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Rage engulfed Turkey in late July 2018 when a woman and her 11-month-old son were killed, reportedly by a roadside bomb, after leaving an army base in the south-eastern province of Hakkari. The woman had paid a surprise visit to her husband, who worked as an officer at the base.
The deaths were blamed on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Two days later, the PKK issued a statement claiming that it never targets civilians, and the death of the mother and child was a ‘mistake’. Turkish rage, however, was not solely directed at the PKK, as Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu clearly expressed at the funeral of the two victims. He placed the larger blame on Europe and the United States (US) for being “supporters of terrorism”, as he put it.
From a Turkish perspective, it is logical to define the alleged murder of two civilians in geopolitical terms. The government makes no distinction between the PKK, which operates within Turkish borders and has its main bases in the mountains of neighbouring Iraq, and the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the affiliated Kurdish armed group that controls large swathes of northern Syria and defends it against, for example, Islamic State (IS). The YPG is also the main component of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the most important partner of the US in its ongoing battle against the remains of IS in Syria. The US arms, equips, trains and assists (with air strikes) the SDF, and thus, according to Turkey, directly supports the PKK.
Not only are the PKK and YPG one and the same in Turkish eyes, the PKK and the non-armed Kurdish political movement cannot be distinguished from each other either. This explains Turkey’s grudge against Europe. For decades, the Kurdish political movement has been able to organize itself in Europe. Although the obstacles that several European governments have put in the way of legal Kurdish groups have increased in recent years – for example a ban on PKK flags in Germany, repeated raids on political activities in, among others, the Netherlands and Germany, and the fining of Kurdish satellite TV that broadcasts from Europe and with European licenses – these are not enough for Turkey. Turkey demands a full crackdown on the movement, which Europe can not provide.
The Turkish state, in other words, feels insufficiently supported by its NATO allies in its fight against terrorism. For the PKK, on the other hand, it is war. It may share an ideology and a leader (Abdullah Ocalan) with the YPG in Syria, but the nature of their fight is different. Meanwhile, the PKK in Turkey holds no territory and wages a guerrilla war against the Turkish army, which it considers an occupying force on Kurdish lands. To end the bloodshed, in which countless fighters and civilians on both sides have lost their lives, a political deal will have to be made. Currently, no one in Turkey is even willing to consider a political deal with the PKK: they are terrorists and have to be destroyed.
Now approaching its 35th year – the first PKK bomb went off in August 1984 – the conflict meets all the criteria to be designated a ‘non-international armed conflict’ under international law. Turkey vehemently rejects this designation. Not only would it compel Turkey to adhere to the rules of war that apply to such conflicts, but the PKK would no longer be recognized as a terrorist organization, a lever that Turkey has long used to its benefit in negotiations with its allies.
The resulting stalemate seems unbreakable. Yet it was only five years ago, following a spike in violence in 2011 and 2012, that both sides agreed to a ceasefire and started a dialogue to pull the conflict into the political arena. While the PKK has repeatedly said it is willing to talk, and Ocalan even declared the armed struggle to be over in 2013, Turkey’s conservative-nationalist government continues to maintain that there is no Kurdish issue, only terrorism that has to be wiped out.
The Turkish public is largely ill-informed about the current state of the conflict. There are hardly any independent media left, and the ones that do publish without government supervision have a limited readership. As a result, the government defines the narrative.
When the PKK kills civilians, public outrage is understandably fierce. Although the murder of the woman and her young son in Hakkari may have been a ‘mistake’, the PKK does sometimes target civilians. Since the ceasefire ended in the summer of 2015, government officials and a teacher have been among those assassinated. The PKK claimed responsibility for the deaths but stated that its victims were either spying for the state or directly assisting the state in human rights violations against the Kurdish population, including activists. The fact that those killed did not wear a uniform, the PKK argued, does not necessarily make them innocent civilians.
Meanwhile, doubt has been raised about the nature of the explosion in Hakkari. Villagers who rushed to the scene told the Kurdish Mezopotamya news agency that the deaths were likely caused by an overheated gas tank in the car. As the incident will not be thoroughly and impartially investigated, the facts will remain unknown.
Before the June 2017 elections, the media widely covered the army operations across the border in northern Iraq. Turkey has been expanding its military presence there with the quiet approval of Masoud Barzani, the most important leader in and former president of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq. Turkey aims to eradicate the PKK from the Qandil Mountains, where the group has been hiding out after it was forced to leave Syria in the late 1990s. The Turkish army even managed to bring some villages under its control. However, the bombing of civilian areas to achieve this result never made it to the Turkish media.
Despite Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rhetoric about clearing the mountains of terrorists, the objective has not been reached. Since winning re-election, he seems to have scaled down the scope of the operations. No column inches have been wasted on the subject in the intervening months.
Thus, almost 35 years after the start of the conflict, south-east Turkey and northern Iraq, often respectively called north and south Kurdistan by Kurds, remain war zones. And the blood of soldiers, guerrillas and civilians will continue to flow.