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  • Oct 16, 2019

Contemporary Istanbul Chair Defends Turkish Military Offensive In Syria

Contemporary Istanbul chairperson *ALI G

The chairman of Contemporary Istanbul art fair, Ali Güreli, has penned a statement defending the Turkish military offensive against territories held by Kurdish-led forces in northeast Syria. 

Addressed to “Friends of Contemporary Istanbul,” Güreli’s statement was emailed to the media and clients of the fair on October 14 (though dated September 14). In the message Güreli lambasts the international press for “totally inaccurate reporting” and for spreading “black propaganda” in its coverage of Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring. Parroting the Turkish government’s euphemisms and rationales, the letter claims that the military campaign “does not target any ethnic group, nation, or country; rather, it purely and simply aims to neutralize the elements that pose a terrorist threat on a regional and global scale as well as to our country.”

Turkey’s military, working together with allied Syrian militias, launched Operation Peace Spring on October 9. The offensive has drawn international condemnation due to reports of dozens of civilian casualties, at least 160,000 people displaced in the first week, and the escape of at least 750 ISIS affiliates from prisons guarded by Kurdish security forces in the region. The invasion has stoked fears of a resurgence of ISIS amid regional instability, as well as humanitarian concerns over the ethnic cleansing of local Kurdish populations.

Güreli’s statement is in keeping with the Turkish government’s official line that the offensive targets the terrorist threat posed by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—former allies of the United States in the fight against ISIS—and aims to secure a “safe zone” for the resettlement of Syrian refugees. Güreli characterizes the SDF’s primary militia, the majority-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG/PYD), as “the Syrian offshoot” of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), an internationally designated terror organization that the Turkish state has long sought to quash since its formation in the 1970s. The statement focuses on the need to eradicate the “terror zone” that Güreli claims the YPG/PYD have tried to establish along Turkey’s southeastern border. “This is an existential issue not only for Turkey but also for our region and the whole world in general not to mention that European countries need to be protected from instability and by consequence, from the flow of more refugees into its lands,” he added. The latter phrase echoes Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s threats to European Union officials to allow more refugees into Europe via Turkey if the EU does not deliver economic aid. 

Contemporary Istanbul is sponsored by the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, as well as the partly state-owned Turkish Airlines. The fair completed its 14th edition in 2019, with 74 galleries, many newly recruited by the incoming artistic director Anissa Touati, an independent curator from France. 

Güreli’s views, while reflecting the portrayal of the events in Turkey’s tightly controlled and heavily censored media, are not likely to sit well with many international galleries. The leaders of several major European countries, including France and Germany, have been particularly vocal in their opposition to Turkey’s incursion into Kurdish-controlled Syria, while also blaming the US’s sudden withdrawal of troops for creating a power vacuum in the region. 

Within Turkey, the government has been swift to crack down on any vocal opposition to the military offensive. In southeastern Turkey, co-mayors of several Kurdish municipalities were taken into detention and their homes were raided. Most were members of the pro-minority, Kurdish-supporting Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP). In Istanbul, nine members of HDP were arrested for allegedly spreading terrorist propaganda after giving a press statement in the central Beşiktaş district. Prosecutors in Ankara have also targeted for investigation opposition politicians against the military offensive, including a member of parliament from the CHP for Istanbul, Sezgin Tanrıkulu, for “openly degrading the State of the Republic of Turkey” over a critical remark posted on Twitter.  

Güreli himself proclaimed he was confident that the military offensive will have no broader financial impact on Turkey, ending his statement by noting that the country’s economy “has boosted its immunity thanks to the recent attacks it was exposed to, resulting in upward accelerating economic indicators that reflect positively on the art scene and market.” 

Ophelia Lai is ArtAsiaPacific’s associate editor.

HG Masters is ArtAsiaPacific’s deputy editor and deputy publisher.

To read more of ArtAsiaPacific’s articles, visit our Digital Library.

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