Erdoğan's fight against the Kurds: the war no one can win

But the stakes keep rising

June 10, 2016
©Mahmut Bozarslan/AP/Press Association Images
©Mahmut Bozarslan/AP/Press Association Images
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How much worse is Turkey’s struggle with the PKK going get? The question is prompted by the car bomb attack at Vezneciler in the heart of Istanbul’s old city last Tuesday, carried out against a police bus on its way to work during the morning rush hour, left 11 people—six of them police officers—dead and 36 others injured. PKK [Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê] has not yet claimed responsibility but the bombing seems almost certainly to be its work. Similar bombings in Turkey’s capital, Ankara, in February and March left a total of at least 67 people dead.

Those are only part of the picture. In the mainly Kurdish-speaking heartlands of southeastern Turkey, a grim battle between the authorities and the PKK has been under way for months. Districts of the region’s main towns have been reduced to wrecks by search and arrest operations to flush out militants in curfews lasting continuously for 82 days. The PKK has responded with regular ambushes and bombings of soldiers and police outside the towns. One soldier was shot dead in the south east the day before the Istanbul car bombing. Two others, both policewomen, one pregnant, died in Midyat the day after it. 51 others were injured.

It is difficult to keep count of the casualty figures. Last September, 126 soldiers and police died in the first 80 days after the cease-fire ended on 22nd July. By last April Turkish press estimates put the total at around 400 and it seems to be rising by an average of about two casualties a day. By way of comparison, around 1000 British soldiers lost their lives in 30 years in Northern Ireland.

The PKK issues no figures for its losses—but the armed forces said earlier this month that 495 PKK militants YPS/HPG died in the town of Nusaybin and 489 in rnak during curfew operations lasting less than three months. President Recep Tayyip Erdoan who launched the operations last summer says 7,600 PKK militants have been "neutralised."

In many countries, loss of life on this scale would be prompting some kind of debate. It is certainly leada young Turks in the army and police to quake at the thought of duty to the south east. Funerals of the latest to die—known in Turkish as "martyrs"—head the TV news bulletins each night. Last summer there were protests by grieving relatives that the conflict was unnecessary. But, if these ever happen now, they are no longer broadcast.

Instead there are reports of threats against figures like Kemal Klçdarolu, the centre left opposition leader, apparently from hardliners who think he is soft on the PKK and its terrorism. Mr Klçdarolu has had eggs and bullets thrown at him while among mourners killed in the south east. His situation at least compares favourably with that of politicians from the mainly-Kurdish Peoples Democratic Party who have had to contend with explosions at their election meetings, the burning out of their provincial offices, and are now likely to be targeted under a new constitutional amendment which will permit them to be prosecuted and put on trial.

Mr Klçdaroglu, muttering that it was against the constitution, nevertheless voted for the amendment, apparently fearful of the consequences from public opinion if he did not. Most if not all of the HDP parliamentary leadership, who have explicitly condemned PKK violence, may soon be in prison.

Few people on either side voice the obvious fear—that this is a conflict which neither can win. President Erdoan is pledged never to resume peace talks with the PKK and to fight until the organisation—which has extensive operations in Iraq and cities across Europe—lays down its weapons and surrenders. Turkish forces have shown that—at the cost of heavy conflict—they can impose control on any of the cities in the southeast. On Wednesday this week his prime minister Binali Yildirim, responding to an alleged peace feeler from the PKK, repeated that there is nothing to talk about.

There are good reasons for the government’s confidence. Military operations over the last year have shown that, despite regular casualities, there is not going to be a Kurdish version of Ireland’s 1916 "Easter uprising." PKK groups made a singular error when they apparently telegraphed hopes of this sort by digging trenches in the streets of several towns in the southeast.

But the PKK, having fought for over three decades, is not to disappear either. It has well-armed camps in northern Iraq and releases videos onto the internet showing well-drilled soldiers (including uniquely for the Middle East) female fighters.

It has provide much of the manpower for the Syrian Kurdish YPG (Peoples Protection Units) who defended and held Kobane. What is more, it seems to have the hearts and minds of the majority of the people in the southeastern cities, where children and teenagers seem to have the fiercest anti-Turkish feelings. Ankara’s political strategy for the southeast seems to be to invoke Islamic solidarity against the PKK, whom President Erdoan recently described as "atheists and Zoroastrians." But it looks as if this line appeals to only about a relatively small slice of the population.

As if the grim picture above was not bad enough, events like Tuesday’s car bomb in Istanbul seem to promise that it may get much worse. The PKK’s two militant commanders promised in interviews in April and in May that "resistance is coming to every Turkish city." “The people of Kurdistan are now a power in the region,” Murat Karayilan, officially a member of the PKK’s Central Executive Committee and in reality one of its two commanders of field operations, told the Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet “With all its gains the struggle has reached a certain level which makes it necessary to build a free Kurdistan.”

He was echoing similar remarks to the BBC a month earlier by Cemal Bayik, Karayilan’s fellow guerrilla commander and apparently his arch-rival, the figures in the PKK who pressed hardest and most consistently for the organization to break off the two and a half years cease-fire and peace process. For many years the PKK fought for Kurdish rights, in a Marxist revolutionary state with Turkey, but not for a separate independent state. Abdullah Öcalan, the movement’s founder, captured and imprisoned in 1999, has never actually explicitly backed the idea of independence—though it may be some of his followers do not realize this. They tend to be polarized between the Kurdish population of the Euphrates valley and westwards who want rights within Turkey and think a fully independent landlocked state would not be viable and the Kurds of the backward and much more remote Tigris valley who dislike Turkey and the Turks.

The picture is made more complex by the presence of large Kurdish communities in Western and central Anatolia, many of whom migrated there in the late 1990s when the authorities cleared out villages and rural population in the southeast. There is no natural or plausible map of the boundaries of a "free Kurdistan." If it consisted of just the nine core southeastern provinces, large numbers of Kurds would be left outside it—very likely locked in hopeless antagonism with their neighbours who support President Erdoan and his tough way of dealing with the PKK.

This reality is the reason why even the PKK’s ultra-militant leaders have generally taken care to try not to risk a collision with the Turkish public—but the killings of hundred of young men in the police and the army are not something families in Western and central Turkey can forgive. President Erdoan’s fierce attacks on the PKK since last July, including hundreds of sorties by the Turkish air force against its centres in Iraq, have not brought any kind of clear-cut military victory, but they did win the ruling AKP an extra 4.3 million votes in Turkey’s second general elections last November, enabling his government to retrieve its situation after heavy losses earlier in the year and return to power with 49 per cent of the votes.

The election victory was a signal for the government to ratchet up the fight in the southeast, even using tanks against cities there, shattering and flattening their streets. Now the PKK’s leaders are raising the stakes even higher by threatening urban terrorism in response in metropolitan Turkey, a new and crueler spiraling upwards of violence in a war neither side looks able to win but whose repercussions will be terrible for both.

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