Vijay Prashad: Turkey's Offensive Against ISIS & Press Crackdown is Really Just War on Kurds

August 26, 2016


Vijay Prashad

professor of international studies at Trinity College and columnist for the Indian magazine Frontline.

As the United States backs a Turkish military incursion into Syria targeting ISIS-held areas along the border, Turkey says it’s also concerned about Syrian Kurdish militias at the border who are backed by the United States. We look at the conflict, how it relates to the recent thwarted coup attempt, and the government’s subsequent arrests of journalists on terrorism charges with an acclaimed scholar who has followed the region closely for years: Vijay Prashad. He is a professor of international studies at Trinity College and columnist for the Indian magazine Frontline. His new book is "The Death of the Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution."


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: An explosion at a police station in Turkey near the border with Syria has reportedly killed at least 11 people and wounded 70. State-run media is reporting that Kurdish militants were responsible for the attack, but there’s been no claim of responsibility. This comes as the Turkish military has sent additional tanks into northern Syria, intensifying its ground offensive in the ongoing conflict.

The U.S. military is backing Turkey’s incursion, which began earlier this week with an aerial bombing campaign. Turkey says the offensive is against ISIS-held areas along the border. But Turkey says it’s also concerned about Syrian Kurdish militias at the border. Those militias are backed by the United States. On Wednesday, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan announced Turkish-backed Syrian rebels claimed—reclaimed the Syrian town of Jarabulus from the Islamic State.

PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: [translated] As of this moment, Free Syrian Army and residents of Jarabulus have taken back Jarabulus. They have seized the state buildings and official institution buildings in the town. According to the information we have received, Daesh had to leave Jarabulus.

AMY GOODMAN: Turkey’s offensive is dubbed "Euphrates Shield," and it’s the country’s first major military operation since a failed coup shook Turkey in July. On Wednesday, the Turkish president, Erdogan, met with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who said the United States supports Turkey’s efforts to control its borders.

VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We believe very strongly that the Turkish border must be controlled by Turkey, that there should be no occupation of that border by any group whatsoever, other than a Syria that must be whole and united, but not carved in little pieces.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says videos posted to a social media website Thursday depict carnage in the Bab al-Nairab neighborhood of Aleppo, where two barrel bombs were reportedly dropped, killing at least five people. The group also reported additional strikes across Aleppo and its suburbs, saying the dead were mostly women and children.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The strikes came as the United Nations announced Russia has agreed to a 48-hour humanitarian truce in Aleppo to permit aid deliveries, pending security guarantees are met by parties on the ground. The United Nations has been pushing for a weekly 48-hour hiatus in fighting in Aleppo to assist the city’s approximately 2 million people who have been suffering as Syria’s five-year-old conflict continues to take a massive humanitarian toll.

A separate United Nations team has concluded the Assad government and ISIS militants carried out repeated chemical weapons attacks in Syria in 2014 and 2015. The report accuses Assad of twice using chlorine gas. It also accuses ISIS of using mustard gas.

AMY GOODMAN: All of this comes as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, are meeting today in Geneva to discuss details of a cooperation agreement on fighting Islamic State in Syria.

For more, we’re joined by the acclaimed scholar who has followed the region closely for years, Vijay Prashad. He is a professor of international studies at Trinity College, columnist for the Indian magazine Frontline. His new book is called The Death of the Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution. Professor Prashad’s previous books include Arab Spring, Libyan Winter and The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South.

Vijay Prashad, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you in studio.

VIJAY PRASHAD: Thanks a lot. Great to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s start with what’s happening right now in Turkey, where Vice President Joe Biden just was.

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, the situation in Turkey is very dire. As you know, on July 15, there was the failed coup. But the matters in Turkey have unraveled long before this failed coup. You know, the crackdown on reporters has been going on for at least a year and a half, if not longer. The internal politics of Turkey has been in disarray.

One of the interesting things about the government of Mr. Erdogan is that, previously, he had started a peace process with the Kurdish Workers’ Party, the PKK, which the United States and Turkey sees as a terrorist outfit. They had started a protracted peace process called the Imrali process. But this war in Syria has essentially unraveled that peace process, and the Turkish military has gone back on the full offensive against the Kurds in southeastern Turkey, and, as well, as you saw this week, the Turkish army has crossed the border into Syria to stop the advance of Syrian Kurds from creating what the Syrian Kurds call Rojava, which would be a statelet of Syrian Kurds which is right on the Turkish border.

You know, the reason that operation is called Euphrates Shield is that the Euphrates runs in that region from north to south. And what the Turkish government would like to see is for the Syrian Democratic Forces, which has a large Kurdish component, to move back east of the Euphrates—in other words, withdraw from Jarabulus, withdraw from Manbij, which they had taken quite—in a celebrated victory, and therefore prevent the creation of this Kurdish statelet called Rojava. On the surface, they say it’s about ISIS, but really this is about the protracted war that the Turkish government has begun again against the Kurds.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But interestingly, you mentioned the failed coup. The New York Times, for instance, is reporting today that Erdogan wanted to go into Syria earlier, but the military was resisting, and it was only as a result of his being able to purge and remove so many top military officers that now he’s been able to do—to effect this incursion.

VIJAY PRASHAD: This is likely the case, you know, but it’s also been the situation that this is not the first Turkish entry into Syria. The Turks had entered previously; the Turkish military had. You know, there’s a celebrated shrine, a memorial to one of the founders of the Ottoman Empire, and the Turkish military had entered to secure that monument earlier. Turks had also, of course, kept their border open and had allowed supplies and people to cross the border into various proxy groups, whether it’s Turkish-backed proxy groups, Saudi groups, Qatari groups—and, in fact, the Islamic State. You know, they have used for years the Turkish border. And I think that the sheer instability of the war in Syria has returned, you know, the conflict into Turkey—what the CIA, after the successful coup in Iran in 1953, called blowback. You know, this is, in a sense, blowback against Turkey. So, they have previously entered Syria with the military. They have, of course, supported their proxies. But now, I think, with the gains made by the Kurds, this is as much a political entry as anything. You know, the principal reason, I would argue, that they’ve entered Jarabulus is to stop the creation of Rojava.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Vijay Prashad, and we’re going to continue this conversation after break. Vijay Prashad is professor of international studies at Trinity College, columnist for the Indian magazine Frontline. His new book is called The Death of the Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution. We’ll talk about, well, Turkey, Syria, Libya, and also the U.S. elections, before we speak with Emma Thompson. The famed actress is now back in Canada after going to the Arctic. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: "Denizlerin Dalgasiyim," "I am the Waves of the Sea," by Selda Bagcan. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. We’re speaking with Vijay Prashad, professor of international studies at Trinity College and author of a new book. It’s called The Death of the Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution.

I want to turn to a novelist who was just arrested. I want to talk about press freedom in Turkey. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that Turkish author and columnist Asli Erdogan—no relation to the president—has written about her treatment in prison since her arrest earlier this month, after the government closed down the newspaper where she worked. She now faces a pending trial on terrorism charges and says she’s been denied medication or sufficient water for five days and is diabetic. She’s one of many journalists and writers who have been arrested on charges of terrorism in Turkey. About 10,000 people have been arrested since the coup, at least that we know, or the attempted coup, though Erdogan, of course, wrested power back. Professor Vijay Prashad, what about Asli?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, look, you know, she is one of the tens of thousands of people who have been arrested under so-called suspicion that she was doing propaganda for the Kurdish Workers’ Party, the PKK. You know, here’s a celebrated novelist, a journalist for a newspaper whose entire staff pretty much, the editorial staff, has been arrested. Newspapers have been facing a great challenge inside Turkey, and broadcasters. If anybody has questioned the fact that the Turkish government, you know, has been allowing fighters to cross the border, they have been arrested. And this has been happening for the last several years. You know, that’s why I say the failed coup of July 15th has just provided the government with the opportunity to go very deep into its list of those whom it sees as dissenters, and pick them up.

But they’ve been going after reporters for years now. Anybody who challenges their narrative of the war in Syria, they consider a threat, and they accuse them of being linked to the PKK. You know, this is one of the simplest ways of delegitimizing somebody, is to say that they are a propagandist for the PKK. And that’s precisely what they’ve said to her. They’ve also held her in solitary confinement. And she has asked to go back into the general population. You know, that’s a—it’s a humanitarian thing, on the surface of it. And also, you know, this is somebody with medical problems, and they’ve denied use of medication and a proper diet. But she’s only one. You know, as you noted, there are thousands of journalists who have been picked up. And sadly, a number of them are Kurdish journalists, independent journalists from the southwestern region of Turkey, who have been picked up.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you mention the Kurdish Workers’ Party. Clearly, Turkey is a far more developed country than most of the other Middle East countries and, along with Egypt, probably has the largest working class, per se. Has there been any ties between the Kurdish Workers’ Party and ongoing workers’ movements in Turkey among the rest of the population?

VIJAY PRASHAD: So, the Kurdish Workers’ Party starts, you know, as a principally Kurdish nationalist force, separatist force. But Turkey is an interesting country, because, you know, the largest Kurdish population in a city is not in the southeast, but is in Istanbul. So, you know, about 10 years ago or so, the Kurdish Workers’ Party began to move from the position of secessionism to the position of more rights inside Turkey. And there have been a series of attempts to unite with the Turkish left, various small leftist parties, to create an umbrella party that would both fight for rights of all kinds of people—gays and lesbians, women, workers and Kurds—inside Turkey. And the most recent, you know, party of this kind was the HDP, which had in both elections in 2015—there were two parliamentary elections—did enough—you know, did well enough to block Mr. Erdogan’s attempt to create a presidential form of government. And in a sense, this domestic pressure from the HDP has also upturned the applecart, as far as Mr. Erdogan’s domestic agenda is concerned.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, Joe Biden was just there, the vice president. Turkey, Erdogan has been demanding the extradition of Fethullah Gülen, who is in the Poconos in Pennsylvania. Biden wrote a piece in a Turkish paper, and Foreign Policy has said that Turkey has admitted that they have not given evidence that this man was behind the attempted coup. Explain, overall, the significance, for people who have never heard of him. It’s not just about the PKK in Turkey.

VIJAY PRASHAD: No, it’s not. The PKK provides, I think, the opportunity for the Turkish government to go after a large number of journalists, because many of these journalists that they’ve picked up are people of the left. The purges in the military, in the judiciary, in those sectors, they’ve blamed on people with sympathies to the Gülen movement or been members of the Gülen movement.

Now, when Mr. Erdogan came to power in the early 2000s, one of the great fears of this kind of Islamist movement was that they would suffer a coup by the military, that the military, which was largely republican, would go and overthrow them. So, from the very beginning, the AKP party, the party of Mr. Erdogan, has been very careful not to antagonize the military. And through the early years, Mr. Gülen’s movement and Erdogan both collaborated in stuffing their people into the military and into the judiciary. In a sense, this is now a family fight, that the very people that they stuffed into the military and into the judiciary have, of course, now turned on Mr. Erdogan. So he is now purging these people from positions of some authority. So it’s not untrue that the Gülenists are inside the military and inside the judiciary, but they were put there essentially to facilitate the Islamization of these institutions.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the Gülen movement, in one of the bizarre examples of what’s happening in education in the United States, runs the largest charter school network in the United States. They have charter schools across the country, especially in Texas. Is there any indication—and they’re bringing in Turkish educators to come into the United States to work in these schools. Do you have a—have you studied that at all?

VIJAY PRASHAD: No, I haven’t looked at that, but I’ve read about it. And the interesting feature, of course, is that this charter school movement or this push towards having faith-based schools in the United States is so closely linked to the agenda not only in Turkey, but in Pakistan, in various other places. And, you know, you see the downside of this: the promotion of a kind of theocratic mindset, the promotion of, you know, a lack of appreciation of the diversity of populations, of minorities, of science, you know, things like that. So, of course, the United States—I’m glad you raised this, because the United States is not somehow outside this process. You know, the United States is very much in this process, not only by promoting this overseas, but, of course, by promoting it from Texas to New York. It’s not only Texas, Juan. We like to think of Texas as a sort of, you know, bastion of the American Taliban, but this American Talibanization has been happening everywhere.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to move from Turkey to Saudi Arabia. While Joe Biden went to Turkey, Secretary of State John Kerry went to Saudi Arabia. Talk about Saudi Arabia and what’s happening today and the U.S. role in Saudi Arabia.

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, this is actually, I think, the most important meeting. And it’s important that Mr. Kerry went to Saudi Arabia before meeting Lavrov in Geneva. And the reason I say this is that, you know, the Russians, the Iranians and the Americans have now come to the understanding that the process in Syria cannot start with the demand that Mr. Assad has to go. And why I say this is that Turkey has in the last couple of weeks come to the same position. So, the current prime minister of Turkey has quite clearly said that they no longer require Mr. Assad to leave as a precondition for the peace process, but he can stay, as the prime minister said, for a transitional period.

The only power in the region, the so-called subjugating powers of the region, that has not accepted this view is Saudi Arabia, and, to some extent, its Gulf Arab allies. You know, Saudi Arabia is fighting an extraordinarily brutal war in Yemen. It is obstinate in that war. It’s made no gains, despite the fact it’s been bombing Yemen for over a year. And, of course, the United States government has continued to resupply Saudi Arabia through this period. So, Mr. Kerry’s—

AMY GOODMAN: Engaged in the largest weapons sale in U.S. history with Saudi Arabia.

VIJAY PRASHAD: Precisely, the largest weapons sale, which Mr. Obama justified on economic grounds, which I thought was the most vulgar thing. In his statement, he said—or his proxy said, his spokesperson said, that this is the largest weapons sale, which benefits most of the states in the United States, because they will have bits and pieces of manufacturing.

But the point I just want to make is that for Mr. Kerry to be in Saudi Arabia is important because one of the features that they need to be pushing is that Saudi Arabia needs to now adopt the view that there needs to be a long transitional process in Syria. They cannot demand the Assad—Mr. Assad leave as a precondition. Everybody else has accepted this except Saudi Arabia.

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