Turkey’s Civil War: The Kurdish Crisis Heats Up

Hundreds of thousands of people have fled anticipated battles between government and PKK forces

Image taken from footage made available by local source "Dokuz8 Haber" shows the moment an explosion ripped through a gathering ahead of a planned peace rally in Ankara on October 10.
Screen grab

The black basalt stones of the wall of Diyarbakir’s Sur district have seen major wars before; the Tigris River, which bisects this Kurdish regional capital in Turkey has known great power struggles. Sur is a densely populated quarter, thick with colorful alleyways and thousands of little shops that in normal times draw many tourists who pass through the city on their way to Turkey’s eastern provinces. The modern parts of Diyarbakir contain grand hotels, spacious high-rises, new shopping centers and new squares designed to control the heavy traffic. But there is constant tension in Diyarbakir, where power struggles have been waged for years between the Turkish police and army and the various Kurdish movements, including the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, and the organization’s youth wing, the Revolutionary Patriotic Youth Movement (YDG-H), and between them and the Sunni extremist Turkish Hezbollah, or Kurdish Hezbollah (not to be confused with Lebanon’s Shi’ite Hezbollah).

In the past two weeks these conflicts have reached a new height that recalls the dark days of the 1990s, when the Turkish authorities “conquered” the city and the surrounding Kurdish provinces, destroying thousands of villages, displacing hundreds of thousands of Kurdish Turks and imposing military rule.

According to local residents and journalists, the cities of Siirt, Silopi and Cizre have become battlefields between the army and young, masked, Kalashnikov-toting men who fire and throw Molotov cocktails at soldiers from behind barricades.

A week ago, the people of Sur, Silopi and Cizre were advised by the authorities to leave their homes, because “a big battle is about to start.” The PKK delivered a similar message. Some 3,000 teachers had already left the schools in these areas, and around 1,000 shops in Sur had closed by Friday. Residents take advantage of the hours when the curfew is lifted to flee to saver zones — by some accounts, over 200,000 people had left before the weekend.

Some Turkish commentators believe that Turkey is moving toward a civil war that could encompass the western cities as well — especially Istanbul, which is home to between two million and four million Kurds. It’s too early to accept this assessment, but Turkey is certainly involved in a very grave and dangerous internal crisis, in addition to contending with domestic terror and the “hot” border with Syria, which has created a deep rift in Ankara’s relations with Moscow.

The latest crisis with the Kurds began in July, after the bombing in Suruc, attributed to the Islamic State organization, in which 33 people were killed. At the time, the Kurds accused Turkish intelligence of at least knowing about the attack in advance and not preventing it. The PKK mounted a series of attacks against Turkish forces and in late July the government ended the three-year-old reconciliation process with the Kurds, which had made significant, albeit insufficient, progress.

PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who is jailed in Imrali Prison near Istanbul, is watching from the sidelines and has not signaled his followers to let up. From his base in northern Iraq’s Qandil Mountains, the organization’s top military commander, Cemil Bayk, continues to encourage the actions of young PPK urban warriors in Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, meanwhile, is talking about all-out war.

This is no street battle. It is a struggle over a radical agenda that attracts young Kurds. While the older generation of PKK fighters was willing to settle for cultural autonomy and equal rights, the younger generation of Kurds is demanding an independent Kurdish state, which will manage its own affairs like the Kurdish region in Iraq. But PKK supporters and the Revolutionary Patriotic Youth Movement do not represent all Kurds.

Kurdish Hezbollah opposes the PKK’s Marxism and as a result has become the partner of the Turkish government, although this relationship has ups and downs.

Last week, after Turkey announced it would join Saudi Arabia’s proposed anti-terror coalition of 34 Sunni Muslim states, residents of Diyarbakir expressed concern that the decision would help Kurdish Hezbollah at the expense of the PKK, under the guise of fighting terror.

That guise also serves Turkey in its fight against other political rivals, particularly journalists. That fight landed Turkey in third place worldwide in harassment of journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. In addition to 14 journalists already in custody for “harming state security” and “incitement to violence,” two senior journalists were arrested in late November: Can Dundar, the editor-in-chief of opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet, and Erdem Gol of the paper’s Ankara bureau, for a report last year on the movement of weapons from Turkey to rebel groups in Syria on trucks belonging to Turkish intelligence.

The European Union once demanded that Turkey stop harassing journalists, but after a Turkish-EU agreement was reached on blocking Syrian refugees from entering the EU via Turkey (for which Ankara received over $3.2 billion), the EU has fallen silent.

Meanwhile, the crisis between Turkey and Russia is developing in threatening directions. Russia stopped eight Turkish ships in the Black Sea citing breach of marine laws, and in response, Turkey stopped 27 Russian ships on procedural issues. American and even Iranian offers to mediate have not yet produced results. Turkey is preparing for a long period of Russian sanctions that will require it to quickly find alternative sources of natural gas and new markets for its produce. That may be the background to softer statements toward Israel as a potential source of natural gas.