. Various groups are campaigning against these camps and want them to be removed; meaning that the people should be forced to return to Syria.

It is reported that, and it may well be true, members of militant groups such as al-Qaeda are present in the camps. This is used to mock the Syrian rebellion as a “backward”, “despotic” Islamic campaign. While there is no evidence of any mass number of foreign fighters in the camps, the Turkish nationalist left has already decided that these camps have nothing to do with the protection of people running away from Assad’s brutal attacks.

Is Hatay the HQ of the Free Syrian Army run by special foreign agents?

Recently a Free Syrian Army website had their contact details listed as Hatay, Turkey. This has caused a huge uproar among the nationalists and some on the left. It is not a secret that the people in the refugee camps are against Assad and that many support various elements fighting under the Free Syrian Army. If they set up a website, it is only logical that they would use a phone number and an address in Turkey or Jordan for communication. And no one denies the fact that members of Free Syrian Army are in these camps. What mad man would announce worldwide the address of the Free Syrian Army as somewhere in Syria? It does not mean that the HQ of the Free Syrian Army is based in Hatay.

There are reports about the secrecy of these camps and that public representatives and journalists are not allowed in by the leaders in the camps.

However, one thing is for sure: There aren't 80,000 fighters, soldiers and militants in these camps. There are men, women and children living in these places. Many of them – reportedly – have relatives who are fighting in Syria. Many of them have security issues and want to make sure that they are not in the spotlight and exposed.

One of the camps, called Apaydin, is known to be housing mainly Syrian rebel fighters. Recently some CHP deputies wanted to visit the Apaydin camp but the residents have reportedly refused to let them in. They have refused to face the members of CHP, a party that is openly in support of the current Syrian regime. There seems to be a command/control structure in the Apaydin camp imposed by the people in there but this does not necessarily translate to an international conspiracy or that this is now their training HQ. A fighting rebel force surely must have some structures and controls in place to protect themselves from dangers of attacks and exposure. One cannot forget that there is a brutal regime attacking and killing people on a daily basis.

Is the war in Syria about religious divide?

The nationalist left want also focus on religious divisions in Syria, and therefore reduce the revolt to a sectarian religious fight among these sects.

Many in Assad's circles are Alawites and the majority of the anti-Assad fighters are Sunnis. This is not a secret but the fight in Syria is clearly not between Alawite and Sunni folks. These people did not just start to co-exist in Syria in the last 18 months. Sunnis did not suddenly appear in Syria to start an uprising. The secularist, nationalist left wants to see the struggle in Syria as a religious fight and they keep ignoring the implications of this for Turkey where millions of Alawites live. Clearly the fight in Syria is not about the religious doctrines of Sunnis vs. Alawites. There is no evidence of this. But if the Turkish Left keeps up this agitation it may well have serious implications in places like Hatay and elsewhere in the country where Alawite and Sunnis live side by side. The social and political conditions of Alawites in Syria and Turkey are different from each other. Still, for many decades, the Alawites and their belief system have not been recognized by the Turkish state. There are ongoing tensions within Turkey but this pre-dates the Syrian uprising.

The barbaric rebels?

Digital imagery and YouTube also play a significant role in terms of the stand of the nationalist left. There have been some brutal images and videos in circulation that show the killings of people by Free Syrian Army. No one would argue for the killing of civilians anywhere but the nationalist left has long forgotten how the first protests in Syria were peaceful and were unarmed marches by tens of thousands demanding change. Assad, while pretending to listen, did exactly what dictators do. He attacked protesting people and started killing civilians. There were no, as far as we know, underground cells full of foreign-supplied warfare and fully trained soldiers, waiting to attack Assad's army and start killing people. The regime willingly and knowingly escalated the brutality and all hell broke loose in Syria.

This is not a numbers game, but one cannot forget the murders committed by Assad's army. One has to recognize the extremely brutal and complicated nature of this struggle. The nationalist/secularist left may dream about a revolution in a 5 star hotel boardroom, but the streets of Aleppo and Damascus tell a different story.

The full picture of the march in Hatay was that it was not just a march against imperialism. All of the left-wing elements organizing the march used the language of anti-imperialism but they also used the language of no support to the Syrian rebellion, and showed active and open support for the Assad regime. The imperialist slogans were easy to chant and hard to argue against. No one on the left would argue for an imperialist intervention. But many on the march also condemned the revolt in Syria and effectively supported the continuation of the current Assad regime. Their official demand on the day was to have peace talks between the regime and the rebel forces. While thousands of people are being murdered under the regime, the Turkish nationalist left clearly saw Assad as the legitimate future leader of the country: a leader and a regime that the Syrians themselves don't want anymore.

Sadly, a joint press release issued by the organizers and supporting bodies such as Human Right Association (IHD), Confederation of Revolutionary Workers Union (DISK), Confederation of Public Workers Union (KESK), Left wing Freedom and Solidarity Party (ODP), People's Houses (Halkevleri), Socialist Party of the Downtrodden (ESP), demanded more “serious steps by the Syrian government and asked the regime to listen to the people's demands for democracy”.

This, in fact, was a recognition of the Assad government as the legitimate government in Syria. No sentiments were expressed in the press release in terms of supporting the rebellion is Syria. The press conference raised concerns about the local population (a mixture of Arabs, Turks and Kurds) and potential conflicts in Hatay due to the refugees and “strange” people in these camps, but did not mention one word of support to or solidarity with the refugees. They were chanting slogans against the global imperialists somewhere out there, but not extending the hand of solidarity to the fighters, children, women and “bearded” men in the refugee camps just next door to them. On World Peace Day, the Turkish nationalist left was not in solidarity with the very people whose lives and peaceful demands were brutally attacked by their dictator. It is not an ideological or political difficulty for the nationalist left to stand against imperialism - that is easy for them - but how are they going to deal with their own real and present political contradictions when it comes to the brutal Syrian regime and those people fighting against it.

Many of the nationalist left have been sceptical of the Arab Spring. According to them, although the dictators like Mubarak and Ben Ali were “bad” people, the alternative was an Islamic regime and they would have preferred a much more “civilized” and “secular” revolution. The misanalysis of Islam and the strong commitment to military backed “secularity” still exists among these left groups. This is why they have lost many of their political fights against the right-wing AKP party. For them, after almost 70 years of secularist republic life, surely people who voted for AKP were “stupid” or “uneducated” not to see the dangers of “AKP Islamism”. Having long lost the connection with the working class due to their sectarian attitudes, they grabbed on to the issue of “religion” in a secular republic. But it has clearly not worked for them. Working class people voted for the religious bourgeois party AKP who promised things like better living condition, elimination of unemployment, ending of the Kurdish problem, re-distribution of wealth, major reforms in state structure and a new constitution replacing the old one from the military coup days of the 1980s. While AKP, as expected, hardly delivered any of these promises, people believed them and clearly went against the military backed secularist status quo.

In the case of Syria, their analysis and their political habits lead them to the conclusion that opposing imperialism means defending the existence of Assad regime. They think that just because imperialists or other external groups are - in one way or the other - involved in this struggle, that the uprising is not legitimate and not worth defending. The revolution must be pure and hygienic for those on the nationalist left to support it. If only the Muslims who lived in these lands for thousands of years were not involved in the process, if only imperialists and foreign agents weren't in the picture, if only the Saudis wouldn't provide some arms, then, maybe then, they would not only condemn imperialisms and imperialist intervention but also the dictatorship of Assad.

But their imaginary purity and childish wish list does not exist in the case of Syria and other places. Bahraini women wear niqabs and therefore the nationalist left in Turkey will pass on supporting their democratic fight in Bahrain, until a perfect revolution comes along with perfect people in the lead. Their fear of Islam stops them from taking the correct steps towards solidarity with revolting people and it mentally freezes them. All they can repeat is, again and again: “no to imperialism, while a racist tone against the Syrian refugees is developing under their noses in Turkey. They say “no to imperialism” but allow racism and islamophobia (because of the men in the camps have beards) to developed in the county.

And the question, “What would you do? which side would you be on if you were in Syria?” remains unanswered by the Turkish nationalist left. Or, in many cases, answered the wrong way.

And the answer comes from Trotsky:

"Let us assume that rebellion breaks out tomorrow in the French colony of Algeria under the banner of national independence and that the Italian government, motivated by its own imperialist interests, prepares to send weapons to the rebels. What should the attitude of the Italian workers be in this case? I have purposely taken an example of rebellion against a democratic imperialism with intervention on the side of the rebels from a fascist imperialism. Should the Italian workers prevent the shipping of arms to the Algerians? Let any ultra-leftists dare answer this question in the affirmative. Every revolutionist, together with the Italian workers and the rebellious Algerians, would spurn such an answer with indignation. Even if a general maritime strike broke out in fascist Italy at the same time, even in this case the strikers should make an exception in favour of those ships carrying aid to the colonial slaves in revolt; otherwise they would be no more than wretched trade unionists – not proletarian revolutionists." 1938.

The complex situation in Syria, as many agree has a complex reflection in politics in Turkey. It is one that exposes the nationalist left and puts them to a real test. The nationalist left has choices to make. There is no guarantee that the Syrian situation will end soon. Assad will try to kill his way out of this situation with ever increasing brutality. How much longer can they support Assad? How can they justify being in support of a dictatorship that ultimately caused a bloodbath in the country? If there is an Islamic government in Syria, what is the nationalist left planning to do with their neighbours? Will they in this case support a military intervention by Turkey or NATO to get rid of the Islamists? Where will this fit in their anti-imperialist programme?...

It is as much a practical problem as an ideological one for the nationalist left. Their decisions and analysis will have far reaching consequences for them and the wider left in Turkey.

The answer to the question is still pending: “Which side would you be on if you were in Syria?”

C'mon Turkish nationalist left, answer it!

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