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Cutting Cords to Kurds: Facebook’s Foreign Policy

One of my correspondents (let’s call her Jinwar), a supporter of autonomous areas in northwestern Kurdistan, notified me that Facebook had deleted her support group’s page plus her personal page as well those of others, requesting that this graphic be shared widely on social media. (But before doing so, please read the last four paragraphs.)

As deciding whether a social media post abets terrorism, utters hate speech, or promulgates fake news involves judgment calls, the US Government wants to help. And so, it is worrisome—as has been reported—that at Facebook, federal agents mingle with house “content managers” to provide guidance on whether to flag a user or to deep-six a post, an image or video, or an account. It seems that, as the CIA’s “secret team” once did unto the news media, they now train social media platforms how to self-censor.

It was not Jinwar’s opinion that the US Government forced this action. It was Turkish threats to block Facebook there caused it to buckle, she believed:

We have a FB document showing that far from being a “neutral platform” FB agreed to suppress any favorable mention of Ocalan or Aposim as an agreement with Turkey to operate there. I had recently posted an event for an on-line reading group to read Ocalan’s Manifesto for a Democratic Civilization. It’s the ideas that they can’t stand.

Turkey under Erdoğan tightly clamps a lid on social and mass media. Recall that it leads the world in incarcerating journalists, has shuttered and appropriated newspapers and TV stations, and pulled the plug on social media in the run-up to elections.

Whether or not you buy her hypothesis, you have to wonder why FB would, all at once, suspend my correspondent’s account along with a dozen others who expressed solidarity with the Rojavans, whose militias have been a critical US ally against ISIS. The deleted accounts included Boston Friends of Rojava and Syria, Friends of Rojava in North America, and the Institute for Social Ecology, along with page administrators’ and other personal accounts. Put to sleep, just like that, with no notice or explanation.

There’s nothing new here folks, just move along. Facebook has obligingly and energetically been censoring the Kurdish resistance for at least five years. Listen to Christopher Livesay’s report on PRI radio from two years ago.

If even a picture of a funeral in Kobani of a Kurdish partisan and a map of Kurdistan with a peace symbol were off-limits to Facebook’s censors, why should scrubbing supporters of Syrian Kurds come as a surprise? But that was two years ago. What brought it about this time?

You probably know that Turkey’s “Kurdish problem” goes quite a ways back. Iraq and Syria’s also, mostly thanks to the victors of WWI—particularly the British—redrawing the map of the Middle East willy-nilly. For over twenty years, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PPK) has been warring with Ankara. In the conflict’s first decade, PKK executed officials, car-bombed businesses, hotels, and government buildings, shot up students and teachers in schools American-style, and deployed other terror tactics, particularly in Eastern Turkey where Kurds live as second-class citizens.

In response, Ankara orchestrated assassinations of activists, massacred or relocated residents of Kurdish villages and neighborhoods, kicked out Kurdish members of parliament, banned their political parties, and arrested local Kurdish elected officials. Not just Erdoğan, but nearly every Turkish regime since the Republic was founded has gone out of its racist way to stamp out Kurdishness. Like children or black folk, Kurds are to be seen going about their business but not heard. Then in the 80s when blowback came in the form of PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) armed resistance, Turkey put a price on the head of Abdullah Öcalan, PKK’s founder, maximum leader, and radical ideologue. Pete Dolack writes:

Öcalan escaped Turkey after a military coup that led to hundreds of thousands of Kurds thrown into jail; he and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) he leads were granted asylum in Syria. In the late 1990s, under Turkish pressure, Syria expelled the PKK, and a year later, Mr. Öcalan was abducted from a Greek consulate (a kidnapping believed to be a CIA operation) and has been imprisoned in Turkey since.

After civil war came to Syria, with no reliable allies and scant resources, the PKK fielded militias—the People’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ). Their struggle against ISIS attracted foreign fighters (some who quit after belatedly discovering that their Kurdish comrades were commies). In 2015 they repelled ISIS from Kobani and proceeded to federate three communes in northwest Syria, calling it Rojava (Kurdish for West), into a non-sectarian egalitarian participatory democracy with women coequal in both war and peace, following Ocalan’s precepts.

A loose network of humanitarians, leftists, and Kurdish ex-pats in Europe and North America actively supports Rojava and Öcalan’s ideas, mainly by publicizing the nascent socialist polity. Rojava’s “Democratic confederalism” is built around Öcalan’s new, kinder, gentler teachings smuggled out from jail on İmralı, an island in the Sea of Marmara devoted entirely to his incarceration. Öcalan has made good use of his solitude, managing to publish eight books and other shorter publications over the past 10 years that have been translated into 11 languages.

Scarcely a month ago, with US air and logistical support, YPG and YPJ (women’s detachments) brigades drove ISIS from its stronghold of Raqqa, Syria. With ISIS on the run and purportedly with ten or so US bases scattered across Rojava, its US protectors are now well situated to do what they will with it. Washington is unlikely to let the Assad regime reassert its influence over the region, but could use that possibility as a bargaining chip with Turkey. Ankara has its own ideas about what to do with Kurdistan. It maintains that YPG/J is just PKK under an assumed name and seems intent on stomping out the flame of Rojava.

My correspondent suspects that Facebook axed Rojava supporters’ pages in order to make nice with Erdoğan and his apparatchiks. I see it more as a double play involving US intelligence agencies. Facebook has a long, dirty history of censoring posts and badgering its users, unfriending any who they believe isn’t using his or her “authentic name.” Knowing true identities spares US intelligence agencies from having to figure out who’s who there.

Forget the “fake news” stories Russian trolls planted on Facebook that liberals are making a row about. As Julian Assange told RTV, Facebook is the “most appalling spy machine that has ever been invented.” (Would that users who realize this flee to mingle at privacy-obsessed MeWe, or better yet, with neighbors.) All might ponder that their ever-loving Facebook is likely in good part the creation of the US intelligence community; an investor linked to In-Q-Tel (the CIA’s venture capital arm) staked Facebook with $14M in 2005, before the portal opened to the general public.

And as Edward Snowden revealed and the Guardian and Washington Post reported, the NSA’s PRISM media surveillance program friended not just Facebook, but Google, Apple, AOL, Twitter and other hangouts. NSA tasked them to filter and share social media posts and emails in its earnest efforts to identify and connect the dots between activists and terrorist causes, ID-ing many bystanders in the process.

* * *

But then, the day after Facebook had disappeared Kurdish resistance pages, it unblocked them. Jinwar claimed it happened because “there was a lot of behind the scenes as well as ‘make a scene’ that got us back on FB (individuals and pages). Right now we’re drawing attention to the 11,000 HDP members arrested.” Yes, that’s right; Erdoğan ordered a mass roundup of members of the largest Kurdish political party. Next step will be to kick it out of Parliament and then dissolve it, the fate of most Kurdish and leftist parties under various Turkish regimes. Interesting coincidence: Turkey purges Kurds and Facebook purges their pages. How convenient.

Did pressure from Rojava advocates cause Facebook to reverse itself, as Jinwar thinks, or were other forces at work? Suppose Facebook had been persuaded to take down those pages temporarily to see who would complain, providing new dots for the secret team to connect? A simple heuristic to identify dissenters and suppress them, should that ever again be required.

Why would our shadow government care who supports the Rojava experiment? Could it be preparing to betray Kurds in Syria as it did by aiding Baghdad’s attack on Erbil? Handing over a handy pile of dossiers on Kurdish sympathisers to Erdoğan for a consideration (possibly involving operations at Incerlik air base) is not beyond possibility.

In fact, the betrayal is already taking place. Ankara recently claimed that Trump told Erdoğan that the US will cut off arms shipments to the YPG. While Washington hasn’t acknowledged that pledge, it could well look the other way Turkey decide to occupy Rojava. Turkey also launched yet another crackdown on YPG and Gülen sympathisers. At the end of November it arrested 663 suspected Gülenists and a grab bag  of dissidents and ordinary folk for using an encrypted communications app called ByLock:

The Supreme Court of Appeals’ Assembly of Criminal Chambers ruled last month that the ByLock smart phone application is to be considered evidence of membership in a terrorist organization. (TurkeyPurge)

Turkey keeps tight reins on Facebook too, just as our secret state does. And so, if it seems that Facebook is making foreign policy by taking down supporters of foreign causes, it’s really their government minders at work. In this case, as the pages were restored, they may have told Facebook to drop a shoe to see how much noise it would make. That’s something we should make noise about. But maybe not on Facebook.

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Geoff Dutton is an ex-geek turned writer and editor. He hails from Boston and writes about whatever distortions of reality strike his fancy. Currently, he’s pedaling a novel chronicling the lives and times of members of a cell of terrorists in Europe, completing a collection of essays on high technology delusions, and can be found barking at Progressive Pilgrim Review.

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