Turkey’s silent war in the Kurdish heartland

Yasin Akgul, AFP | A woman despairs in the cellar of a building gutted by Turkish bombing in the city of Cizre, on March 2, 2016.

Since the collapse of a truce last summer, Turkish forces and separatist PKK rebels have been waging a bloody war in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority southeast. As in past flare-ups, civilians are bearing the brunt of the violence.


On Sunday, March 13, a car bomb ripped through a bus in the bustling neighbourhood of Kizilay, in the Turkish capital of Ankara, killing at least 37 people and injuring more than a hundred. The bombing bore a striking resemblance to the attack that targeted two army buses in the same city, on February 17. Except this time civilians were targeted.

On both occasions, Turkish authorities wasted no time in blaming Kurdish rebels for the deadly attacks. Just two days after the latest bombing, the Interior Ministry said the alleged bomber was a female member of the rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is tied to Kurdish fighters in Syria. The previous day, Ankara launched retaliatory air strikes against PKK targets in northern Iraq. And according to the Anatolia news agency, a dozen people were arrested the same day, including several in the mainly Kurdish city of Sanliurfa, near the Syrian border, where Turkish forces have been hunting down PKK rebels for months.

Spiral of violence

The escalation of violence marks a stunning reversal of the delicate peace process that had raised hopes of an end to the 30-year-old conflict between Turkey and Kurdish rebels. When the PKK began to withdraw its forces into northern Iraq in May 2013, following a truce between the warring parties, many had dared to hope of an end to a gruesome conflict that has killed at least 37,000 people.

But on July 24, 2015, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared war on “terrorism”, by which he meant both the Islamic State (IS) group and the PKK, regarded as Turkey’s hereditary enemy. In response, the PKK urged its members to take up arms again, and Kurds in several south-eastern cities called for “autonomy” from Ankara. The war was back on.

“Turkey is caught in a spiral of violence since the truce collapsed in July,” says Cengiz Aktar, a professor of political science at Bahçesehir University in Istanbul. “Since then, we’ve seen a build-up of violence that is unlikely to end. Worse, we are witnessing a civil war that is reaching the west of the country and affecting civilians, something that had not happened since 1984” – which was when the PKK began its armed struggle.

Civilians trapped

Over the past eight months, Turkish forces and Kurdish rebels have fought an unspoken war, hidden to the media, which are banned in many parts of the country’s restive southeast. REUTERS says the Turkish army has mobilised 10,000 troops to smoke out PKK militants. Between August and February, it has imposed 59 curfews in the cities of Diyarbakir, Sirnak, Mardin, Hakkari, Mus, Elazig and Batman, affecting 1.3 million people according to the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (HRTF).

Meanwhile, Kurdish fighters armed and trained by the PKK have stepped up their retaliatory strikes. Since the autumn, they have dug trenches, erected barricades and fired at security forces, turning towns and neighbourhoods into battlegrounds. On March 14, rebel barricades closed off an entire section of Diyarbakir, the region’s main hub, according to Ergun Babahan of the News Watch network of local independent journalists, which monitors the situation in southeast Turkey.

Babahan described the scenes of devastation witnessed in the centre of Diyarbakir during the fighting. “The historic city centre is in a terrible state. Most homes have been destroyed and looted. The locals are left with nothing,” he said. In Cizre, where a curfew was lifted earlier this month, Babahan said 80 percent of the city had been destroyed. Pictures show buildings gutted and pock-marked by bullets and shrapnel.

Human rights groups have denounced the hardships faced by residents as a result of the curfews and the continuing violence. In a report published on January 21, Amnesty International said “cuts to water and electricity supplies combined with the dangers of accessing food and medical care while under fire are having a devastating effect on residents”. In its latest toll, the HRTF said at least 224 civilians have perished since the month of August – including 42 children – while 350,000 people have been displaced. “Only the wealthy actually leave,” cautioned Babahan. “The poor cannot afford to leave. They cling to their last belongings.”

‘Turkey will end up like Syria’

Kurdish representatives have railed against the government onslaught. Last month, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) denounced a “massacre” in Cizre, where at least 167 were reportedly killed by Turkish bombing as they hid in cellars. “Such operations have involved helicopters, tanks and heavy weapons. Dozens of civilians have died and hundreds of thousands are displaced. At this stage, one can no longer talk about police operations, but a civil war,” said Kendal Nezan, head of the Kurdish Institute in Paris, warning that the situation was likely to get worse.

The belligerent rhetoric between Ankara and the PKK shows no sign of abating. While Erdogan has repeatedly stated Turkey’s “legitimate right to defend itself from terrorist threats”, Cemil Bayik, one of the PKK’s main leaders, warned of a summer of “vengeance” in an interview with Britain’s Times daily newspaper on Tuesday. “The Turks looted and burnt everything they could in the Kurdish cities on which curfews were imposed,” Bayik said. “So now our people are full of feelings of vengeance, calling on our guerrillas to avenge them. This is a new era of the people's struggle.”

According to Babahan, it is doubtful the region’s desperate population has much sympathy for the Kurdish guerrilla fighters bent on fighting to the last. “But between the PKK and a government that rejects them, the choice is soon made,” claimed the local journalist. “The real civil war will start when the snow melts in April. Many fighters have seen their fathers killed or tortured during the 1980s and are ready to die for the cause. They think this is a historic moment for the Kurdish people,” he said, adding: “If nobody puts an end to this violence, Turkey will end up like Syria.”

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