Turkey’s war on the Kurds intensifies

February 25, 2016

Tom Gagné reports on the growing violence and repression against Kurds in Turkey.

THE TURKISH government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is using a deadly car bombing in the capital of Ankara on February 17 as an excuse to escalate its war on the Kurdish struggle--both inside Turkey and in regions of neighboring Syria, Iraq and Iran where Kurds predominate as the world's largest ethnic group without a national state.

The suicide bombing was directed at a convoy of Turkish military vehicles in downtown Ankara--28 people were killed and 61 wounded. The attack was clearly intended to kill as many soldiers and civilians as possible.

Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) immediately accused the leading Kurdish political party in neighboring Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and its armed wing, the People's Protection Units (YPG), of carrying out the attack, along with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) within Turkey itself. A Syrian national named Saleh Najjar was named as the perpetrator of the bombing.

PYD co-chair Salih Muslim announced in a press release that his party has no idea who Najjar is, and that it rejects Turkey's claim that it is responsible.

Fires rage following the car bombing in Ankara
Fires rage following the car bombing in Ankara

The PYD and YPG came to international attention in the fall of 2014 when they successfully defended the city of Kobanê, just across the border from Turkey, against an offensive by forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The Kurdish forces in Kobanê succeeded despite ISIS's superior numbers and firepower and the hostility of a Turkish government that feared the defense of Kobanê might give more confidence to the oppressed Kurdish population within its own borders.

Hours after the Ankara attack this month, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu claimed the Turkish government had determined "with certainty" that the YPG and PKK were directly responsible, and that this should serve as proof "for anyone who does not recognize that the YPG is a terrorist organization."

A day later, responsibility for the attack was claimed by the Kurdish Freedom Hawks (TAK), a radical resistance group that broke away from the larger PKK after its leader Abdullah Öcalan's turned toward a more libertarian anarchist position during his imprisonment by the Turkish state since 1999. But the claim became suspect after TAK released a purported photo of the attacker that turned out to be a Photoshopped image of a Turkish blogger for a national newspaper.

Accusations have been flung at other targets, from ISIS to the PKK itself, with each of the charges benefiting different parties and political interests. The confusion highlights the political and social uncertainty as Turkey--especially its southeastern regions--endures deepening instability, confusion and violence.

But one thing that does seem certain is the determination of Turkey's government to pin the attack on the Kurds--and to exploit it as justification to escalate bombing runs against PKK targets, wholesale repression in Kurdish areas in Turkey, and cross-border shelling of Kurdish towns in Syria where the PYD and YPG hold sway.

That was the meaning of Erdoğan's telephone conversation with Barack Obama last weekend--with each reaffirming their commitment to "fighting terrorism" in the region. The Turkish state--now with the Islamist AKP in power--is sending the same message that it has for decades: Kurds who fight for autonomy and political independence will face a deadly reaction.

THE FATE of Kurds in Syria is now embroiled in the intensifying and complex rivalries among various countries of the region and the imperialist powers since the rise of ISIS as a political and military force on the one hand, and the mass popular uprising against the dictatorship of Syria's Bashir al-Assad before that.

Like Turkey, the Assad regime has also stifled Kurdish national aspirations historically. But Syrian Kurds did not, by and large, ally themselves with the 2011 Arab Spring uprising against the dictator, in part because Assad was able to use divide-and-conquer tactics to neutralize various ethnic and religious minorities like the Kurds--by portraying the uprising as led by Sunni Islamists who would persecute other minorities.

In 2014, the Kurds found themselves fighting an existential battle against an offensive by ISIS military forces. Against overwhelming odds, the YPG repelled the ISIS assault on Kobanê. Since then, however, the Kurds have gone on the offensive militarily in an attempt to control a stretch of land along the Turkish border.

During this year's onslaught against Aleppo--one of the main bases of the anti-Assad rebellion--carried out by Syrian government forces, in coordination with the Russian military and other forces, the YPG was part of the offensive. When the Kurds took control in key villages in Aleppo and Idlib, the Turkish military escalated its shelling of YPG positions across the border.

Among the imperial powers jockeying for position, the U.S. is caught in a bind. It has supplied the YPG with weapons and equipment to be part of the war against ISIS. But it is also under pressure from the Turkish government--one of Washington's main allies in the region--not to allow the Kurds to gain too much strength.

Meanwhile, the Russian military intervention, directed explicitly at aiding the Syrian government to crush the revolution, has given the YPG an opportunity to consolidate its control over areas it seeks to dominate in the north, at the expense of those challenging the Syrian regime.

THE SITUATION in Syria, including the Kurds' role, has been very difficult to unravel and understand. By contrast, within Turkey itself, the violence and repression being carried out against the Kurds is a more familiar picture.

Turkey's Kurds have gained confidence over the past several years, not only because of the inspiration of their victory against ISIS in Kobanê--which was achieved despite the Turkish government closing the border to Kurds who wished to join the defense of the city--but more recently with the electoral success of the People's Democratic Party (HDP) within Turkey itself.

In the first of two national elections last June, the HDP--a coalition of pro-Kurdish and left-wing political forces, won 13.1 percent of the vote, surpassing the absurdly high 10 percent threshold to gain seats in parliament. That success denied the ruling AKP its majority in parliament for the first time since it came to power in 2001. The vote was a stunning illustration of not only the determination of Kurds, but growing discontent with the AKP throughout the population.

The AKP responded by intensifying the violence and repression against the HDP that had already begun in the lead-up to the election. Physical attacks against the party culminated in a horrific suicide bombing in October that targeted the HDP contingent at a peace march in Ankara, killing more than 100 people.

Before a second national election called for November 1, the military escalated air strikes against Kurdish militants in northern Syria and Iraq. Forces deployed to Kurdish areas within Turkey imposed curfews and provoked deadly clashes. The AKP managed to regain its control over the government in the November vote, on the basis of the anti-Kurdish frenzy it whipped up. However, the HDP held onto its representation in parliament--a testament to the courage and determination of the party's leaders and supporters.

THE AKP hasn't slowed the violence in the months following the election. By early December 2015, an estimated 10,000 Turkish troops were deployed in the predominantly Kurdish southeastern parts of Turkey to root out PKK militants and begin a wholesale crackdown on the rest of the population.

This operation is one of the largest of its kind in Turkish history, on a par with the civil war against the PKK that erupted in the 1980s and cost the lives of tens of thousands.

Today, martial law and extended, indefinite curfews are commonplace in major Kurdish metropolitan areas. They are primarily designed to block movement of Kurdish activists from one city to another. Using rhetoric eerily reminiscent of Israel's apartheid policies, the government claims that Kurdish rebels are using hospitals and schools as hideouts, so it is therefore justified in bombing them.

The humanitarian crisis for Kurds is growing worse, by all accounts. In January, a young university student, Helin Öncü, became international news when she was wounded by security forces in the streets of the city of Cizre--and soldiers stopped her from even being moved, let alone treated for her injuries, for an entire day. Lawyers in Ankara had to file an appeal with the European Court of Human Rights to get her transported to a hospital. Three other Kurdish women who searched for her when she didn't show up for a meeting are missing and presumed dead.

A frustrated and angry Selahattin Demirtaş, co-chair of the HDP, demanded of the government: "Are you trying to be heroic by sending six generals and 10,000 soldiers against a few PKK militants in Cizre?...By conducting an operation with such an amount of force, bombing cities, sending soldiers against the people, you only show, in fact, how helpless you are."

The district of Cizre seems to have suffered the worst so far. Since September, most of the district has been under a harsh curfew and martial law. More than 120 people have been killed by Turkish military forces, according to reports, and residents who witnessed the massacres say they barely escaped with their lives. Images and a video have emerged of Turkish soldiers stripping the clothes off a murdered Kurdish woman in broad daylight in the street.

The Turkish military is also carrying out its campaign in the district of Sur, which has been under a curfew and blockade for 78 days while the military has begun shelling residents.

Mazlum Dolan, a reporter for the Dicle news aervice (DİHA), got a report out of Sur to colleagues in which he described taking shelter with family members:

The situation is bad, we're in a basement. I'm here with family and this may soon be similar to the events in Cizre. The conflict is really severe, and we're being intensively bombed and hit with mortars and tank shells. Announcements have been made "We're going to strike you from the air, and we're going to kill you all." Take care my friends, farewell.

This is an all-out siege of war--there is no other way to describe it.

SO FAR, the U.S. and its European allies have been all but silent about the tidal wave of repression crashing Kurdish regions of Turkey.

The new wave of military violence has its roots in the government's reaction to the mass protests in 2013, when the defense of Gezi Park in Istanbul from the AKP's urban development scheme spread across the city and then the country into an outpouring of dissent against the government's corruption and growing authoritarianism.

While the protests receded without achieving their basic demands, they ignited anti-government sentiment across the country. The Kurdish population gained a lot in the aftermath, with a new left-wing electoral front, the HDP, emerging as the inheritor of the movement to galvanize the most oppressed parts of the population into an electoral voice led by Kurds.

The social and political crisis in Turkey has reached a new stage since Gezi. The AKP has lost its claim to legitimacy in the eyes of large parts of the population, both as an honest and populist administrator of the government, and now as a partner in the peace negotiations to end the civil war with the PKK.

But the government's murderous offensive against all symbols of the Kurdish struggle--state terrorism obscenely justified as a war against terrorism--is taking a horrific toll.

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