Nurcan Baysal expected her tweets and writing opposing Turkey’s recent military intervention in Syria and calling for peace would prompt an official reaction, maybe even an arrest.
But what the writer and activist didn’t anticipate was police storming into her house on Jan. 22 in the southeast city of Diyarbakir, terrifying her family. She was hauled away and held at a police station for two days before being released pending trial.
“Detention was not a surprise,” she told BuzzFeed News. “I have been writing on human rights violations, war crimes in the region for so long, so I was expecting it. But I didn’t expect them to break down my door. I tried to keep my children safe when I heard the noise.”
Turkish authorities have cracked down vehemently on those publicly opposed to an ongoing military intervention in Syria’s Afrin region — an example of the constriction of public dissent that occurs in countries during times of war.
Turkish armed forces and allied Syrian Arab fighters launched their offensive in the Afrin section of Syria, since when at least 15 Turkish soldiers have been killed according to the pro-government Aksam newspaper. The 1,000-square-mile pocket of northwest Syria is controlled by a Kurdish militia, the YPG, and a political party, the PYD, which independent analysts consider branches or outgrowths of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.
“I didn’t expect them to break down my door”
Turkey has accused opponents of the Afrin intervention of supporting terrorists. It has detained more than 400 people who have signed on to statements against the conflict or posted statements on social media, though most have been quickly released ahead of trial. In the most high-profile action, authorities on Jan. 30 began detaining the entire leadership board of the Turkish Medical Association for issuing a statement opposing the conflict on public health grounds. All have been released pending trial.
“We have never heard these terrorist-lovers ever say yes to peace up to the present day,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Jan. 26, denouncing the doctors’ statement as disingenuous and harmful to Turkish armed forces at a time of war. “Did we ever hear of the slightest statement aimed at those carrying out domestic terrorism?”
During a wide-ranging meeting with international journalists in Istanbul on Saturday, Erdogan’s spokesperson and senior adviser Ibrahim Kalin insisted that Turkey welcomed constructive criticism of the war effort so long as it didn’t serve as a propaganda tool for the enemy, or violate laws that bar the glorification of terrorism.
“If they were consistent in their opposition to war under all circumstances, things would have been very different,” he said. “Whenever there is an issue that touches the YPG, PKK, PYD, they suddenly turn into these global, humanist anti-war groups. Our soldiers are fighting for our country’s border and safety and the people of Afrin, and they’re spreading these kinds of views telling people that war is dirty, war is a health problem.”
Kalin said the doctors association was taking a “clearly political stance” that potentially harmed the morale of soldiers in harm’s way and couldn’t be ignored by the authorities. “How about those soldiers fighting on Syrian territories?” he told journalists. “What kind of message do they get? They put their lives at risk so that we can be safe and free here now you’re saying things that directly or indirectly knowingly or unknowingly end up supporting the people they’re fighting.”
Opponents of the war have countered that they have consistently spoken out against armed conflicts, including some in the region also vocally opposed by Erdogan and his allies. An article in the opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet listed the times the Turkish Medical Association spoke out against wars, including against the US invasion of Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as bombings carried out in Turkey by Kurdish separatists.
“We will keep struggling for a country where not a single person is killed or injured,” the association reportedly declared after a June 2016 bombing claimed by a PKK offshoot which killed five police officers and six civilians in the Vezneciler district of Istanbul. “Our struggle is for a peaceful and democratic country.”
“The paranoia held by Turks is that foreigners are trying to divide up Turkey,” she said, speaking on condition of anonymity because she didn’t want to strain relations with the authorities. “Nationalism is on the rise and a lot of Turks are supporting the war. “
Still, it remains impossible to know how many Turks oppose the Afrin operation, which is made all the more complicated by its entanglement in the Kurdish issue that has been a central theme of Turkish politics and identity for decades.
Kurds, one of the world’s largest ethnolinguistic groups without a homeland, make up perhaps a fifth of Turkey’s 80 million people but have been discriminated against since the founding of the country in 1923. A decades-old on-and-off war between the PKK and the central government has left tens of thousands dead, millions displaced, and entire stretches of the Kurdish southeast devastated. At the height of the war, when secular generals rather than Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted political party dominated the government, little public dissent was allowed.
“It was never easy to defend peace in Turkey, especially in Kurdistan,” said Baysal, who noted that she has also spoken out against terrorist attacks carried out by the PKK in Turkey. “But it was also not this difficult in the past. We used to organize meetings and bring representatives from both sides together even during the tough times. But today that is not possible. Today, defending peace is equal to terrorism. ‘Don’t say a word about peace. Applaud war.’ That is what they are telling us.”
Baysal continues to speak out against the Afrin war, both on social media and in her articles. Despite the crackdown, on Jan. 25, more than 170 signatories, including former ministers, writers, actors, and journalists, sent a letter to the members of parliament calling for an end to the military operation.
At a press conference on Wednesday, the Turkish Doctors Association elaborated in vivid detail on the reasons for its opposition to the Afrin intervention, which it insisted was rooted in concern for civilian life and public health infrastructure.
“In our days wars are not fought as pitched battles,” said the statement, read aloud by a representative of the group in Ankara. “They take place in urban centres, settlements where children, women, elderly people, and civilians live. Civilians are killed and injured. Children succumb to nightmares. Water and sanitation systems are destroyed, Diseases spread, and farmlands are devastated, followed by hunger, famine, and migration. Health systems break apart and access to health services becomes impossible. Physical, biological and psychological effects of the weapons used bring along full disaster to civilians.
“It is for these reasons that doctors siding with human life and health in all circumstances define cases of armed conflict where all kinds of weapons are used as a preventable public health problem, and ask for urgent peace.”