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Turkey’s Battle against the Kurds Seems Not to Be Going as Planned

Turkey, Kurds, pkk
Kurds running away from tear gas during clashes in Gazi neighborhood, Istanbul. Photo: Sener Yilmaz Aslan.

The words of Turkey’s deputy prime minister, Numan Kurtulmuş, in mid-January 2016 were telling. He told reporters that the government would return to its “reform agenda” after ending the fight against terrorism: “Terrorism and the fight against terrorism need to be finished as soon as possible and a process of democratization should be accomplished.”  Of course, the government knows that what they call “terrorism”—the violence of the outlawed PKK—can actually be eradicated only by democratic reforms, but they decided some months ago that they will not act upon that knowledge, with the result that civilians are dying almost every day.

To begin with, there is no reform agenda to return to. There was a ceasefire from early 2013 to the summer of 2015, but the democratization that it should have given way to never occurred.

The constitution has not been reformed, even though everybody in Turkey acknowledges that such reform is needed and the AKP promised frequently that it would be rewritten. Laws that make it difficult to tackle the Kurdish problem remain in place. Most important is the anti-terrorism law, which has been criticized by the EU and human-rights organizations for being too broad and being misused to criminalize those, such as journalists, politicians, administrators, activists and lawyers, who have dedicated themselves to solving the Kurdish problem without violence. Also, the expansion of military infrastructure in the Kurdish regions in southeastern Turkey continued throughout the ceasefire.

The ceasefire, however, was holding, and no PKK fighters and soldiers were dying. The real game-changer was eventually not the lack of democratic reform but the battle for Kobani. The fierce battle between the Kurdish forces of the YPG (a group affiliated with the PKK) and Islamic State (IS), which began in September 2014, initially seemed to be going well for IS, but in January 2015 the Kurds managed to drive IS out.

Turkey perceived this as a threat to its security, the more so when, in early June 2015, the YPG managed to take Tal Abyad, known to Kurds as Girespi, from IS. With Tal Abyad, the YPG managed to connect two of its so called cantons, Cizire and Kobani, thus controlling a long stretch of land along Turkey’s border. The Kurds’ goal is to go further west in order to connect also their third canton, Afrin. For that, they have to conquer land that is now in the hands of the forces of IS and Assad’s Syria. Such a Kurdish advance would be Turkey’s greatest nightmare: the country perceives IS as a security threat that can be extinguished but the YPG (and the PKK) as a threat to its very national unity and thus a much greater strategic problem.

Turkey played it smart and began steering towards ending the ceasefire. This became even more important for Erdoğan after the June 2015 elections, in which the AKP lost its majority in parliament due to the success of the HDP, the party rooted in the Kurdish political movement. Violence against the PKK would help gain votes back from ultra-nationalists who had left the AKP for the far-right MHP and thus help the AKP regain its majority in new elections, which became inevitable after coalition talks failed—as many argue, after personal interference by President Erdoğan, who needs a majority in order to work on his plans to change the constitution and introduce an executive presidential system in Turkey, with himself as president.

Early in the summer of 2015, President Erdoğan declared void an important understanding between the government and the Kurdish movement, the so-called Dolmabahce Agreement of February 2015. Before that, in April, PKK leader Öcalan was placed in isolation, blocking his access to lawmakers, his family, and his lawyers, thus preventing him from commenting on developments and leading the Kurdish movement.

Turkey simultaneously negotiated with the United States over the situation in Syria. In July the deal was done: Turkey opened two of its airbases to American F-16s bombing IS in Syria and Iraq, reportedly in exchange for a US promise that they would not help the YPG move further west. The Euphrates River was set as Turkey’s “red line,” although Turkey knew there wasn’t much it could do if the YPG were to cross the river. They could attack the YPG from the air, as they did in October 2015, but such actions wouldn’t be tolerated for long by the US, because the YPG is one of their most important allies on the ground in Syria. Turkish soldiers on Syrian soil are out of the question.

That’s where the end of the ceasefire became useful. By fiercely battling the PKK again, Turkey hopes to weaken the YPG as well, thus insuring that the Kurds won’t control the last stretch of land along Turkey’s border. The collapse of the ceasefire made it ever more urgent: part of Turkey’s worst-case scenario is that the Kurds will attack from the Syrian side of the border. This fear is not very realistic, though, because the border lands are very flat and unsuitable as a theatre of operations.

Turkey’s Failed Strategy

Turkey’s strategy seems to be falling apart. To begin with, the YPG crossed the Euphrates at the end of December 2015. As part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), they took control of the Tishrin (October) Dam, southeast of the city of Manbij which is held by ISIS.

Turkey didn’t react, because it had nothing up its sleeve with which to pressure the US or the SDF. Meanwhile, the threat of IS inside Turkey has increased tremendously, with an attack in Sultanahmet (in Istanbul), the heart of Turkey’s tourist industry, on 12 January 2016, in which ten people, mostly German tourists, died. If the AKP government gets serious now about fighting IS, which it will have to, this will inevitably strengthen the YPG—an uncomfortable choice for the government.

Second, the battle against the PKK inside Turkey is probably not going as planned. The AKP government and the security forces continually claim scores of PKK fighters killed, with unverifiable claims as high as hundreds of casualties on the guerrilla side. On the battlefield, however, nothing points to a real weakening of the group.

Perhaps the government didn’t anticipate the strength of the resistance in its southeastern towns and cities, where support for the PKK is still strong. Guerrillas haven’t descended from their hideouts in the mountains to the cities yet, but their work is being carried out by the YPS, the Civilian Defence Forces, who consider themselves the legitimate armed force in the towns, especially the municipalities that have, since the summer of 2015, declared “autonomy” from the central Turkish state. The youths are no longer armed only with stones and Molotov cocktails but now carry Kalashnikovs—and sometimes rocket launchers.

More and more special forces are being dispatched to the region, along with an increasing amount of heavy military equipment. In the rural areas of the southeast, the fighting seems less fierce, which may be attributed to harsh winter conditions. But on 14 January, the PKK struck hard. It car-bombed a police station in Cinar in Diyarbakır Province, leaving five civilians dead, among whom were two children, and a disputed number of policemen (the PKK claims more than 30 police officers were killed, while the Turkish authorities claim one).

The real victims, as ever, are the civilians. To crush the YPS, Turkey has been imposing round-the-clock, open-ended curfews in many towns, totalling up to 58 curfews affecting 1.4 million people, lasting from as little as a day to as much as seven weeks, and counting. The people are left without food and often without electricity, have no or very limited access to health care, and, in several cases, are unable to get their dead and wounded off the streets for burial or treatment in hospital. The independent Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TIHV) counted 162 civilians deaths between 16 August 2015 and 8 January 2016, among them 29 women, 32 children, and 24 people over 60 years of age. Also according to the TIHV, 79 civilians were killed between 11 December 2015 and 8 January 2016 alone, of whom 14 were women and one an unborn baby (killed by a gunshot).

The ceasefire gave some hope that Turkey was finally realizing that the fight against the PKK can’t be won militarily—that the only way to “eradicate terrorism” was to help democracy grow. Deputy PM Kurtulmuş’s words indicate that the Turkish government is still not convinced of that, or at least that it refuses to act upon it. Turkey seems further away than ever from listening to and meeting the legitimate demands of the Kurds.