By Aykan Erdemir
1 February 2018
On January 20, the Turkish government launched a ground offensive into north-western Syria, codenamed “Operation Olive Branch.” Ankara’s ongoing intervention in Syria’s Afrin region aims to clear the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian Kurdish force, away from Turkey’s southern border. Meanwhile, in north-eastern Syria, other YPG units continue to serve as the most effective ground force within the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition. With the offensive, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not only aiming to eliminate the YPG presence in Afrin, but also dissidents at home.
At the outset of the Afrin operation, the Turkish president issued an unequivocal threat to the opposition not to protest the offensive. “Know that wherever you go out on the streets our security forces are on your necks,” Erdogan said. The Turkish police proved that these were not empty threats by arresting protestors in Istanbul and charging them with “propagandizing for a terrorist organization.” They even went as far to detain others elsewhere on the suspicion that they were thinking about holding a protest.
Erdogan’s threats provoked a similar hysteria in pro-government media. A radio host called for “shooting” people who oppose the Afrin operation regardless of whether they are “journalists or lawmakers.” The witch hunt on pro-government channels went as far as broadcasting a list of celebrities who failed to share support for the military operation from their social media accounts. Meanwhile, more than three hundred individuals, including opposition politicians, were detained for their social media posts criticizing the offensive.
Although most media outlets were careful to toe the government line in their coverage of the “Olive Branch,” the few who dared to offer critical reports suffered the consequences. The police stormed the homes of five journalists, including the Cologne-based Arti TV’s Ankara correspondent and a contributor to the German daily Die Tageszeitung, and even went as far to break down the door of T24 columnist Nurcan Baysal’s home during a midnight raid.
Turkey’s NGOs also became targets of Erdogan’s crackdown. The chair and ten other senior members of the Turkish Medical Association, which criticized the Afrin operation, were detained for “propaganda in support of a terrorist organization, and provoking the public.” Erdogan called members of the association “filth” and “terrorist lovers.” Istanbul University promptly suspended two of the detained physicians while Turkey’s Central Bank fired another on its payroll.
Erdogan’s crackdown has extended even beyond secular organizations and circles. Turkish police raided the headquarters and branches of an Islamist foundation that criticized the operation, detaining its president and 21 members on charges of “disturbing public order” and “establishing a criminal organization” before shuttering it a few days later. In Diyarbakir, a complaint was filed about an imam who refused to deliver the government-penned Friday sermon in support of the Afrin operation. At another mosque in the same city, people who protested a pro-offensive sermon were detained as they were leaving the mosque.
In Afrin, a speedy military victory might be out of reach for Erdogan. The Turkish president, however, has already won a battle on the home front by using the offensive as a pretext to crush whatever remains of Turkey’s battered civil society, making it one of the major casualties of the “Olive Branch.”
Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies.