Tens of Thousands of Kurds Turn Newroz Celebration Into Protest of Turkey's Deadly Syrian Campaign

Dozens were detained at the first major public demonstration against Turkey's involvement in the Syrian civil war

People chant slogans during the Newroz celebrations, marking the start of spring, in Istanbul, Wednesday, March 21, 2018.

Tens of thousands of Turkish Kurds turned an annual cultural festival into a rare mass political protest on Wednesday against the government's two-month-old military campaign against a Kurdish militia in neighboring Syria. 

At a rally to mark the spring festival of Newroz in the southern city of Diyarbakir, demonstrators said Ankara risked provoking violence at home if it pressed on with its Syria offensive. 

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A woman holds a photograph of former co-leader of pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party, or HDP, during the Newroz celebrations in Istanbul, Wednesday, March 21, 2018.
Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

Police in Turkey detained dozens of people for chanting slogans or unfurling banners in support of outlawed Kurdish rebels. The state-run Anadolu Agency said 22 demonstrators were detained in Istanbul for alleged "propaganda" supporting the rebels and a Kurdish faction in Syria that Ankara also considers as terrorists.

At least 26 others were detained in Izmir and Adana, the agency reported. Police also broke up an unauthorized demonstration in the mainly Kurdish city of Batman.

The event was the first major public demonstration against the campaign in Syria, in which the Turkish army has battled a Kurdish militia, the YPG, which Turkey says is an extension of the banned PKK, or Kurdistan Workers Party. It fell just days after Turkish forces stormed the Syrian city of Afrin. 

In a city still scarred by fighting between the PKK and Turkish troops, young women and men linked hands and danced to traditional Kurdish music in the warm spring sunshine, chanting for Afrin and jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. 

A man holds flares during the Newroz celebrations, marking the start of spring, in Istanbul, Wednesday, March 21, 2018.
Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

"Long live the Afrin resistance," sang the crowd. 

Political rallies are heavily restricted in Turkey's state of emergency imposed in the wake of an attempted coup in 2016. Hundreds of people were arrested across Turkey in the runup to the Diyarbakir rally, accused of planning illegal protests. 

Celebrating Newroz, the Persian New Year which falls on the Spring Equinox, has long been a mark of national pride for Kurds, who make up around a fifth of the population of Turkey, mainly in the southeast. Demonstrations for the holiday frequently led to violence during the PKK's 40-year insurgency. 

Southeastern Turkey saw an escalation of violence after a ceasefire between the Turkish state and the PKK collapsed in 2015. Much of Diyarbakir's historic heart, the Sur district ringed by Roman-era walls, was left in ruins. 

Women chant slogans on stage during the Newroz celebrations, marking the start of spring, in Istanbul, Wednesday, March 21, 2018.
Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

Although fighting inside Turkey has subsided since then, the army's two-month-old cross border campaign against the YPG in Syria has again raised passion among Turkey's Kurds. 

President Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to extend the offensive beyond Afrin to other YPG-held areas. If that happens, said Ziya Pir, a parliamentarian from the pro-Kurdish opposition HDP party, "there will not just be an emotional rupture between Turkey and the Kurds here, it will go further and none of us want to see that". 

Many Turkish Kurds have close ties to the YPG and the conflict across the frontier. One woman at the demonstration said her daughter left university to join the YPG after being detained and tortured in Diyarbakir, and had fought Islamic State in Iraq and Syria where she was killed. 

A cousin of hers also went to Afrin, and her fate remains unknown, said the woman who declined to give her name. 

Even if we die

Youth create a human tower during the Newroz celebrations, marking the start of spring, in Istanbul, Wednesday, March 21, 2018.
Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

"My surviving children and I will continue with this struggle even if we die," she told Reuters. 

Erdogan's government says its offensive targets militants who pose a direct threat to Turkey's security. The local head of his ruling AK Party in Diyarbakir, Serdar Budak, said Turkey's enemy was the YPG, not the Kurdish people. 

"If they have suffered harm, the wounds of all civilians will be bandaged," he told Reuters. 

Turkish Kurds gather during Newroz celebrations for the new year in Diyarbakir, southeastern Turkey, on March 21, 2018

Pir said there was "no concrete justification" for Turkey to send troops into northern Syria. The displacement of 200,000 people in Afrin and looting by Turkey's Free Syrian Army rebel allies showed that "what Turkey did is wrong, not just in a legal sense but also in a human sense." 

Another HDP politician, Berdan Ozturk, criticised the lack of international intervention to prevent what he said was Turkey's occupation of Afrin, a sentiment echoed by many in the crowd, where purple and green flags of the HDP were waving. 

"Afrin belongs to the Kurds but Turkey occupied it. Hundreds of thousands fled," said Tarik Dalkiran, a 52-year-old farmer from Bismil district of Diyarbakir province. "Britain, France, America, nobody did anything. I have lost faith in the West."