Turkish Kurds Cling to Peace Despite Syrian Civil War

Many Kurds in Syria are thought to be fighting with Assad, but their counterparts in Turkey are largely staying out of the fight even if their government is not.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Diyarbakir, Turkey – The first thing you notice on entering Diyarbakir is the enormous building drive. Across the main city of the Kurd region in southeast Turkey, battalions of earthmovers and bulldozers are paving wide roads and hundreds of towering residential buildings are going up. The next thing you notice is the masses of drug addicts hanging out in small parks, on street corners and along the massive walls of the old city. The addicts are collateral damage from three decades of bloody war between the Turkish army and the Kurdistan Workers' Party, better known as the PKK.

They are mainly refugees who fled to Diyarbakir from thousands of villages during the years of fighting. They could not find work in the city, but there was no shortage of cheap narcotics. The Turkish government has accused the PKK of financing its operations with drug dealing, while Kurdish opposition organizations have claimed senior Turkish officers ran the smuggling networks and the authorities had a clear interest in keeping the young Kurdish population drugged up.

Whoever is to blame, the publicized seizure of thousands of pounds of marijuana and heroin in recent months has not changed the fact that Diyarbakir remains an international drug smuggling hub. The PKK's terror campaign and the bloody Turkish repression of Kurdish separatism may officially be over, but the tens of thousands of addicts on the streets of Diyarbakir are the lasting legacy of the war.

The PKK's jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan, published three months ago an official announcement that the armed Kurdish struggle against Turkey was over, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been leading a peace process. Hundreds of thousands of Kurds gathered in the streets of Diyarbakir and cheered.

The government is investing heavily in developing the city and region; the military checkpoints that examined the identities of passengers on the main roads have disappeared, and the army is no longer in the streets. Some police officers still travel in armored jeeps, but most have already been equipped with "soft" vehicles. Architectural remnants of the prolonged emergency situation are the high barbed-wired topped walls surrounding the apartment buildings of local middle-class residents, officials and businesspeople, who used to hunker down as night descended.

Multiple interests pushed both sides to a ceasefire. In addition to the exhaustion of millions of Kurds from the unceasing violence and their desire to develop their overlooked region, the close relations between Turkey and the neighboring Kurdistan regional government (KRG) in northern Iraq have yielded a new pipeline, which is scheduled to next month begin pumping to Turkey and in a few years will supply two million barrels of high-quality Kurdish oil, satisfying most of the burgeoning Turkish economy's needs. The Turkey-KRG partnership to develop northern Iraq’s immense oil fields (along with Chinese investors) serves both sides. It gives the KRG a degree of independence from the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad and goes a long way to damping calls for Kurdish independence within Turkey.

But the long-awaited calm could be broken by events in another Kurdish region, that in Syria. Over the last few weeks, after remaining relatively quiet throughout the civil war, northeast Syria has been the scene of violent clashes between the PYD, the largest Kurdish party in Syria, and jihadist rebel groups. Since the beginning of the war, the PYD has been accused of cooperation with President Bashir Assad’s regime. The accusations intensified a year ago, when the Syrian army handed control of part of the region to the PYD, which is allied with the PKK and the PUK, the main opposition party in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The president of the Iraqi Kurdish region, Masoud Barzani, tried to unite the Syrian Kurds in the Kurdish National Council, which called for the establishment of an autonomous region and worked to prevent the Kurds getting swept up in the civil war. But it is so far a weak group without a significant fighting force. In an act of defiance of Turkey and President Barzani, PYD members flew PKK flags from public building in the areas the party now controls. The provocation led to a public warning from Erdogan, who said Turkey would not allow "the creation of a terror state" on its border, which was widely interpreted as a threat to attack the Kurds again.

"Turkey is trying to divide and rule the Kurds," said a Kurdish activist and PKK supporter who asked not to be named. "They are persisting in their policy of suppressing the Kurdish people, and despite the talk of peace, they will attack Kurds in Syria if they act too independently."

Many Kurds are convinced that if they align themselves with the rebels, they will be attacked not only by Assad's forces but also by Shia groups from Lebanon and nearby Iraq that are now fighting on Assad's side with Iranian backing.

"Erdogan may be a big hero when it comes to Assad, but he won't protect us from Hezbollah," the activist said.

But those opposed to the PKK and PYD say they have already made their pact with Assad and Iran.

Khalil, a Kurdish refugee who arrived in Turkey a few weeks ago from the Syrian city of Qamishli, not far from the Syrian-Turkish-Iraqi triangle, said, "In the city, there are already Shia fighters from Iraq and Iranian officers, and they are already fighting the Kurdish movements that support the rebels."

In recent months, tens of thousands of Kurds have joined the stream of refugees fleeing Syria, some of them arriving in Turkey and others finding haven in a new refugee camp in Iraq, a country from which refugees fled only a few years ago.

Erdogan's concern that internal Kurdish tension on the Syrian side could affect Turkey is warranted. The Shia government in Iraq is trying to gain more control of the oil pipeline project, and its Iranian patrons would love to punish Turkey for its support of the rebels. Further, among the Turkish Kurds, many are still skeptical of Erdogan's peace gestures. Ahmed Kadir, a student from the mountain town of Mardin, just 20 miles from the Syrian border, said, "The discrimination against Kurds has not ended."

Mardin, like other town in this antiquities-filled region, finally sees a period of prosperity beckoning, as tourists begin to arrive and new hotels are built.

But Kadir said, "Those who are profiting are Turks from Istanbul – not the local Kurds." He says we was not accepted to a medical school in Turkey and is leaving next month to study in Romania.

Many Kurds are suspicious of the ambitious development plans for the region coming from the Ankara government. For example, the Ilisu dam project will bring cheap electricity and irrigate widespread areas but is also threatening to destroy the historical buildings in the ancient town of Hassankeyf and will serve as yet another base for Turkish power in the region. Still, many if not most people are tired from all the years of fighting and more interested in economics and development than in dreams of independence. They say most Kurds were never supporters of the PKK.

"The Ataturk dam brought huge prosperity to the Urfa region, and it would be a pity if it harms historical sites, but most people here just want the region to prosper and to enjoy the same levels of income people now have in other parts of Turkey,” " says Mehmet Arif, a tourism company manager. “We don't like Erdogan, but we won't stop him in this, even if he tries to hit some Kurdish Syrian terrorists who are ruining things for all of us."

A demonstration in Diyarbakir following steps toward peace in March.Credit: AP
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. Credit: Reuters

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