Erdoğan’s ‘Solidarity’ With Palestine Is Just a Vehicle for His Own Nationalism

Turkey’s leader is more anti-Kurd than pro-Palestinian.

by Ronî Özdemir

14 November 2023

Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at a Palestine solidarity rally in Istanbul, October 2023. Umit Turhan Coskun/Reuters

If you’ve taken part in any of the marches against Israel’s bombing of Gaza in the last month, you’ll likely have spotted the Turkish flag being waved in support of the Palestinian cause. Although it represents neither the decolonial glory of the Algerian flag nor the Arab solidarity of the Lebanese or Jordanian flags, it’s nonetheless unsurprising that Turkey’s red banner should be seen at these protests. 

Turkey’s rightwing president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been vocal in his unilateral support of the Palestinian people and his condemnation of Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel’s assault on the Gaza strip. Addressing the hundreds of thousands who gathered at a rally in Istanbul in October in support of Palestine, Erdoğan, wearing a traditional Palestinian chequered scarf, denounced Israel as an “occupier” and a “war criminal”.

Yet for many, the Turkish flag isn’t a symbol of liberation from an oppressive regime, but quite the opposite. Indeed, others have pointed out the hypocrisy of Erdoğan’s denunciation of Israeli war crimes when the Turkish state has been carrying out airstrikes in the Autonomous Administration of North-East Syria (AANES), targeting civilians, and damaging critical infrastructure – leaving millions without clean water and power.

Just as Israel has pointed to Hamas to legitimise airstrikes on Palestinians, Turkey’s foreign minister has justified its assault against Kurds in Syria as an attack on ‘legitimate terrorist targets’. This comes in response to a suicide bombing in Ankara, carried out by members of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). As Elham Ahmad, executive president of the Syrian Democratic Council, put it: “Erdoğan made a statement [about Gaza], saying targeting water, electricity, hospitals, mosques, schools, is a crime, but when he targets the same facilities in NES [north-east Syria], he considers it fighting terrorism.” Despite the unprecedented intensity of the attacks, Turkish military assaults are nothing new to the area, where, following the Syrian Civil War, incursions by Turkish forces and Turkish-backed militias have led to the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands living in north-eastern Syria, including Kurds, Assyrians and Armenians. 

But to understand Turkey’s actions purely as a matter of hypocrisy is to see only half the picture. Turkey’s official support for the Palestinian struggle doesn’t just distract from its own war crimes, but mobilises Palestinian suffering in order to justify Turkey’s own attacks on north-east Syria. 

By highlighting relations between Israel and Kurdish militants in Syria, as well as Israeli support for Kurdish self-determination, Turkish politicians and media outlets have sought to further demonise Kurds as ‘terrorists’ by depicting Kurdish militants as Israeli mercenaries. During his speech at Istanbul’s pro-Palestine rally, Erdoğan claimed that the YPG (the People’s Defense Units, operating in Syria) and the PKK were supported by Israel, with all three parties standing in the way of Turkey’s fight against terrorism. Such baseless claims have been repeated by Turkey’s national broadcaster, TRT, and distorted further by other parts of the rightwing press, which said that PKK members had been paid to participate in Israel’s attack on Gaza as part of jointly-orchestrated plan by the US and Israel. 

At the same time, there’s good reason to suspect that Turkey’s condemnation of Israel is little more than political posturing. In recent weeks, opposition MPs have called on the Turkish government to address its own involvement in Israel’s military-industrial complex, noting that IDF pilots previously underwent part of their training in the Turkish city of Konya. What’s more, while Turkey has joined other nations such as Bolivia and South Africa in severing diplomatic ties with Israel, this is yet to be met with a commitment to economic and military divestment. Despite calls from Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei for a total boycott of oil exports to Israel, Turkey has continued to allow oil exports from its close ally, Azerbaijan – which provides around 40% of Israel’s oil – to pass through the port of Ceyhan, where it is then shipped to Israel’s Eilat Port. 

Indeed, this performance of condemnation between Erdoğan and Netanyahu is nothing new. Netanyahu himself has joked about Erdoğan’s public criticisms of him, suggesting these are empty words. And crucially, where Israel and Turkey’s military interests have coincided, accusations of ethnic cleansing have fallen silent on both sides, such as with their mutual support for Azerbaijan in its military offensive and recapturing of Nagorno-Karabakh in September, which led to the displacement of over 100,000 ethnic Armenians

Once Turkey’s shallow and inconsistent solidarity with Palestine is understood as being ultimately tied up in its own national interests, then Erdoğan’s impassioned cry that Gaza was once an inseparable part of Ottoman territory begins to sound less like a call for kinship with Palestinians and more like an extension of his nationalist fantasies of an imperial Turkish homeland. 

Indeed, while Erdoğan speaks of the Turkish people coming together “to support [their] Palestinian brothers and sisters in Gaza”, it’s worth keeping in mind that these comments come at a time of high anti-Arab racism and xenophobia in Turkey, which, following the influx of Syrian refugees as a result of the Syrian Civil War, has only worsened with Turkey’s current economic crisis. Despite his proclamations of a pan-Ottoman fraternity, Erdoğan has proven that he’s not above wielding refugees as a political tool, as indicated by his infamous threat in 2019 to “open the gates and send 3.6 million refugees” into Europe. 

After capturing formerly Kurdish-held areas of north-east Syria since 2018, Turkey has begun to resettle Syrian refugees, as well as internally displaced Syrians, in the empty homes and villages of (mostly Kurdish) civilians who had fled the violence. This has been criticised as a project of forced demographic engineering that seeks to strengthen Turkey’s position in the region by “Arabising” these previously ethnically-diverse areas and instating a pro-Turkish zone along the country’s border with Syria. Kurds have decried the irony of the fact that a small but growing number of such settlements have been funded by Palestinian NGOs (while being condemned by the Palestinian foreign minister, Riyad al-Maliki). With over 70% of Gaza’s population already displaced by Israeli bombardment, there’s increasing speculation as to whether Turkey’s co-option of the Palestinian struggle will extend to the eventual resettlement of Palestinian refugees in Syria in order to complete its project of an ethnically Arab, pro-Turkish buffer zone. 

By taking Erdoğan’s ‘solidarity’ at face value, those seeking Palestinian liberation run the risk of allowing the cause to become a pawn in Turkey’s self-interested domestic and foreign policy agenda. This will come at a great cost not just to the Kurdish people, but to many others in the region too. True solidarity with Palestinians must mean principled opposition to occupation, genocide and ethnic cleansing. To accept anything less is to let the struggle be co-opted in the service of further violence.

Ronî Özdemir is a freelance writer based in London.


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