Silent/Invisible Resistance to Turkish Military

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"Vicdani ret" graffiti

At the beginning of March 2018, Ahmet Alcan declared his desertion from the Turkish army, becoming the only person to publicly announce their refusal to take part in the war in Afrin. Ahmet left the army just three days before his deployment. “Together with me two other soldiers were called up. It seems that they have to take part in the operation in Afrin. The soldiers don’t want to go but they are forced to.”1 Turkish authorities have announced that only professional soldiers have been deployed in Syria during the military operation, but human rights activists and other sources report that conscripts were also sent to Syria.

On March 18, 2018, Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan announced the victory in Afrin, as units of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) backed by Turkish troops entered the town. Just one week later Erdoğan announced that Turkey will take control of the neighbouring area Tal Rifaat as well.2 Some days later the Turkish Security Council decided to intervene in Manbij, another area close to Turkey and controlled by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), who are backed by the USA: “Unless the terrorists leave Manbij immediately, Turkey will not hesitate to take the initiative there, as it has done in other regions.”3 The belligerent policy of the Turkish government to attack and invade areas in neighbouring countries like Syria continues.

According to numbers published in The Guardian, over 200,000 civilians have fled the Kurdish-majority city and many dozens have been killed since the Turkish invasion.4 At the end of March, the Afrin Liberation Congress, held under Turkey’s authority, announced that the region will be governed as part of the Turkish province of Antakya.5 Writing in the Independent, Patrick Cockburn indicated that Yezidi Kurds were forced to convert to Islam and that names of villages were changed.6 In May 2018 the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) confirmed that Turkey was settling Palestinian refugees in Afrin.7 It seems that Turkey aims to expel the Kurdish population in this area to break the role of the Kurds majority.

In July 2018, the Turkish government declared it's withdrawal from Afrin, but the Free Syrian Army which controls the area is still backed by Turkey. The governor is sent by the Turkish authorities from Hatay, and Islamic rules are dominating everyday life.8

Refusing to participate in the Turkish military

During the war, the number of requests to support groups for war resisters in Istanbul increased. Recruits were asking for help to avoid being called up - they didn’t want to go to the military and risk being ordered to fight in Afrin or in another war zone. They didn’t want it to be known by the publicly - they didn’t declare their conscientious objection - but their decision was quite clear: to say no to the war.

According to the website of the Association for Conscientious Objection (http://vicdaniret.org/), about 300 men have declared their conscientious objection in recent years. The number is not high but only includes people who chose to make their declaration public. The real number is not known. On the other hand it shouldn’t be underestimated, how important their decision is to go on public and to make clear which are the reasons to refuse.

Among these refusers is the ecologist and conscientious objector Sergen Sucu. He came under investigation recently. Investigations are opened over and over again against supporters of conscientious objectors like the Co-chair of the Conscientious Objection Association, Merve Arkun, recently. Both Sucu and Arkun are accused of terrorist propaganda.9

Conscientious objectors and their supporters are put under repeated investigation by authorities – Sergen Seku, an ecologist and conscientious objector, and Merve Arkun, the co-chair of the Conscientious Objection Assocation, have both been recently accused of spreading terrorist propaganda.10

As well as the small number of people who declare their objection publicly, there are vast numbers of men who do not declare their objection, but still hide and avoid contact with authorities. They are classed by the Turkish state as “evaders”. Based on the information given by the Minister of Defence in March 2017 there are around 450,000 evaders.11

Another category are those conscripts living in Turkey who prefer to pay money to receive exemption from military service, a process known as ‘paid service’. This is only a possibility occasionally, in accordance with specific laws. Recently, July 26, 2018, the Turkish parliament passed a new bill with a regulation valid for three months.12 The last paid service law, which passed in 2014 and only valid for conscripts who were older than 27, was used by about 204,000 men.13

Turkish conscripts living abroad are also eligible for paid service at any time, and hundreds of thousands have used this process in the past.14

The Turkish Minister of Defence recently released figures on another group of conscripts - those who are deemed medical unfit to serve. According to a response to a parliamentary questionnaire15, between 1st January 2015 and 31st July 2017, 155,059 men received medical reports stating that they are not liable to perform military service.16 Additionally, numbers given by the Minister of Defence in March 2017 suggest there are 2.8 million people who have postponed their military service on legal grounds.17

Millions of Turkish people try to avoid going to the military. It seems that there is a high but often unseen level of disobedience, as young men vote with their feet. Under the current circumstances in Turkey, with high levels of oppression, there is less chance that this will be made public, so single individuals speaking out about their refusal is very important.

1 ANF News: Mutiger Soldat desertiert, statt nach Afrin in den Krieg zu ziehen. March 1, 2018. https://anfdeutsch.com/rojava-syrien/mutiger-soldat-desertiert-statt-na…

2 https://ahvalnews.com/turkish-politics/we-will-take-control-tal-rifaat-…

3 https://ahvalnews.com/manbij/turkish-security-council-resolved-take-man…

4 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/mar/18/turkey-claims-afrin-city-…

5 https://ahvalnews.com/afrin/congress-makes-afrin-part-turkish-province

6 https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/syria-yazidis-isis…

7 https://ahvalnews.com/afrin/turkey-settling-palestinians-syrias-afrin-un

8 NZZ, July 5, 2018, https://www.nzz.ch/international/die-tuerkei-macht-sich-unter-den-kurde…

9 https://www.wri-irg.org/en/story/2018/turkey-investigation-against-conscientious-objection-association-co-chair-merve-arkun and https://anfdeutsch.com/aktuelles/Sirnex-kriegsdienstverweigerer-festgen…

10 https://www.wri-irg.org/en/story/2018/turkey-investigation-against-conscientious-objection-association-co-chair-merve-arkun and https://anfdeutsch.com/aktuelles/Sirnex-kriegsdienstverweigerer-festgen…

11 http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/gundem/bakandan-flas-bedelli-askerlik-acikla…

12 Information given by Turkish activists, July 28, 2018 as well as https://www.haberler.com/bedelli-askerlik-duzenlemesini-iceren-torba-yasa-11110097-haberi, August 3, 2018

13 https://www.a24.com.tr/bedelli-askerlikte-son-durum-nedir---2018de-bede…

14 Gürsel Yıldırım und Julian Irlenkäuser: Die Freikaufsregelung – Ein Milliardengeschäft. In: Türkei – Es gibt viele Gründe Nein zu sagen, Offenbach 2013.

15 A parliamentary question is a way of obtaining information from the Prime Minister or minister through a motion on certain matters concerning the duties and activities of the government.  Questions can be oral or written depending on the required form of reply. https://global.tbmm.gov.tr/index.php/EN/yd/icerik/34

16 http://www.haber7.com/siyaset/haber/2461072-bakan-acikladi-curuk-raporu…

17 According to the art.35 of the Law on Conscription (no.1111) there are different grounds for postponement such as education and health issues.

Author information

Rudi Friedrich is founder and Coordinator of Connection e.V. This article has been written together with a Turkish activist who cannot be named due to security concerns.

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