Turkey has descended into civil war with its Kurdish minority – a war that no one seems to want to admit to, but one that is becoming increasingly obvious to those on the ground.
Violence in southeast Turkey escalated dramatically on January 13 when Kurdish guerillas launched an attack on a police station. Six people were killed and 39 more wounded in bomb and rocket attacks in the city of Diyarbakir. A car bomb was detonated near the police station in Turkey’s largest southern city before it was shelled with grenade launchers.
The bombing is the latest, and one of the biggest, attacks carried out by the outlawed Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), in a growing conflict that has left nearly 100 civilians dead, according to a Kurdish activist who uses the pseudonym Reso (because of fear of reprisals), who talked to bne IntelliNews in an exclusive interview after returning from a trip to Diyarbakir.
Coinciding with the bomb attack, PKK militants opened fire with rifles on another security complex in the area, triggering a firefight in which there were no reported casualties, the provincial governor's office said in a statement.
The southeast region has been hit by an upsurge in violence since a two-year ceasefire between the state and the PKK collapsed last July, reigniting an ethnic conflict that has killed more than 40,000 people over three decades.
Ankara’s campaign began in the wake of a July 20 bombing in the southern Turkish town of Suruc that killed more than 30 people, which was blamed on Islamic State (IS) terrorists, active in neighbouring Syria and Iraq. Subsequently President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) – which had just lost its parliamentary majority because of a swing to the pro-Kurdish, left-leaning Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) party – declared war on all so-called terrorists, whether IS, PKK or far left, as it plotted fresh polls for November. Sure enough, three and a half months later it swept back with an absolute majority after an unexpectedly convincing win in the snap elections.
This latest attack by the PKK came just a day after an IS suicide bomber killed 10 German tourists in the Sultanahmet district in central Istanbul, bringing the civil war in Syria to the heart of the nation. This is the second attack by IS on Turkish soil in two months: another bomb killed 97 at an anti-government demonstration in Ankara at the end of last year.
The PKK accuses the government of supporting IS in its campaign to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad but the attack may have been provoked by a joint Turkish-US assault due to start this month on IS following a meeting between US Vice President Joe Biden and Erdogan.
The situation in Turkey is spinning out of control. Information on what is happening in the southeast is scant because of roadblocks set up by police, limited access to the region and state pressure on local media outlets to avoid the story. Turkey has the worst press freedom record of any country in Europe: Turkey is one of the world's top jailers of journalists, according to the Committee to Project Journalists, and is ranked 149th out of 180 countries in the 2015 World Freedom Index, down from its 98th place (out of 161 countries) in 2006.
The whole southeastern corner of Turkey is now effectively under martial law. Journalists have been barred from travelling to the region that is home to much of Turkey’s Kurdish minority.
The pressure on the government’s critics is growing louder by the day. An academic has been sacked for signing a petition calling for an end to the military operations in the southeast after Erdogan urged the authorities to punish the signatories, describing more than 1,000 academics, including Turkish academics from 89 universities and international intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky, David Harvey, Etienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein, as “ignorant” and “colonialists”.
The government of President Erdogan claims it is fighting a sustained campaign against terrorists. However, the headlines from the region in recent months, like those this week, read more and more like war reporting.
Turkey’s heart of darkness
“It’s a civil war and nobody in the western part of the country knows what’s going on,” says Reso, a 29-year-old Kurdish activist who was born in Diyarbakir before moving to Istanbul to study. He travelled to Diyarbakir and the town of Silvan two weeks ago with a delegation of NGOs and HDP deputies to show solidarity with the Kurdish people and describe to the world what is going on down there.
“The operations are indiscriminate, the infrastructure in some neighbourhoods has been totally destroyed, leaving the residents in dire conditions without electricity and water,” says Reso. “Businesses, shops are closed in Diyarbakir’s Sur district where there has been a curfew for weeks. Hospitals are open, but people are unable to get to hospital, if needed, because of the fighting on the streets.”
Rather than the image of targeted security operations against terrorists that the government is portraying, the picture Reso paints is of sporadic street fighting between the Turkish military and the PKK fighters, with many locals having fled the city. Reso says that in his home town of Silvan, more than 20,000 people have already left.
“It’s like the 90s, maybe even worse – it’s a civil war. The military shells the neighbourhoods in Diyarbakir, uses heavy guns, and helicopters are flying overhead – only the warplanes are missing,” says Reso, alluding to the fight between the government and the Kurds two decades ago, which is remembered by most Turks as a dark, repressive period marked by disappearances and summary executions. Reso remembers these days well; his uncle was gunned down back in the 90s while he was working for the pro-Kurdish newspaper Gundem.
The mood of the residents of Diyarbakir is ugly and is bound to fuel more violence. The people blame the government and Reso confirms that the Kurdish youth are being radicalised. “The young people are in the trenches and behind the barricades using light arms, Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers [against the government forces],” he says.
The death toll is rising, with bodies regularly left lying out in the street, as relatives are unable to collect them because of the fighting. The problem is so bad that a group of Kurdish parents are on hunger strike to protest at being unable to collect the bodies of their sons who they claim were shot by the military.
“We were supposed to be receiving visitors for condolences now, but we are still trying to get our dead,” Mithat Ogut bitterly told Al-Monitor in an interview. Ogut believes his son has been left out in the streets in Diyarbakir’s historic Sur district, now a virtual war zone, cut off from the outside world amid round-the-clock curfews. Five other Kurdish parents whose children suffered similar fates have joined him in his protest, camping out at the Human Rights Association’s Diyarbakir office.
According to Kurdish politicians and families, at least 55 other bodies remain unburied in Cizre and Silopi, two towns in Sirnak province that remain under curfew, Al-Monitor reports.
The Turkish Human Rights Foundation said on January 9 that a total of 162 civilians have been killed in the fighting since August last year, including 32 children, 29 women and 24 elderly people that were caught up in the fighting between government forces and Kurdish rebels in urban districts in the country’s southeastern towns. In all, 17 southeastern districts are affected and nearly 200,000 residents have been forced to leave their homes because of the fighting, according to the Turkish Human Rights Foundation.
Militants reportedly from the PKK have mounted barricades, dug trenches and set up explosives in Diyarbakir in what is turning into a protracted battle. Turkish authorities say 426 militants have died in ongoing operations in the towns of Cizre and Silopi and Diyarbakir's Sur neighbourhood, AP reports.
The situation has been decaying for months. PKK guerillas have been planting roadside bombs and targeting the government’s security forces with snipers who fire from rooftops and windows. The state’s response has been to lock down these cities, with curfews imposed on several particularly tense districts in the provinces of Diyarbakır, Hakkari, Mardin, Sırnak and Van, according to reports.
No help from Europe
The tens of thousands of Kurdish refugees fleeing the cities and the rising body count has provoked little response from Europe, which now finds itself in a difficult position.
Desperate to stem the flood of Syrian refugees, the EU has cut a deal with Erdogan offering accelerated access to a visa-free regime and €3bn in cash if Turkey prevents the transit of refugees from the conflict in Syria. With leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel facing a rebellion in her own party over the refugee issue, the last thing she wants to do is come down hard on Erdogan for being too tough on his own domestic terrorism problem.
Condemnation of the violence in southeast Turkey is remarkable by its absence. Just this week the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) rejected a petition for a temporary injunction on the days-long curfews the Turkish government has enforced in southeastern towns since late July that was lodged by residents of the areas.
The court said on January 12 that the evidence on hand was “not enough for the court to render a decision”, but noted that a new petition may be filed by the applicants should the situation change, according to a press statement by the lawyers.
Kurds vs IS
The blurred lines between the internal war on the Kurds in Turkey and the external war with IS in neighbouring Syria is growing. The dynamics of this is further confused by Erdogan’s use of terror charges against opposition politicians and critical journalists to further his political ambitions and create an “executive presidency”.
“It looks like Erdogan could do anything to establish the presidential system and his strategy is only focused on this. He can escalate the war in Kurdistan, while in the western part of the country he can throw people into jail, and can suppress the freedom of press. People, fed up with the violence and detentions, have probably started to say 'ok, let’s give him what he wants, let’s give him the presidency so that we may get rid of this violence',” Bircan Yorulmaz, a member of the pro-Kurdish HDP's central executive committee, tells bne IntelliNews in an exclusive interview.
According to numerous reports, Erdogan has been funding, or at least turning a blind eye, to IS operations in Turkey. The Russians in particular have accused the president’s son in law of buying some 300,000 barrels of IS-produced oil a day which helps finance their operations, and allowing IS unfettered transit over the Turkish border to bring in new recruits and buy arms.
Whether the reports are true, Turkey and IS share common goals: IS is confronting a strong Kurdish military force in Syria, which has links across the border with the PKK in Turkey; IS is also attempting to oust Assad, which is Turkey’s regional political goal as well.
However, Erdogan may have to recalibrate his foreign policy after this week’s killing of the German tourists. Having focused his attention on fighting PKK terrorists in his own country, the threat of IS bringing their fight over the border into Turkey is now obvious. In theory this should force him to put aside his grievances with the Kurds and join forces to defeat IS, but no one is expecting that to happen anytime soon.
“Despite a public determination to stamp out the PKK, the government knows it cannot do this militarily. The PKK also knows it cannot achieve Kurdish autonomy without the government’s say-so. On the face of it, though, both sides want to keep fighting for now so they can weaken the opposition further,” says bne IntelliNews commentator Suna Erdem. “The optimistic spin is that sooner or later everyone will want to stop, exhausted by the stalemate that a simple study of a hundred years of history could have shown they would reach. But since Erdogan has seen that more violence can indeed mean more votes, then what’s to stop him concluding that even more violence will bring him even more votes. Maybe even enough to hold yet another election and steer his AK Party to the supermajority needed for his precious presidency.”
Any talks will be impossible in the current climate. The fighting in the southeast is radicalising the Kurdish youth who were open to compromise during the two general elections last year, but now have taken to the streets.
“The government has pushed these young people to the barricades,” says the HDP’s Yorulmaz, who emphasizes that the only way out of this mess is a negotiated settlement. “When the Kurds declared self-governance in towns, the state sent in the armed forces, detained mayors and started to kill people. After all this happened, so these young people started to dig trenches and erect barricades in the towns.”
“It is clear this a war that neither side can possibly win, but people will keep dying as long as the war continues,” he says.