Dr Can Erimtan
21st Century Wire
Syria’s not-so civil war is now finally nearing its end . . . but not if Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (or the Prez) can have his way. At present, he seems hell-bent on preserving the province of Idlid as a protected zone, protected by his words and Turkey’s army stationed across the area. But things might not be that easy after all.
Ever since Turkey supposedly switched sides and started co-operating with Russia, Syria’s not-so civil war next door has been a sore spot that made relation between the Turkish and Russian presidents quite tense at times. And now, this sore spot has exploded like a huge pus-filled cyst, covering the Prez and his soldiers in an ill-smelling mixture of blood and misery.
Thursday (27 February 2020) night, pro-AKP television channels started reporting about “Russian” aerial assaults on the Turkish Army (TSK or Türk Silahlı Kuvvetleri), indicating that numerous Turkish soldiers had been injured and many perished in the attack, calling them ‘martyrs’ (şehit, in Turkish). At about the same time, the pro-AKP Daily Sabah carried the following item: “[t]hirty-three Turkish soldiers were killed and 32 others were injured in a Russian-backed Assad regime airstrike in northwestern Syria’s Idlib Thursday, according to the governor of Hatay, Rahmi Doğan. Gov. Doğan initially confirmed the death toll as nine but later increased the number to 22, 29 and eventually, 33. Another 32 wounded Turkish soldiers are in stable condition and are receiving treatment in hospitals, he added. With the attack, the growing alarm in Ankara over the recent escalation of tensions reached a tipping point.”
At that point, Tayyip Erdoğan convened “an impromptu #Idlib summit at his palace in Ankara’s #Beştepe,” as I tweeted subsequently (at 9:34 PM, Feb 27, 2020). This summit seems to have lasted two hours and rather surprisingly, next pro-AKP media reported that the Turkish Army had ‘killed more that 1,700 Syrian soldiers’ (belonging to the Syrian Arab Army or SAA) in the past 17 days. At the same time, Turkish medical doctors apparently active on the ground in the neighbouring Turkish area of Hatay, claimed on social media that the remains of close to a hundred dead Turkish soldiers had arrived in various hospitals across the province. In addition, they indicated that apparretly one complete battalion (tabur, in Turkish) had been struck in the assault. The independent news outlet dokuz8HABER tweeted footage purporting to show the arrival of numerous “lifeless bodies” and “wounded” individuals at the Reyhanlı State Hospital.
Unverified Reports: 240 not 34 Casualties
At about the same time Thursday night, a Turkish YouTube user called “Erdal Erdoğan” posted a video consisting of footage of scenes reminiscent of the just-mentioned dokuz8HABER tweeted video, showing multitudes of people congregating in front of a building that appears to be a hospital. The YouTube video was removed in the course of the same day. Accompanying the images in the now no longer available clip are various voice messages supposedly pertaining to individual Turkish soldiers posted in the region of Idlib. The video starts out with a voice saying that the situation is very dire, that for the past four to five days Turkish positions (arguably referring to the observation posts that have been set upon the recommendation of the consultancy SADAT A.Ş., founded and led by the Sunni zealot Adnan Tanrıverdi) have been assaulted by F-16 fighter jets (this claim seems spurious or simply mistaken, as Syria and Russia do not possess F16 fighters). Continuing his account, the anonymous voice adds that the jets destroy the buildings located inside the Turkish observation posts, and that those soldiers remaining inside do not have any way of escaping and are buried in the rubble. The voice then adds that Turkish soldiers of his unit were able to listen to the attacking forces wireless’ communications via the members of the FSA (or Free Syrian Army now renamed the Syrian National Army), who arguably did the translating. These intercepted messages indicated that the unit to which the anonymous voice belonged was next on the list of targets to be attacked. Rather sheepishly, the anonymous voice next admits that he is now on Turkish soil, as he had been given the task of accompanying the remains of his dead fellow-soldiers (whom he calls, ‘martyrs’) to the Turkish border crossing at Çilvegözü.
Another testimonials adds that the mainstream media (in Turkey) are spreading lies, and that the public should not give them any credence. In the next instance, another voice adds that a battalion belonging to the “65. Mekanize Piyade Tugayı” (or the 65th Mechanised Artillery Brigade, a tank brigade hailing from the Thracian city of Lüleburgaz) was also hit. The İstanbul-based independent news website HaberERK, run by an Editor-in-Chief called Nil Apaydın, ran a story on this tank unit the same night (story published at “22:46”), indicating that “numerous martyrs were incurred as a result of aerial attack” executed by “regime forces.“ In fact, only the sub-headline talks about the tank brigade, while the bulk of the story consists of rehashed bit of information gleaned from Turkey’s mainstream media and the government.
The remainder of the video posted by “Erdal Erdoğan” contains different voices that indicate that “40 martyrs” were transported to Turkey, or that “58 coffins” have been taken to the border town of Reyhanlı or that “20 to 30 martyrs” were transported to the Turkish province of Hatay. An anonymous WhatsApp message (again, as yet unverified) purportedly also belonging to a Turkish soldier stationed in Idlib, and distributed by the already mentioned collective of Turkish medical doctors contains even starker words and images: this testimony indicates that a tank brigade hailing from the province of Tunceli had been brought over to assist the 65th Mechanised Artillery Brigade, only to be completely obliterated from above by yet another aerial attack. The message specifies that Turkish troops suffered many dead and wounded, with many hapless soldiers stuck underneath the rubble of destroyed structures within the compound of the observation post under attack. The anonymous WhatsApp message declares that the Turkish Army suffered approximately 240 casualties as a result of the enemy attack, an attack that took place during the day, starting in the morning.
If anything, these unverified reports clearly indicate that the Prez’s propaganda bullhorns are skillfully spreading fake news (to employ the term popularised if not coined by Donald Trump). And it would seem that the bulk of Turkey’s population readily believes the lies spread by the government and its willing propaganda outlets expert at distributing fake news as the ‘truth’ for those who want to believe.
The Official Response: Stacking the Mountain of Martyrs
On its official website, Turkey’s Armed Forces (TSK), support a webpage with the ominous heading ŞEHİTLERİMİZ (or, ‘OUR MARTYRS’). The page contains the names of two individuals that perished on the 26th of February, and those of 34 others who were ‘martyred’ on Thursday (27 February 2020), the Army thus adheres to the official story, dutifully spread by the pro-AKP mainstream media, while the figure of the Prez himself has been conspicuously absent in the aftermath of Idlib’s Bloody Thursday, only managing to emerge two days later to address a group of AKP deputies at a meeting in Istanbul, telling his believers the following: “I asked Putin for Russia to leave the Turkish forces alone to fight the regime [Syrian government], we can’t seem to understand Russia’s intentions there,” communicating that he had been on the phone again with his Russian counterpart. Erdoğan then sounded a bit like George W. Bush, “[i]f we do not clear our borders from terrorists now, we might have to fight bigger wars inside Turkey later on.” And in a sure way to deflect attention away from Turkish losses, he next started bragging that “[s]everal sites, including airfields, ammunition depots, air defense systems, hangars and chemical weapon production facilities were put under heavy fire and destroyed” – specifying that the TSK had destroyed seven chemical sites, and nearly 300 military vehicles, including 94 tanks, and killed more than 2,100 SAA troops. And that was probably the main message, as claims of 2,100 is a lot more than 240 and a whole lot more than 36.
The independent journalist Ayşenur Arslan, appearing on the opposition television channel Halk TV, remarked that the President’s words were most puzzling indeed and indicative of the latter’s bloodlust. For in the further course of his discourse, Erdoğan namely said that “[w]e have to keep this in mind, the mountain of martyrs is never empty, [and] will not stay empty. If you squeeze these territories, then these lands will gush martyrs,” indicating that he seems prepared to sacrifice more conscripts on the altar of his policy of Sunnification in Idlib. Arslan is correct in her assessment, as these words seem detached from the day-to-day reality of most Turks trying make ends meet in a country that is going through a severe economic crisis at the moment. Even more amazing is the fact that Tayyip Erdoğan used the expression “şüheda” when talking about martyrs. As such, these days very few Turks are probably aware of this expression, as it is the Arabic plural form of the singular noun şehid (spelled with a, in Turkish). It seems that the Prez is ready to sacrifice more innocent lives in the pursuit of his ultimate goal – a goal that I would describe as establishing an Islamic State, first in Idlib (and arguably the whole of Syria) and in the next instance, in the New Turkey.
Ayşenur Arslan was equally baffled by Erdoğan’s answer to the query why the Turkish Army is actually present in Syria. Arguably in an attempt to upstage Putin, who sent his forces into Syria upon having received an official invitation, the Turkish President quipped that the Turkish Army is at present in Syria, upon the “invitation of the Syrian people” and the absurdity of the statement speaks for itself.
Tactics of Diversion: Playing the Refugee Card
The Prez has been at pains to keep the Turkish people’s minds occupied by means of boasting about the numbers of SAA soldiers killed and about the amount of Syrian hardware destroyed. And in another “genius move,” as worded by the independent journalist Adem Yavuz Arslan, Erdoğan next played a hand revealing his often-mentioned refugee card as a persuasive instrument of pressure on the EU. While also diverting attention from the fact that Turkish troops and Turkish observation posts on Syrian soil probably do constitute a valid casus belli, the Prez has now rekindled 2015’s refugee fire: “We cannot handle a new influx of refugees but we cannot leave those people at the mercy of the Assad regime either . . . What did we do yesterday [Friday]? We opened the doors. We will not close those doors . . . Why? Because the European Union should keep its promises.”
For, the West’s mainstream media as well as Turkey’s pro-AKP propaganda outlets have for the past weeks and months continuously repeated the mantra that Idlid as the last ‘rebel’ stronghold (as if the Jihadi terrorist of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and/or its many allies and/or affiliates were Jedi Knights fighting the Evil Empire) on the verge of falling for the cruel and inhumane onslaught of Assad and his Russian allies. This narrative is very similar or perhaps I should say, the same as the one employed in Libya back in 2011.
The population of Idlib has presently swollen to an UN-estimated “3 million people, including 1 million children” from a mere million and a half in 2011. This means that about 500,000 opponents of the Assad government have fled to the north-west of the country, as they apparently felt more at ease living under a network of Sharia courts, instituted by HTS. In the meantime, these 500,000 adults managed to produce one million children, though some of them might have simply joined their fleeing parents, while a fair amount of these children were probably born in Idlib. And that would mean that about a million and a half Sharia-minded refugees would end up in the New Turkey. In fact, as hard figures are not readily available to indicate the actual percentage of Idlib’s original population remaining in the province, the numbers might be a lot bigger . . . but at the very least, 1.5 million Syrians could arguably end up on the Prez’s doorstep. But in reality, the refugees that are now flocking to the Greek border or are now attempting to cross the Mediterranean to get to the Greeks islands are for the most part people that have fled dire circumstances in Afghanistan, Pakistan or any other location exhibiting undesirable living conditions and who through whatever tortuous route have ended up in AKP-led Turkey.
If anything, this denotes that Recept Tayyip Erdoğan is playing a most disingenuous game with the EU and the population of Turkey . . . he is at present playing poker with two separate hands: one promising a replenishing of the mountain of martyrs with Turkish citizens and the other, blackmailing the EU with multitudes of brown-skinned people fleeing unstable regions and desirous of a better life.
Will people be able to call his bluff this time or will he reveal himself yet again to be an accomplished and cunning trickster . . . an artful trickster employing fake news and human misery to his best advantage?
21WIRE special contributor Dr. Can Erimtan is an independent historian and geo-political analyst who used to live in Istanbul. At present, he is in self-imposed exile from Turkey. He has a wide interest in the politics, history and culture of the Balkans, the greater Middle East, and the world beyond. He attended the VUB in Brussels and did his graduate work at the universities of Essex and Oxford. In Oxford, Erimtan was a member of Lady Margaret Hall and he obtained his doctorate in Modern History in 2002. His publications include the revisionist monograph “Ottomans Looking West?” as well as numerous scholarly articles. In Istanbul, Erimtan started publishing in Today’s Zaman and in Hürriyet Daily News. In the next instance, he became the Turkey Editor of the İstanbul Gazette. Subsequently, he commenced writing for RT Op-Edge, NEO, and finally, the 21st Century Wire. You can find him on Twitter at @theerimtanangle. Read Can’s archive here.
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