Clashes in the Istanbul district of Gazi on July 26, 2015. Photo: Fulya Ozerkan
Turkey stepped up its campaign against the PKK on Saturday when it bombed the Kurdish village of Zergele in Iraqi Kurdistan, killing at least six civilians and displacing hundreds. Turkish airstrikes have targeted PKK positions across their bases in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan since July 24 in an intense offensive which government-linked sources claim has killed 260 PKK militants so far. But the bombing of Zergele vilage marks the first airstrike to have targeted civilians in Iraq, and has led to further scrutiny of Turkey’s new policy against the Kurdish militants.
Zergele, a village high up in the Qandil region, had become symbolic for an altogether different reason. Back in March 2013, when the PKK declared a ceasefire and the peace process supposedly began, Zergele was the village where the PKK handed over their last Turkish prisoners to a Turkish delegation. Eight prisoners, six of them Turkish soldiers, were released as a gesture towards peace. The senior PKK commander who was in charge of handing over PKK’s remaining prisoners, Heval Dersim, said: “Today we are handing these eight men to the Turkish government on the orders of Abdullah Öcalan. This is a humanitarian gesture and proof of our good will toward peace between Ankara and ourselves.”
Since the tragic Suruç massacre, which claimed 32 lives after a suicide bomb was planted by a former ISIS fighter, Turkey has launched a full frontal assault on its Kurdish minority. Not only has the bombing of PKK bases been resumed for the first time since the summer of 2011, but a brutal crackdown of Kurdish and leftist activists has taken place across Turkey, with the state arresting over 1,300 people in the last week alone. Demonstrations are being met with more severe police brutality than usual. In many neighborhoods, protesters have taken to using their own firearms to combat the police, and deaths on both sides have become commonplace.
Alongside the arrest of leftist and Kurdish activists, Turkey has also targeted some suspected ISIS cells within Turkey, as well as bombed a number of ISIS positions in Jarablus in Northern Syria. These airstrikes proceeded the attack on PKK positions, but the sheer scale of operations against the Kurdish militants shows how the offensive against ISIS is being used as a smokescreen to cover up the crackdown on the Kurdish resistance — in Turkish society as well as in the mountains.
The PKK have responded to the recent developments with their own attacks against the Turkish state. Two policemen were killed in the border city of Ceylanpinar the day after the Suruç massacre and PKK militants have attacked a number of soldiers, killing over a dozen. On Sunday, a suicide attack was carried out on a Turkish military station, where three soldiers were killed and 31 injured. The PKK have also claimed responsibility for acts of sabotage against a gas pipeline running from Iran into Turkey, blowing up a bridge near Erzurum, as well as targeting a dam near Bitlis. Many fear that this escalation of the conflict marks a return to the violence that characterized life in the Kurdish region of Turkey for much of the 1990s.
Erdogan turns on the Kurds
Erdogan’s decision to break the peace process with the Kurds comes on the back of his defeat in the latest elections. For the first time since it emerged as the country’s ruling party in 2002, the AKP fell 18 seats short of a majority. AKP’s nemesis throughout the campaign was the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP), which succeeded in passing the 10 percent threshold needed to enter parliament, taking 13 percent of the national vote.
As conservative Kurdish voters in southeastern Turkey switched their allegiance from the AKP to HDP en masse, Erdogan lost many MPs. The HDP’s instrumental role in blocking Erdogan’s bid for an absolute majority — which would have allowed him to push through a constitutional reform to increase his powers — has greatly angered the president, and Erdogan seems determined to exact revenge.
The reason for this fall in Kurdish support for Erdogan stems from both his failure to advance the peace process as well as his dubious policies in Syria. Back in October, Erdogan made an infamous speech in which he declared that “Kobane is about to fall.” This led to mass protests across the Kurdish areas of Turkey, resulting in dozens of deaths and eventually forcing Erdogan to allow the Iraqi-Kurdish Peshmerga to use Turkish territory to enter Kobane and support the Syrian-Kurdish YPG/YPJ militia in defending the city.
Erdogan has never been comfortable with the push for Kurdish autonomy that has been gaining strength in Northern Syria. As a vocal opponent of President Assad, he provided significant support to various Islamist and secular opposition forces in Syria and he allowed ISIS to conduct activity inside Turkey and cross its borders to smuggle oil and fighters.
When the YPG/YPJ secured an important victory in June, taking over the border city of Tel Abyad from ISIS, Erdogan reacted angrily and announced that “We will never allow the establishment of a state in Syria’s north and our south. We will continue our fight in this regard, no matter what the costs. We will not turn a blind eye to this.” This reaction shows how Erdogan has always been far more comfortable with ISIS-controlled territory on the Turkish border than with the Kurdish experiment in autonomy.
And so, when the US began working closely with YPG/YPJ forces in Rojava, the Kurdish-controlled region in Northern Syria, Erdogan’s unease about the situation grew further still. By striking a deal with the US, giving the Americans access to his airbases and allowing far greater capabilities for the US airforce over Turkish airspace, Erdogan has seized the opportunity to put a check on the recent Kurdish advances.
Halting the HDP’s momentum
These Kurdish advances have coincided with the success of the HDP to unite the Kurdish movement with a growing number of Turkish voters, liberals as well as leftists. Since the main opposition party, CHP, is too connected to the old Kemalist elite, who remain staunch opponents of Kurdish rights, the HDP managed to attract voters from various backgrounds on a ticket of inclusiveness and recognition of minorities. This tactic clearly paid off, allowing the HDP to secure 80 seats in the last elections.
Beyond blocking Erdogan’s grand plans for greater presidential powers, the HDP’s success also represents a new development in Turkish politics: a recognition of the faults of Turkish nationalism and a desire for change within the Turkish national identity. The party itself has been endorsed by Abdullah Ocalan, who called the HDP “the inheritor of the historical legacy of the revolutionary struggle,” and who has long argued that the struggle for democratic autonomy is not limited to the Kurds.
The rising popularity of the HDP, spurred on by the enticing charm of their co-chair Salahattin Demirtas, was one of the major reasons that Erdogan turned his back on the PKK peace process. In March, various representatives of the HDP and AKP met to announce the Dolmabahce Agreement, which was meant to kick-start a new phase of negotiations with an independent monitoring committee. However, immediately after the announcement, Erdogan rejected the agreement and claimed that “there is no Kurdish problem.”
In a recent interview, Demirtas stated that the reason Erdogan denounced the Dolmabahce Agreement, even though he had supported it up to that point, was because he was informed by pollsters of the growing popularity of the HDP. As a result, he vocally assumed a more nationalistic rhetoric in the lead-up to the elections, hoping to thereby gain nationalist votes.
The fact that this tactic failed massively has led Erdogan to seek revenge against the HDP. For the power-hungry president, the peace process was always a way of securing, obtaining and protecting his Kurdish support base. He seemed to believe that by investing in the development of the Kurdish region, alongside a favorable peace agreement, he would slowly assert the AKP’s position as the dominant force among Kurdish voters.
However, the rising popularity of the HDP has all but laid waste to Erdogan’s grand vision for the Kurdish regions. In this sense, the latest assault on the PKK and on Kurdish activists more generally is a result of Erdogan’s weakened position. For the president, there is little incentive to resume peace talks with the PKK since he feels he no longer needs to protect his Kurdish support base. Instead, he is hoping that, by resuming the conflict with the PKK, he can drum up a nationalist fever which will gain him enough support in a follow-up election, which he could in theory announce later this year.
The Kurdish movement responds
The recent crackdown on Kurds inside Turkey is definitely a major step back for a peace process craved by so many people across Turkey. The PKK has already responded with a series of attacks against the Turkish state and their security forces. It began with an affiliated group killing two police officers in Ceylanpinar, but since then PKK militants have targeted a number of different targets. Since July 25, the PKK has launched three attacks within Diyarbakir and many more across the Kurdish region. Most of their targets have been special forces units of the Turkish military.
The retributions started with an attack in Ceylanpinar, for which the PKK has interestingly denied responsibility. Instead, it is believed that the YDG-H carried out the attack. The YDG-H are a relatively new organization of Kurdish youths in cities across Turkey who are affiliated with PKK militants in the Qandil mountains. When both Qandil and Demirtas called Kurds out onto the street last October to protest Erdogan’s statements regarding the imminent fall of Kobane, it was the YDG-H that took the lead. Its members took to the streets with firearms and fought off the Kurdish Hezbollah, an Islamist organization that was originally set up and supported by the government to fight the PKK in the 1990s.
Unlike last October, Demirtas has resisted the urge to call for street protests, and has instead demanded that both the Turkish government and the PKK “silence their arms.” Demirtas knows that he cannot control the YDG-H, and so he is urging Turkey to avoid a return to a civil war scenario. If Turkey is pushed towards civil war, the HDP may well find themselves unable to act at all. The YDG-H may be affiliated with the broader Kurdish movement, but they are also an autonomous organization in their own right.
In the 1990s, the Kurds were so afraid of the Turkish state that they dared not speak their own language on the streets. Partly due to the HDP’s successful rise as a central force in mainstream Turkish politics, such fears have now been replaced with a sense of pride of what the Kurdish movement has achieved in 25 years. And if Erdogan continues to insist on sacrificing the peace process to entrench his own power, young and angry Kurds like those of the YDG-H will be ready to fight back.
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