Turkey Pulse

Has press freedom fallen victim to AKP’s Syria policy?

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Article Summary
Has the Turkish government once again tried to silence a journalist, this time one who has drawn links between the AKP government's Syria policy and terror attacks by Islamic State in the country?

On June 5, two days before Turkey’s general elections, four people were killed and 50 injured in a bomb blast at a rally for the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in Diyarbakir. The perpetrator was identified as Omer Gonder, a 20-year-old native of neighboring Adiyaman province who had joined the Islamic State (IS) in 2014 and had just returned from Syria.

On July 20 in the border town of Suruc, a suicide bomber blew himself up in the midst of some 300 leftist activists who were en route to Kobani, just across the border, to help in reconstruction efforts. Kurdish resistance had broken the siege there by IS in January. The bomber was identified as Seyh Abdurrahman Alagoz — again, a 20-year-old from Adiyaman who had joined IS in Syria last year.

Hours after the Suruc attack, which killed 32 people and wounded more than 100, I tweeted, “It was obvious that all this was coming. The responsibility for the massacre of these young people rests with those who designed and implemented the Syria policy of the AKP [Justice and Development Party].”

The following day, I sent another tweet, “IS terror is a convenient product of the AKP’s ‘open door for jihadists’ policy. Now it allows its sponsors to make use of it in domestic politics as well.” Then, on the morning of July 22, I shared a third tweet: “It’s a disgrace for foreign leaders to send condolences over Suruc to the very person who is the primary reason for IS terrorism in Turkey.”

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Soon thereafter, I became the target of two presenters on the pro-government TV 24, notorious for character assassination campaigns aimed at journalists critical of the government. They hurled insults at me, accused me of being an Israeli spy and urged the boss of the daily Milliyet, where I wrote as a columnist, to fire me. Their slanderous broadcast was followed by an avalanche of tweets containing curses, insults and even death threats against me. Milliyet's office received phone calls of a similar nature.

In the meantime, I had penned and submitted “A Convenient Massacre” as a Milliyet column. The last paragraph read, “If any attacks and murders in retaliation for the Suruc massacre trigger a new wave of violence, its primary beneficiary will clearly be those who dream of becoming a single-party government again by pushing the HDP under the 10% threshold and reclaiming the vote they lost to the [far-right] Nationalist Action Party in any early elections. That’s what makes the Suruc massacre convenient.”

In the afternoon, before the paper went to press, I learned that the article had been pulled, and a few minutes later, that I had been fired. Later in the evening, Milliyet announced on its website that my contract had been terminated, claiming I had made “comments incompatible with the ethics of journalism.” It is a mind-boggling accusation.

The comments that got me fired contained nothing that flouted the basic principles of journalism, which call for the most compact and clearest articulation of facts and events. Moreover, it was not the first time that I had shared such views with followers and readers. I had been among those journalists who warned early on that the Syria policy of the AKP's Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ahmet Davutoglu would put Turkey under the threat of terrorism.

Now seems a good time to once again lay out my analysis on the cause-and-effect relationship between Ankara’s Syria policies and IS terrorism — in the most concise and clearest way possible, but this time in more than the 140 characters of a tweet.

Since the Syrian turmoil broke out in 2011, the Erdogan-Davutoglu duo has followed a policy aimed at toppling the regime of Bashar al-Assad and replacing it with a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government. They made one of their biggest mistakes in assuming this could be quickly achieved. It soon became clear that a Muslim Brotherhood-led regime would be unattainable, yet the two never relinquished their goal of overthrowing Assad and instead became practically obsessed with it.

Ankara tried every possible means to topple Assad except commanding the Turkish army into Syria. Its open-door policy for international jihadists flocking to Syria was one of those means. Hoping these fighters would expedite the collapse of Assad, the government knowingly looked the other way as jihadists of all sorts crossed indiscriminately from Turkey into Syria. The border was “blurred,” and border security was deliberately neglected. Similarly, no measures were enforced to prevent jihadist groups from using Turkey as a logistics base. The media reported repeatedly on trucks loaded with weapons and munitions, cargo allegedly destined for jihadists groups in Syria under the supervision of Turkey’s national intelligence agency.

The AKP’s Syria policy not only transformed Turkey into a “jihadist highway,” but IS and other jihadist factions were given a free hand to recruit militants inside the country, encouraged by Ankara’s leniency. Many Turkish websites spread IS propaganda unimpeded until mid-July, when they were finally blocked. In one example of just how much leniency IS enjoyed, hundreds of people — mobilized through IS-linked media outlets — gathered for an Eid al-Fitr prayer on July 18, two days before the Suruc massacre, in Omerli, a rural area near Istanbul.

Another factor facilitating IS-related activities in Turkey was that the jihadists came in handy for Ankara in the proxy war it has waged intermittently against the Kurdish Democratic Union Party in Syria since summer 2012.

The polarizing rhetoric of pro-government media and AKP spokesmen, loaded with a hefty dose of Islamism, has stoked Islamist radicalization in Turkey. The radicalized youth then gravitated toward IS, among other such groups. Driven by these facilitating factors, hundreds, if not thousands, of Turkish nationals are estimated to have joined IS, although the looming IS threat to Turkey had become obvious a long time ago.

Turkey is now faced with a strengthened IS presence on its territory — the result of the AKP’s ill-advised Syria policy. The government’s failure to foresee the grave threat IS posed to Turkish national security is thought provoking. That Turkey would have to genuinely fight IS one day was obvious a long time ago. With or without the AKP, Turkey cannot afford to postpone this fight forever.

I had sounded the alarm in a July 9, 2014, article for Al-Monitor. The article, “Turkey Faces Threat from Returning Jihadists,” includes the following passages:

"Regardless of whether they maintain their links to al-Qaeda, thousands of people who have taken part in bloodshed in the ranks of al-Qaeda-linked groups should be, no doubt, seen as a potential threat to Turkey’s internal peace. Given the climate of hatred created in Turkey as a result of polarizing policies and constant incitement against the country’s Alevi community and secular segments, the presence of thousands of people who have mastered and internalized killing may have the effect of a powder keg meeting with fire. Preventing this threat from materializing is up to the AKP government, which holds the primary responsibility for the creation of the problem …

"Even if the AKP had succeeded in toppling the Syrian regime, the Turks who went to fight there would have still posed an internal threat upon their return home. But the chaos simmering across Turkey’s southern borders today has greatly amplified the threat of the boomerang."

I had also issued similar warnings on TV programs and in my columns for Milliyet, from where I was fired after the threat materialized. 

The AKP’s Syria policy is the No. 1 reason for IS-linked terror in Turkey, and hence, the leadership that designed and implemented the policy represents the first link in the cause-and-effect relationship. To say this aloud falls under the scope of freedom of the press and expression.

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Found in: syrian civil war, recep tayyip erdogan, peoples' democratic party, muslim brotherhood, kurds, jihadists, is, ahmet davutoglu

Kadri Gursel is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. He focuses mainly on Turkish foreign policy, international affairs, press freedom and Turkey’s Kurdish question as well as Turkey’s evolving political Islam and its national and regional impacts. He wrote a column for the Turkish daily Cumhuriyet from May 2016 to September 2018 and for the daily Milliyet from 2007 to July 2015. Gursel also worked for Agence France-Presse from 1993 to 1997. While with AFP, he was kidnapped by Kurdish militants in 1995. He recounted his misadventures at the hands of the PKK in the book “Dağdakiler” (Those of the Mountains). On Twitter: @KadriGursel

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