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Paying Attention to Turkish Colonialism

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

Cihan Erdost Akin | 25 November 2019

The Turkish state launched a military offensive in northern Syria on October 9, 2019. The stated purpose of the offensive was to create a “safe zone”. Turkey’s military incursion coincided with the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw U.S troops from northeastern Syria, a decision that left the Kurds, ostensibly U.S. allies, without military protection. The Turkish military offensive has been heavily criticized within the EU. Although most state agents are worried about a potential revival of the Islamic State, public protests and mass media have expressed their concerns about Turkish aggression in the form of genocide or ethnic cleansing. The following newspaper headlines and editorial statements capture the prevailing sentiment: “It is my prediction that we are witnessing the beginning of a Turkish genocide on the Kurds”, “US ending support for Kurds in Syria will lead to genocide”, “After Trump Abandoned Kurds, Turkish Invasion Raises Fear of Kurdish Genocide”. Now that the military offensive is halted, the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) and the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) are accused of committing war crimes, including the execution of civilians and the use of white phosphorus, an incendiary weapon.

While these concerns are legitimate, such media representations draw an incomplete picture and are, thus, problematic. Informed by the stereotype of ‘barbaric Turks on horse-back’, these narratives create an illusion that Turkish forces will leave the region after they finish killing and pillaging. It neglects other atrocities perpetrated by the Turkish state, such as forced displacement, resettlement, and restrictions on cultural rights. In other words, these narratives are problematic because they leave out the (settler) colonial practices, policies, and narratives of the Turkish state and reduce ethnic cleansing to a solitary act of killing.

Although it has attracted the most attention, the Turkish military offensive launched on 9 October 2019 is neither the first nor the most violent. In March 2018, the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) and FSA entered Afrin and started a de-facto occupation of the city. Sources estimate that 300.000 Kurdish residents were displaced, and more than 300 civilians were killed. The story, however, does not end there. Turkish forces confiscated 80 % of the olives in Afrin and took them to Turkey. The Minister of Agriculture told the Turkish parliament in November 2018 that 600 tons of olives had entered the country, and he justified this policy by stating that “we do not want revenues to fall into PKK (the Kurdish insurgency) hands… we want the revenues from Afrin to come to us. This region is under our hegemony”. State agents claimed that revenues from Afrin’s olives would be used to support the Arabic population— which Turkey sees as the ‘rightful owners of the land’— in the region.

In addition to the raw materials of the region, national and cultural symbols and traditions of the local Kurdish population were also targeted during the invasion of Afrin. The statue of Kawa, the blacksmith, a Kurdish hero known for starting an uprising against a tyrant, was destroyed by FSA forces in one of the squares of Afrin city. The FSA arrested several Kurdish people for celebrating the Nowruz festival, also known as ‘Persian new year’, and setting fires on its anniversary. A public park called “al-Assad Park” in the occupied areas of northern Syria was renamed, “Yunus Emre Park” after a 14th-century Turkish poet. Turkish state agents also consistently refuse to use Kurdish city names (such as Kobane) and refer to them by their Arabic names (ayn al-Arab / Spring of the Arabs).

Bringing the discussion back to the most recent Turkish offensive, approximately 300.000 civilians have been displaced, and 120 people killed so far. Policies, practices, and narratives that target the demographics of the region can be observed here as well. Turkish President Erdogan explained one of the motivations behind the military operation as resettling 1 million Syrian refugees residing in Turkey to northern-Syria, and he promised to build 140 new villages in the region. Shelling by TAF has damaged the main water supply, affecting thousands of people who depend on it for safe drinking water in Haseke province. After this occurred, Turkish media outlets circulated visual images depicting Turkish soldiers helping to rebuild the water supply that they had damaged.

Claims of Turkish state officials about helping the locals with the olive oil revenues and (re)building houses and water supplies do not justify Turkish aggression or discredit concerns about ethnic cleansing. On the contrary, they demonstrate the colonial and biopolitical motivations and practices behind the Turkish offensive. Therefore, mobilization against Turkey solely based on the concerns of ethnic cleansing by brute force silences other atrocities perpetrated by the Turkish state, such as damaging infrastructure, forced displacement, and resettlement, and prohibiting symbols of Kurdish nationalism in public spaces. Turkey is enacting settler colonialism, and we need to start paying more attention to it.


Cihan Erdost Akin is a doctoral candidate in International Relations at Central European University (CEU). His research interests lie in the area of Critical Security Studies, ranging from gender approaches and discourse theory to death studies. Currently, Erdost is a visiting doctoral student at University of Gothenburg, funded by the Swedish Institute.


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