This winter, there was a war in Turkey’s Kurdish south east again. The Turkish state’s response to an urban rebellion that began in the autumn of 2015 was beyond all proportions. They called in the army, which moved with heavy artillery into the heart of residential quarters, not hesitating to destroy the homes of ordinary families.
All-day curfews were imposed during which the inhabitants of the affected areas were deprived of access to water, electricity and food. The longest curfew went on for over two months, hence the strain on people was accordingly high. The curfews were ruthlessly enforced. Even a person waving a white flag trying to go to the doctor was shot, an over 70-year-old man on his way to buy bread was mercilessly murdered, and a pregnant women who left her house only as far as the doorstep was killed in front of her two children. People began fleeing in the thousands.
Escalation of Violence
The violence began last summer in 2015 and has gone crescendo since then. It all started when at the end of July, 32 Kurdish and Turkish leftists were killed in a suicide bombing in the small town of Suruc, to which Turkish security forces responded by tear-gassing helpers and ambulances instead of trying to save lives. Shortly after the Kurdish PKK guerrilla took up action in retaliation.
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During July and August 2015, the PKK carried out offensives on army and police in the east of the country. They took over the region of Tunceli as well as whole quarters of some cities such as Silvan and Diyarbakir. In over thirty years of PKK activity, having the guerrilla patrol the streets was something completely unheard of. Even at the height of the civil war in the 1990s they stayed mostly in the mountains.
In September the Turks launched operations to force the PKK out of the cities. They also violently repressed protests by the local population, shooting at and killing civilians, including children. In the face of growing state repression the PKK announced a cease-fire at the beginning of October. And while only local youth kept resisting, the state upped the ante.
By the end of 2015 the conflict had caused over 600 deaths according to IHD, Turkey’s leading human rights organization. This number included over 120 civilians. Other organizations give different figures, in part even higher.
On December 14th 2015 the Turkish army sent 10,000 troops to close in on Cizre. At that time, Kurdish commentators spoke of “imminent mass slaughter”. It was the beginning of the most intense period of government repression. In December 2015 and January 2016, people died every day, and at the beginning of February the violence only intensified, before things finally began to calm down.
Erdoğan’s Decisive Moves
While the war was at its height this winter, it has its roots in the events of the past years. There is a big irony about the fact that it is president Erdoğan who is now bringing the violence against the Kurds, even worse than it has been since the 90s. His party’s initial electoral success almost fifteen years ago was made possible in part due to Kurdish support. The AKP’s religious line suited many Kurds, a lot of whom are conservative as well. For a long time Erdoğan’s AKP was the only party which seriously threatened the dominance of Kurdish parties in Turkey’s southeast. However, at the time much of the AKP’s overtures in the direction of the Kurds were made with EU access in mind. When the EU took that carrot away, the AKP went back on the progress made much more radically than anyone could have anticipated.
Everything that is happening now is, in a way, a consequence of a bad move Erdoğan made back in 2012. Seeing that Bashar Al-Assad was facing growing protests within Syria, Erdoğan publically cancelled his support for his former ally. This decision was taken in a delusional international climate where all sorts of groups were making plans for a future Syria without Assad, and where no one seemed to foresee the extremely bloody war that was looming.
Why was Erdoğan’s decision so fateful? Because from then on, by default his government began supporting the Sunni opposition in Syria. And when the strongest players in this field turned out to be extremist groups, it did not seem to bother the AKP. Over time more and more proof accumulated hinting at collaboration between the AKP government and jihadists in Syria, including ISIS.
Between Myth and Reality
A relatively early example is from February 2014, when Turkish (jandarma) military police stopped an aid convoy on the way to Syria during a routine check. When they searched the trucks they not only found food inside, but also grenade launchers, portable ground-to-air missiles, mortar shells and other weapons. The even bigger surprise was Ankara’s reaction: The government ordered the trucks to depart as soon as possible. The convoy had in fact been commissioned by the AK party. As for the jandarma agents, they were taken to court for divulging state secrets.
There are also strong rumours about the Erdoğan clan being involved in a lucrative business of trading in ISIS oil, especially Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s son Bilal. Already in May 2014 Cumhuriyet, one of the biggest Turkish opposition newspapers, ran the headline “What are Bilal’s ships doing on the Syrian coast?” It cannot be overstated how important it is for ISIS to be able to sell their oil. The rows of tanker trucks spotted at the Syrian-Turkish border constitute a veritable lifeline for the Islamic State. This financial aspect explains why president Erdoğan has so much interest keeping his political course, even in the face of growing terrorism in his own country.
If we look at the terrorist attacks in Turkey in 2015, we see that the larger bombings, the attacks in Diyarbakir, Suruc and Ankara, all targeted Kurdish minority activists and Turkish dissidents, the “natural enemies” of the AKP. These types of terrorist acts all look a lot like they have been authored by ISIS, even though they have never been claimed. While the indirect guilt of Erdoğan’s party is undeniable, many inside Turkey even accused the AK party of direct involvement in this.
Some of last year’s events seem like they could never have happened without the connivance of the secret services. The year of 2015 saw several cases of journalists and researchers working on ISIS being assassinated on Turkish ground, most intriguingly Jacky Sutton, who was killed in a toilet cubicle at an airport in Istanbul.
During the urban war of the past months many locals noticed that groups of Arabic-speaking, bearded men were fighting along with the Turkish military, participating in the attacks on the population. Radical Islamist graffiti were left on the walls of destroyed homes after battles. It wouldn’t be a surprise if these spray-painted insults and curses were in Turkish. Indeed, many Islamist Turks and Kurds from Turkey also joined ISIS in Syria.
History of Animosity
In the light of all the evidence pointing to AKP-ISIS collaboration it may seem incongruous that in the summer of 2015 the AKP government joined the international anti-jihadist alliance in Syria. While Erdoğan officially sent war planes in order to bomb ISIS, in reality he targeted the Kurdish YPG troops of Rojava, enemies of ISIS and disliked by Erdoğan not simply because they are Kurds, but also because they are closely linked to the PKK, the Turkish republic’s arch-enemy. In fact the two organizations are branches of each other and share many of the same fighters.
With Rojava in northern Syria, run by the YPG, the Kurds have a large liberated area right next to Turkish Kurdistan. The existence of this new autonomous region is a matter of concern for the Turkish government, which fears that the Kurds in Turkey will want the same for themselves. Some have speculated that Turkey has been so brutal in its assaults on south-eastern cities because of an intention to divide the PKK-YPG forces and draw a large part of them into Turkey, weakening Rojava’s resistance against ISIS.
On the other hand, it could seem that as long as there is peace and as long as Kurdish rights are advancing in Turkish Kurdistan, the PKK could content itself with Rojava. Yet its logic still revolves around Turkey. Ismail Besikci, maybe the most famous sociologist working on the Kurds within Turkey, claims that the contemporaneous struggle of the PKK is partly motivated by receiving recognition.
There is no doubt that since the PKK took up fighting at the beginning of the ‘80s they have achieved enormous things for the Kurds of Turkey. Besikci argues that the war will not stop, if the PKK are not given an official status within the framework of the Turkish republic, for example by being turned into a type of police force in the east of the country.
It has to be said that with this proposal Besikci goes much further than any Kurdish politician, navigating the political minefield of Turkish politics, could ever dare to go. Were the Kurdish HDP to advance this same idea, it would amount to political suicide. It is one thing to go to the root of an issue as an academic and another to make a political demand.