About 200 protesters from across Britain held placards, danced and chanted slogans outside Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI), which opens on Tuesday at the ExCeL centre in London’s Docklands and bills itself as “the world leading event” for buyers and sellers of military equipment.
The prime minister has long championed arms sales to Turkey, whose delegation is set to be among the largest at the event, which is held every two years. But demonstrators claim British weapons bought at the fair are likely to be used not only to suppress the Kurdish struggle for autonomy in Turkey, but also against the US-backed Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) spearheading the fight against Islamic State in Syria.
One thing we need to get straight is that the weapons being sold here to Turkey are not going to be used against Isis,” said Ibrahim Avcil, whose family came to Britain in 1991 when his hometown in Turkey’s Dersim region was bombed by the Turkish army. “They will be used to repress and attack the Kurds who live in that region and want to establish an autonomous state. Regardless of Isis being defeated or not in the near future, Turkey has used and will continue to use these weapons against the Kurds both within its borders and in Syria.”
Recent years have seen UK officials spend considerable time, money and resources wooing their Turkish counterparts. In January Theresa May signed a £100m fighter jet deal that Downing Street hailed as the first step to Britain becoming Turkey’s main defence partner. That same month, export statistics revealed that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government had bought almost £50m worth of UK-made weapons since its crackdown on opposition groups after last year’s failed coup attempt.
“In arming Turkey, Theresa May is undermining the international coalition-backed Kurdish resistance against Isis,” said Dilar Dirik, 26, a sociology PhD student at Cambridge University. “The arms trade is one of the main reasons for displacement, war, oppression in the world and the UK is complicit in that.”
The sale of arms to Turkey has proved deeply controversial. Since the Kurdish conflict re-emerged in 2015, there have been “mounting civilian deaths and multiple rights violations”, according to Human Rights Watch.
“For decades Kurds in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey have been oppressed, jailed and massacred because the oppressive regimes that govern them do not want them to have autonomy,” said Ojan Kocgiri, a 26-year-old accountant from London whose family fled Turkey as political refugees in the 1990s. “We came to this country to flee those bombs, and now the very guns used to attack us are being exhibited on my doorstep. It makes me sick.”
As for Syria, Erdoğan vowed in June to pay “whatever price must be paid” to thwart any attempt by the country’s Kurds to establish a “Kurdish state” on Turkey’s southern border after major gains by their fighters battling Isis in the region.
“I know exactly what Turkey wants to do with these weapons,” said Gary Oak, a British railway worker who twice travelled to Syria to fight alongside the YPG in 2015 and 2016. “It wants to annex the Kurdish part of Syria [known as Rojava], not just because they hate the Kurds but also because Erdoğan wants to make Turkey a regional power again. Turkey will use the weapons against the YPG, the very army the UK and US are currently supporting.”
More than 34,000 visitors are expected to attend the arms fair, including delegations from regimes accused of human rights abuses such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, as well as representatives of the world’s 10 biggest arms companies.
Keynote speakers include Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, and Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, as well as the chiefs of staff of the British armed forces.
A number of protesters were arrested last week as they attempted to disrupt preparations for the arms fair.