As Turkey's Army Fights the PKK, Kurdish Cities Become Battlefields

A key question is whether the latent civil war will boost President Recep Tayyip Erdogan or make him look helpless against terror.

Zvi Bar'el
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Turks protest renewed violence by Kurdish militants, lstanbul, September 8, 2015. Credit: Reuters
Zvi Bar'el

of terrorists into another country isn’t a new invention. Many countries, including Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia and of course Israel, frequently use this tactic.

Nor is it unusual for Turkey to penetrate its neighbors’ territory. It entered Syria in February to of 12th-century patriarch Suleyman Shah and the unharmed Turkish soldiers guarding the tomb. Turkey’s air force bombed northern Iraq three years ago, and two months ago it again attacked PKK bases in Iraq and Syria, because Turkey considers the Kurdish group a terrorist organization.

Thus Ankara’s dispatch of two brigades this week to the Qandil Mountains in northern Iraq, which abut the Kurdish regions of Turkey and Iran, is part of what it terms its “natural right of self-defense” following two attacks in southeast Turkey in recent days that killed at least 13 soldiers and policemen.

This week's incursion could be considered an infringement of Iraqi sovereignty, and certainly of semiautonomous Iraqi Kurdistan's, but it seems likely that neither Iraqi nor Kurdish leaders were overly upset. The president of Iraqi Kurdistan, Masoud Barzani, isn’t enthusiastic about the PKK’s operations. Based on his comments, anyway, he supports Turkey, partly because it's the sole gateway for Kurdistan’s oil exports.

Iraq’s relationship with Turkey has long been chilly, mainly because Ankara continues to enable Kurdish oil exports, but Baghdad can’t do much about the Turkish army operation. No Iraqi soldier will be sent to defend territory controlled by the Kurds, and Iraq doesn’t have soldiers to spare for that task anyway.

But while the operation in Iraq doesn’t threaten Turkey’s relations with its neighbors, it poses risks for Ankara’s fragile relationship with its Kurdish citizens. As the violence between the army and the PKK escalates, Kurdish cities in Turkey are becoming battlefields.

A curfew has been imposed on several dozen cities, and a few districts have been put under a “special military regime,” which translates into restricted entry and exit, checkpoints and arrests. Kurdish citizens have been demonstrating for days in southeast Turkey’s major cities; their leaders warn that the daily confrontations could spark a civil war.

The Kurds accuse Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of deliberately fanning the conflict to bolster nationalist sentiment, which he hopes will bring him victory in November’s elections. The opposition Republican People’s Party shares the Kurds’ view, as do many Turkish liberals.

Their current fear is that Erdogan and his minions will find some pretext for outlawing the pro-Kurdish HDP party. That would let Erdogan’s AKP party win many more votes — enough, he hopes, to let the AKP govern without a coalition.

This fear obligates the HDP to walk a tightrope. It must keep faith with the Kurdish voters who put it into parliament for the first time by taking a firm stance against the Turkish security forces’ operation and the “internal occupation” of Kurdish districts. At the same time, it must avoid saying anything that could haul it into court.

But Erdogan isn’t the only person Selahattin Demirtas, joint leader of the pro-Kurdish party, must be wary of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, currently in a Turkish jail, has for years made sure to jettison any rival Kurdish leader, and he isn’t happy about Demirtas’ popularity. Turkish commentators have noted that in contrast to Erdogan’s attacks on Demirtas, the president hasn't denounced Ocalan — alleged evidence that the two leaders are conspiring to undermine Demirtas.

The question now is whether developments on the battlefield and the daily terror attacks will pave the AKP’s way back to single-party government, or whether the attacks and casualties will have the opposite effect by making Turks view Erdogan as someone incapable of ending terrorism.