Turkey’s Kurdish conflict fanned by Syrian war
Istanbul - A new term, representing hope for some and fears for others, has entered the dictionary of the Kurdish conflict in Turkey: canton.
The word was initially used to describe autonomous zones in Kurdish areas of northern Syria that have shaken off the rule of the Damascus government in the increasing fragmentation of the war-torn country.
Governed by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian affiliate of the Turkish-Kurdish rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the strip of land along the Turkish border from Iraq in the east to the Euphrates in the west has become a Kurdish region divided into three cantons. With another Kurdish canton further west, they make up the autonomous region of Rojava.
In Turkey, however, “canton” has become a watchword in the rekindled struggle between PKK rebels and the Turkish state, which has killed hundreds of people since new clashes started last summer. The PKK, determined to build on the gains made by the PYD in Syria, has declared cantons in several cities of Turkey’s south-east, triggering an iron-fist reply by the Turkish state that regards the concept of cantons as a threat to national unity.
Turkish security forces have been using curfews to seal off several cities and neighbourhoods in the south-east and to squeeze out PKK fighters in an effort to end the rebels’ push for Kurdish autonomy. Kurdish fighters have dug trenches and erected barricades to keep the Turkish Army and police out.
With bloody clashes erupting in densely populated neighbourhoods, both sides are accused of crimes. After the death of 12 Kurdish fighters in the city of Van on January 10th, the local bar association said many of the victims had been shot in the heads, giving rise to speculation that they might have been executed.
Turkey’s Human Rights Foundation (TIHV) said in a report at least 162 civilians, among them 29 women and 32 children, had been killed in fighting in cities and areas under curfew from December 11th through January 9th.
The Turkish state has sent crack troops and tanks to the region to flush out the PKK. Media close to the government are accusing the PKK of committing atrocities in areas under rebel control. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to fight the Kurdish rebels “until the very end”.
Observers, such as respected columnist Murat Yetkin, say the fighting is as bad as it was during the darkest days of the Kurdish conflict in the 1990s. “It is neither sustainable nor will [it] produce any positive result for the well-being of the people in Turkey,” Yetkin wrote in the Hurriyet Daily News.
In another chilling reminder of the 1990s, which saw the displacement of millions of Kurds, almost 100,000 civilians have fled embattled cities since the start of the fresh fighting, according to a report by Al Jazeera quoting the Interior Ministry in Ankara.
The fighting has destroyed or damaged residential neighbourhoods and historic buildings. Behlul Ozkan, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Marmara University, said, “Some cities and neighbourhoods in south-eastern Turkey look like Syria.”
As the military confrontation in Kurdish cities escalates, the political divide is growing as well. Erdogan, who as prime minister in 2005 became the first Turkish head of government to publicly proclaim that the country had a “Kurdish problem”, now says there was no Kurdish problem, but a “terror problem”.
Leading politicians of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), Turkey’s main pro-Kurdish party, have pledged support for Kurdish autonomy, enraging Ankara further. HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas in December spoke in favour of a statement by the Kurdish umbrella group Democratic Society Party (DTP) that called for autonomous regions and self-government. Erdogan accused Demirtas of treason and called for the lifting of his parliamentary immunity so he could be prosecuted.
These tensions show how far Turkey has moved away from a peace process that was supposed to offer a political solution to the Kurdish conflict. Three years ago, Erdogan’s government started talks with jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan about ways to end the fighting that began in 1984 and has killed more than 40,000 people. The talks produced a ceasefire that held for more than two years but hopes for a lasting peace collapsed last summer when new fighting between the PKK and the Turkish military erupted.
Some critics accuse Erdogan of having fanned the flames of the conflict in order to strengthen support for his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) ahead of elections last November. But the situation in Syria, with the PYD’s growing strength in Rojava and efforts by the Kurdish faction to extend its sphere of influence further, has also played a major role, observers say.
Encouraged by the successful defence of the Syrian-Kurdish city of Kobane against a siege by the Islamic State (ISIS) in January 2015, the PKK felt emboldened, Yetkin wrote. The PKK “thought the international political balances were ripe for an independent Kurdistan, or at least autonomy, by copying the Kobane ‘canton’ experience to towns and cities in Turkey”.
As fighting rages, Ankara has warned the PYD not to cross from the eastern side of the Euphrates to the west to reach the city of Jarabulus, saying such a move could trigger a military response. The pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper reported on January 11th that Turkish artillery and tanks had supported a push by a non-Kurdish rebel alliance in northern Syria to take Jarabulus from ISIS before the PYD could get there.