Kurdish pro-independence activists have erected barricades, and elected representatives have declared self-government in several towns and villages across northern Kurdistan (southeast Turkey) since August 10. The declarations come in response to renewed attacks on Kurdish militants and civilians by Turkish security forces.
According to Kurdish media outlets, the towns, villages and districts that have declared self-government include Silopi, Cizre, Lice, Varto, Bağlar in Batman, Sur and Silvan in Diyarbakir, Bulanik, Yüksekova, Şemdinli, Edremit and Doğubeyazit, among others. Significantly, the Gazi neighbourhood in Istanbul declared self-government on August 18.
Mayors and elected representatives of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) and the Democratic Regions Party (DBP), together with neighbourhood assemblies, have supported the declarations of self-government, saying the Turkish regime “did not represent them”. Four mayors in Diyarbakir were arrested on August 18.
The Turkish government, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), has given unlimited powers to the security forces and declared a state of emergency in the areas of resistance over the past week.
The Turkish army has backed up Special Forces and police in carrying out attacks, which have included aerial bombardment, the burning of homes, raids, and the shooting of combatants and civilians. Military curfews have been declared, and the affected districts are besieged by the army.
One of the first towns to declare self-government on August 13 was Varto in Muş province, where Kurdish combatant Kevser Eltürk (with the nom de guerre Ekin Wan) was killed in a gun battle with Turkish Special Forces on August 10. Ekin Wan was a fighter in YJA-STAR (Free Women’s Units), the women’s military wing of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
After her death, Ekin Wan’s bloodied corpse was stripped naked and dragged through the streets by Special Forces who photographed the desecration and uploaded it onto the internet, sparking protests across Turkey.
Kurdish media reports that in the days following the declaration of self-government, Varto was attacked by tanks, helicopters and Special Forces soldiers. A PKK graveyard was bombed while military helicopters opened fire on villagers in Varto and several surrounding villages. Special Forces entered to conduct house raids and make arrests, while soldiers are reported to have set fire to houses and forests. The operations in Varto have been replicated in Kurdish towns and villages across southeast Turkey.
Turkish author and former war correspondent Cengiz Çandar described the developments of the past week as a “mass youth uprising by the PKK” that surpasses the scale of similar urban uprisings during the 1990s.
Kurdish activists too have said the security forces’ aggression is reminiscent of attacks on Kurdish communities during the 1990s, in which around three millions Kurds were displaced and thousands were killed. Since the PKK-led Kurdish insurgency began in 1984, an estimated 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict – the majority Kurdish civilians.
Erdoğan ended a two-year ceasefire on July 24 when his government resumed attacks on Kurdish communities in Turkey, as well as launching airstrikes against PKK bases across the border in southern Kurdistan (in Iraq).
By August 19, Turkish officials claimed that more than 50 security force members, around 400 PKK members and “at least seven” civilians have been killed in the recent violence. The PKK have rejected the claim regarding their casualties and say they have lost 30 members. The official figure for civilian deaths appears to be patently false, given that Amnesty International has verified that eight Kurdish civilians were killed in one Turkish airstrike alone in the village of Zergele in the Qandil mountains in Iraq on August 1.
The July 20 attack by an Islamic State supporter on a group of socialist youth activists in the Kurdish town of Suruç inside Turkey, near the Syrian border, was the spark for the collapse of the two-year ceasefire and peace talks between the Turkish government and the PKK.
The activists who were killed were members of the Federation of Socialist Youth Associations (SGDF), the youth wing of the of Socialist Party of the Oppressed – a founding member of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) coalition. The leftist, pro-Kurdish HDP won 13 per cent of the vote in general elections in Turkey in June; its co-leader, Figen Yüksekdağ, is a former chairperson of the Socialist Party of the Oppressed.
The youth activists were preparing to travel to Kobanê, the Kurdish city across the border in Syria, to build a library and playground, and assist in the general rebuilding of the town after the siege and conflict between the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Islamic State. In a crowd of around 300 people who had gathered for a public declaration to farewell the delegation in Amara Cultural Centre, a young Islamic State supporter blew himself up, killing 32 people; another later died from injuries.
The Islamist suicide bombing against the pro-Kurdish left has somehow been used by the Turkish government as a pretext to launch an all-out attack – against the pro-Kurdish left.
As international leaders sent their condolences to Erdoğan’s AKP government over what they referred to as “Islamic State’s attack on Turkey”, Kurds accused the government of collusion in the bombing. Specifically, they believe the Turkish National Intelligence Organisation (MIT) was directly involved.
Survivors asked the question: how was the bomber able to freely walk into the Amara Cultural Centre when there was a strong security presence surrounding it, and the activists had all been searched on their way in? Later, the funeral processions of almost all of the victims were attacked by Turkish security forces. The rapid pace of political developments in the days following the bombing appear to confirm the Kurds’ belief of government involvement.
Kurdish militants from the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H), an armed youth movement associated with the PKK, claimed responsibility for the killings of two Turkish police officers on 22 July, who they said had collaborated with Islamic State.
Three days later the bombing – after providing both tacit and practical support to various Islamist forces fighting against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad during the civil war since 2011 – Erdoğan struck an agreement with the US on July 23. Under the deal the US can use Turkish air bases to launch airstrikes across the border against Syria, and Turkey has agreed to contribute directly to the war on Islamic State in Syria by carrying out its own strikes.
A “safety zone” along part of Syria’s border with Turkey is to be made free of both Islamic State and Kurdish militants, according to the terms of the agreement. This is the most significant element of the agreement as far as Erdoğan is concerned. There are three cantons in Rojava, the Kurdish area in Syria that runs along a large part of the border with Turkey. Following the recent victory of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) over Islamic State in Tal Abyad, two of the three cantons, Kobanê and Cizere, were joined contiguously for the first time.
The precise area the “safety zone” is proposed to cover will ensure the YPG cannot join the two Kurdish cantons with the third, Afrin, as the US-Turkish joint “clear and hold” operation aims to rid the area of both Islamic State and Kurdish fighters. The absurdity of the US agreeing to limit the operations of the most effective military force fighting Islamic State in Syria in this way has been pointed out by many.
Announcing the agreement domestically, Erdoğan said his government would carry out a “synchronised war against terror” that would target both Islamic State and the PKK.
As of August 19, Turkey had launched airstrikes against just three Islamic State targets, and more than 300 against PKK bases in Iraqi Kurdistan. In the first three weeks of the campaign of repression, 1,300 “terrorism suspects” were arrested – 137 alleged to be linked to Islamic State, and 847 were accused of PKK membership. The Islamist suspects were quickly released; the Kurds were not. The total number of alleged activists now detained since July stands at more than 2,600, almost all of them Kurds.
‘Your silence is killing Kurds’
Yet most of the Western mainstream media has parroted the lines that Erdoğan has joined the war against Islamic State and the PKK are a secondary target in a broader crackdown, and the PKK has initiated the latest round of violence and caused the breakdown in peace talks.
The report by the New York Times on August 18 was typical of this coverage: “Mr Erdogan’s government decided to move more forcefully against the Islamic State last month after a suicide bombing in the southeastern district of Suruc that killed at least 34 people.”
The Wall Street Journal reported on August 3: “In parallel with its new military strikes against Islamic State, Turkey has targeted bases in northern Iraq used by the outlawed Kurdish separatist group PKK. The deadly airstrikes came in response to increased attacks by the PKK against Turkish security forces that are threatening a fragile peace process.”
The Huffington Post, however, reported on August 19 that Turkey pays US lobbyists and public relations firms around $5 million a year to win public and political favour. Among the lobbyists on the payroll is Porter Goss, who was CIA director from 2004-2006. Within days of renewing attacks on Kurds, Turkey hired the Squire Patton Boggs lobby group, which includes retired senators and White House officials, to propagate its version of the conflict.
There has been an almost-total media blackout in relation to the attacks on Kurds within Turkey and the urban warfare that has engulfed a major part of the country, prompting social media campaigns to target Western media with the hashtag, #YourSilenceIsKillingKurds.
In Turkey, where for decades the media has been prevented from reporting on PKK attacks and casualties among security forces, the media is now beaming a constant stream of “stories of those who were killed, kidnapped policemen, attacked government buildings and assets, along with bomb threats,” according to Pinar Tremblay, writing in Al-Monitor. “Turkish audiences have not seen this many funerals since the early days of the conflict in the late 1980s.”
Putting power before peace
The Turkish president has invested a significant amount of political capital in achieving a lasting peace settlement with the Kurds of Turkey, who number 15 million, around one-fifth of the total population. Before becoming president, Erdoğan served as the prime minister from 2003-2014. In 2005, he admitted the existence of a “Kurdish problem” in Turkey, and under his government secret peace talks were held between the PKK and the Turkish National Intelligence Organisation in Oslo.
The process eventually led to the declaration from jail of a ceasefire on Newroz day (Kurdish New Year) in March 2013 by PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, imprisoned since 1999. The ceasefire proved durable, and in February this year a more comprehensive agreement was announced by HDP and AKP representatives, including the Interior Minister and the deputy prime minister. The 10-point Dolmabahçe Agreement dealt with conflict resolution issues including disarmament, human rights and constitutional reform.
On July 17 Erdoğan said: “I do not recognise the phrase ‘Dolmabahçe Agreement’… There cannot be an agreement with a political party that is being supported by a terrorist organisation.”
What changed? In general elections in June, the AKP lost its parliamentary majority for the first time in 13 years. The pro-Kurdish left-wing HDP won 13 per cent of the vote, meaning it met the 10 per cent threshold a political party must reach in order to sit in the Turkish parliament. This threshold was imposed with the aim of silencing voices of political opposition by the constitution adopted in 1982 following the 1980 military coup. It has meant Kurds have been largely excluded from the democratic process ever since, making the result in June historic.
The party, its candidates and campaign workers were harassed and physically attacked, sometimes lethally, throughout the election campaign. On June 5, its major pre-election rally in Diyarbakir was bombed. Four people were killed and dozens more were injured. Other HDP election rallies were attacked by fascists; its offices were shot at and bombed; and campaign worker Hamdullah Öğe was assassinated while driving a HDP vehicle.
Despite the violence and intimidation, voters turned out in large numbers to support the HDP – which also attracted votes from non-Kurdish communities on the basis of its secular, feminist and left-wing positions.
The AKP required 276 seats to form a majority government in the 550-seat parliament; it won 258, dropping from around 50 per cent of the vote to just above 40 per cent. The social-democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP) won 132 seats, while the HDP and the fascist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) each won 80 seats. Of the 80 HDP candidates elected, 32 were women, bringing the number of female MPs in the Turkish parliament to a record high of 98. All leadership positions in the HDP are co-chaired by a woman and a man.
The current government is an interim government; if no coalition is formed by August 23, Prime Minister Davutoglu must dissolve the cabinet. If this happens, an all-party ‘election government’ will be formed until the new elections – which must be within 90 days.
The HDP rejected the AKP’s overtures for a coalition government from the beginning, and AKP talks with the CHP, then the MHP, have broken down. But it’s highly likely that Erdoğan had no intention of forming a coalition government, and would prefer to hold snap elections in November in which he believes the AKP can regain its majority.
Erdoğan wants an ‘executive presidency’
The election results also blocked plans Erdoğan had made for constitutional reform that could only be made through the parliament if the AKP won a two-thirds majority, or 367 seats. After ruling as prime minister for 11 years, he is clearly dissatisfied with what he calls the “ceremonial” role of the president, and he intended after the election to create an “executive presidency” that would dramatically extend his personal power.
The president had formerly been appointed by the parliament, but a 2010 referendum allowed for direct election of the president, and the first such election was won by Erdoğan last August.
Immediately after his election, Erdoğan opened an opulent new 1,000-room presidential palace that cost Turkish taxpayers well over $600 million to construct. In May this year, the AKP-majority parliament granted Erdoğan a “discretionary fund” for “discreet intelligence and defence services” not subject to any form of judicial, administrative or parliamentary oversight – in other words, his own private army.
HDP co-leader Selahattin Demirtaş responded to the establishment of the discretionary fund by calling it a “civil coup”.
“The palace has its own special army authorised to collect intelligence, its own discretionary budget. That is, it has created a one-man, separate state,” he said.
On August 13, AKP leader and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said he had failed to reach a coalition deal with the CHP. The following day, Erdoğan indicated that he will attempt to achieve an ‘executive presidency’ without the required two-thirds majority if the AKP wins a simple majority in snap elections – or perhaps even before then.
“There is a president with de facto power in the country, not a symbolic one,” he said. “Whether one accepts it or not, Turkey’s administrative system has changed. Now, what should be done is to update this de facto situation in the legal framework of the constitution.”
Demirtaş called for a referendum to be held on the proposed change, which the HDP opposes, saying: “The state regime cannot be changed with a fait accompli.”
CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu described the statement as the “acknowledgement of a coup”.
The general election was held on June 7; from June 8 the AKP has been planning a new snap election and a way to rapidly diminish the HDP’s support base. If the HDP were to drop below the 10 per cent threshold and be excluded from parliament, then in all seats where a HDP candidate topped the poll the seat would go to the runner-up – in most cases, an AKP candidate.
In anticipation of a new election, Erdoğan and the AKP are making a concerted effort to link the HDP with the PKK, and to alienate conservative Kurdish voters from supporting the HDP, in the belief that this will result in the party failing to meet the 10 per cent threshold. At the same time the AKP is appealing to right-wing nationalists to reward its hardline position.
Many analysts have predicted that the move may backfire and drive the entire Kurdish population in Turkey to vote for the HDP. The head of polling company Metropoll, Özer Sencar, said on CNNTurk on August 18 that the HDP is likely to become the third-largest party in Turkey if fresh elections are held in November, and could win up to 17-18 per cent of the vote – an outcome he was at pains to explain he believed would be “extremely wrong” for Turkey.
Of course, the caretaker government led by the AKP may attempt to outlaw the HDP and prevent it from participating in fresh elections. On July 31, Turkish media reported that a criminal investigation has been opened into both HDP co-chairs, Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, for “inciting violence” and “propagandising for terrorist organisations” respectively, over speeches they have given in support of Kurds in Kobanê and the rest of Rojava. In Demirtaş’s case, if the case is prosecuted and he is found guilty, he faces up to 24 years in prison.
Eight opposition MPs from the CHP and HDP have also had an ‘investigation authorisation report’ sent to the parliament by the deputy prime minister, which provides legal authority to open an investigation into an MP’s activities.
The current indications are that the government will continue to target individuals and not attempt to outlaw the HDP itself – but this could change in response to the declarations of self-government across Kurdish districts.
Erdoğan’s renewed aggression against the PKK should not only be understood in domestic terms. It is also shaped significantly by the major advances made by Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq. The dismal repercussions of attacking the most effective resistance to Islamic State in the region have yet to fully play out. But his decision to walk away from an historic opportunity to end decades of conflict, in a cynical and transparent grab for personal power, may have unleashed a rebellion by Kurdish youth in Turkey that he will not be able to contain.
Kurdish pro-independence forces are stronger now – better organised, with more territory and more international support – than they were in the 1990s.
A second article examining the Kurdish struggle against Islamic State in Rojava, and the impact of the US-Turkey deal to establish a “safety zone” along the Turkey-Syria border, will follow shortly.