Nine Questions and Answers re. Violence Southeast Turkey


Practically every day civilians are dying in the renewed violence between the PKK and the Turkish army. Some of the dead have been on the streets for weeks now, and can’t be buried by their families. The government says it’s fighting terrorism. But is it? And why is Europe not saying anything?

1. What is happening in Turkey’s southeast? Do you have some striking examples to explain the situation?

There are dead bodies on the streets of Sur, the old city centre of Diyarbakir. Their families have been on hunger strike since 2 January to force the authorities to enable the burial of the dead, but to no avail. On 13 January, the Human Rights Association of Diyarbakir talked to the assistant governor of Diyarbakır, Mehmet Emir, who gave permission to collect the bodies that afternoon. But when the group, including HDP MP Sibel Yigitalp, came to Sur district, the police said they could take the bodies but only if they first brought in any weapons or explosives that were lying in the vicinity of the bodies. Also, they said they couldn’t be responsible for the group’s safety. Then the
group deemed it too dangerous to pick up the bodies. It concerns the bodies of Mesut Seviktek, İsa Oran (both died on 23 December), Ramazan Ögüt (died 30 December) and Rozerin Çukur (died on 8 January).

The same happens in other areas where curfews are imposed. Civilians are being killed, including children. Last weekend in Cizre for example, 10 year old Hayrettin Şınık died on the way to hospital after he was wounded when a mortar shell hit his family’s house. Earlier, on 15 January, Büşra Akalın, also 10 years old, died in Cizre, after she was wounded the same way.

Whole towns and neighbourhoods are being destroyed. The army uses heavy artillery to shell residential areas and is indiscriminate about who and where the shells hit. Houses, mosques, schools, all are damaged, sometimes so heavily that they can’t be used anymore. Garbage is piling up on the streets. According to Faysal Sariyildiz, HDP MP who has been in Cizre for weeks now and who reports intensively via twitter, the city smells like garbage and gun powder.

Thousands and thousands of people are on the run from the violence, and because there is a shortage of food. Often the electricity gets cut too. The state makes it impossible for people to live in their houses and continue their daily lives in any way. They leave sometimes during the curfews, with a piece of white sheet tied to a stick to try to protect themselves against snipers.

2. So, there is a war going on in Turkey?

There is. But it’s not new. It started in 1984 when the PKK carried out its first two attacks against the state. Ever since, there has been a civil war, according to the common definition that a civil war is an armed conflict inside the territory of a state, with active participation of that state, and with a death toll of over one thousand per year (which was not measured every year since 1984, but with an overall death toll of more than 40,000, this criteria can be considered met). The term civil war is somewhat deceptive and intra-state war would be more accurate, since it doesn’t necessarily mean that several groups of civilians are fighting each other, which is indeed not the case in Turkey: it is a war between the state and the PKK, and explicitly not a war between Kurds and Turks.

However, one of the combatant parties, the PKK, considers the war a colonial one too. They consider the Turkish army and the Turkish state an occupying power. In their early years, in the 1970’s and 1980’s and into the 1990’s, they wanted secession from Turkey, but for more than a decade they have changed their goal to autonomy. This doesn’t make the Turkish authorities less of an occupying power, in their eyes, so the current war is still a colonial one too. This becomes obvious for example in KCK press statements (the KCK is an umbrella organization of Kurdish groups, of which the PKK is a part as well), in which they often refer to the Turkish army as ‘occupation army’. The PKK considers self-determination a right, and indeed this right is laid
down firmly in international treaties to which Turkey is a party. It is inevitable that eventually this conflict will be solved by granting the Kurds some form of autonomy. When that day comes, it is not very logical that the Turkish army and police, which have suppressed and massacred the Kurds since even before the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923, will remain the legitimate armed force of Kurdistan. They have lost that legitimacy, comparable to the Iraqi army having no business anymore in the now autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq, where the once illegal peshmerga– considered terrorists by Saddam Hussein – have been transformed into the legitimate armed forces.

At the end of 2015, the Democratic Society Congress (DTK), an umbrella group of dozens of civil society organizations and local councils as well as members of political parties related to the Kurdish movement (the HDP on a national level and the DBP on a regional level), stressed once again that autonomy is essential for the solution of the Kurdish issue. Several mayors already declared their municipalities autonomous (now arrested, and some capitals changing). Ever since, the war, previously mainly fought in the rural areas of the Kurdish regions, has moved to the cities.

As much as the Turkish government wants the outside world to believe that it is actually fighting the PKK in the cities and declaring curfews to protect the citizens against their crackdown on the PKK, the PKK members from the mountains have not descended into the towns and cities of Kurdistan. The fight against the army and police in the towns is carried out by a youth group, the YPS, the Yekîneyên Parastina Sivîl, in English the Civil Protection Units. These groups of young men and women were formerly known as the YDG-H, the Patriot Revolutionary Youth Movement. They consider themselves the legitimate armed forces of the municipalities where self rule has been declared. Where the YDG-H was mainly armed with Molotov cocktails and stones, the YPS also carries Kalashnikovs and sometimes rocket launchers.

There is an important difference between the PKK and the YPS. The YPS may be affiliated with the PKK, but they are not, like official PKK members, under the command of the PKK leadership based in the Qandil mountains in the north of Iraq. At least, that’s what the PKK vehemently claims. They are deciding on their own course independently, and by doing so the youth movement can be compared to the women’s movement KJA (Free Women Congress), which also doesn’t take orders from anyone. There is only one person the YPS would listen to, and that is PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. He has been in isolation on Imrali prison island since 5 April 2015 – well, it can’t be ruled out that behind the scenes there is some contact, but he cannot receive his family, lawyers or members of the HDP, and thus cannot make any public statement via them. If Öcalan could speak again, the chance that violence would decrease is considerable. The longer the isolation continues though, the harder it gets for the AKP government to break it: by isolating him they try to minimize his relevance, but of course the opposite is happening, which will become clear the minute he speaks again. Similar situations happened before, like in 2012 when there was a hunger strike among PKK members and political prisoners in many prisons in Turkey, and some hunger strikers were about to die. The moment Öcalan said the hunger strike had to stop, the inmates started to eat again.

The YPS wants the Turkish army out of ‘their’ territories; the army of course doesn’t accept it, equates the PKK with the YPS and tries to annihilate them. It’s remarkable that they haven’t reached their goal despite a few months of fighting, as NATO’s second biggest army, against a contingent of masked young men and women with Kalashnikovs and rockets. Then again, the streets in these towns, especially in Sur (the old city of Diyarbakir) but also in Cizre and Silopi, can be narrow, and a tank or armoured vehicle doesn’t get you very far. (Frankly, Turkey has shown some restraint.)

In these city battles, a lot of civilians die – see later question. It is, however, nothing new that the civilian population falls victim to state brutality. In the 1990s, some three thousand villages in the Kurdish areas were burnt down by the army and thousands of people fled to other towns and cities. It is why many of the refugees of those days ended up in the Sur district of Diyarbakir, where violence is intense now and where thousands of citizens once again had to run for their lives and find shelter elsewhere.

3. Do you have some statistics on curfews and civilian deaths?

Yes, several organisations have been documenting what’s happening. The Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TIHV) made a fact sheet about the curfews and their consequences. There have been 58 officially confirmed, open-ended and round-the-clock curfews in at least nineteen districts of seven cities (they mention the provinces of Diyarbakir, Mardin, Sirnak and Hakkari, but more specifically for example about Silvan, Dargecit, Nusaybin, Sur, Silopi, Cizre, Yüksekova, Lice
and others). In these areas, around 1,377,000 people reside. They state that, based on data from their documentation centre, 162 civilians have been killed, among whom 29 women, 32 children, and 24 people over 60 years of age. Also according to the TIHV, between 11 December 2015 and 8 January 2016 alone, 79 civilians were killed, of whom fourteen women and one unborn baby (killed by a gunshot in the womb). Of these 79 people, at least 22 were shot within the boundaries of their homes, either inside the house, on the doorstep or balcony or in the garden. Four people died in connected operations outside the curfew areas.

The curfews in Sur and Cizre are ongoing: on 19 January, they were in their respective 49th and 38th day. Based on media reports, TIHV claims that in every curfew area some ten thousand security forces have been dispatched, alongside hundreds of armoured military vehicles such as tanks, armoured vehicles and cannons. Starting from 19 January, the curfew in Silopi, which started on the same day as the one in Cizre, was be lifted during the day between 5am and 6pm, but it will continue in the evening and night hours.

For details about the dates of the curfews and the names and ages of civilian deaths, check the ‘detailed table’ TIHV offers in its website.

It is unclear how many members of the security forces (army and police) have been killed in the ongoing violence. It is also not clear how many of the civilians killed were actually YPS members. There are losses among PKK members too, but these deaths in general don’t occur in the cities but in the rural areas and in the Qandil mountains, where bombing by the Turkish army is ongoing.
There are exceptions: in the eastern city of Van, twelve PKK members were executed on 10 January, more information in this article, and in Kiziltepe two PKK members were shot by police while on a mission there.

Human Rights Watch issued a report halfway through December and had meticulously investigated fifteen civilian deaths in September and November in Cizre (Sirnak province), Silvan (Diyarbakir) and Nusaybin (Mardin). The report doesn’t offer detailed statistics, but describes the conditions under which the population has to live, including lack of food, water, electricity and medical care.

Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior researcher based in Turkey, says in the report: ‘The Turkish government should rein in its security forces, immediately stop the abusive and disproportionate use of force, and investigate the deaths and injuries caused by its operations. To ignore or cover up what’s happening to the region’s Kurdish population would only confirm the widely held belief in the southeast that when it comes to police and military operations against Kurdish armed groups, there are no limits – there is no law.’ The whole report can be read here.

Amnesty International too spoke out against the curfews and military operations, in a so-called ‘urgent action’. Not only do they point to the curfews, which lack legal basis, and civilian deaths, but also draw attention to the fact that demonstrations against the curfew are usually banned and
attacked by police, thus violating the right to free assembly. The urgent action can be read here.

4. Who says the civilians all died of army or police fire? Couldn’t it be YPS bullets or rockets as well?

That could very well be. The problem is that none of the deaths is thoroughly and independently investigated. The bodies are taken to the morgue, where an autopsy report is written, and that’s it. The state has the obligation to thoroughly investigate the violent death of citizens, but it doesn’t.

5. There was a court case at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to have the curfews declared illegal. How did that turn out?

The case is pending. The lawyers who applied at the ECHR asked for the curfews to be suspended while the court is deliberating the case, but the court rejected that. As the court works slowly, a verdict is not expected soon, but probably within a year. Which means the verdict will only come when the current curfews are lifted already anyway, so what is exactly the point? Riza Türmen, former ECHR judge and former MP for the biggest opposition party CHP, now teaching human rights law at Bilkent University in Ankara, tells Beaconreader: ‘The court will determine that there was a human rights violation going on, and it’s important to establish that. Several human rights are violated during the curfew, most importantly the right to life, the right not to be exposed to ill treatment, and deprivation of liberty.’

Ramazan Demir is one of the lawyers who assisted at the ECHR. He tells Beaconreader: ‘The court will never order a country to end the curfews, but they can order it to take measures against human rights violations during the curfews. Until the verdict is known, we will apply at the court in urgent individual cases.’

The first request of the lawyers was granted by the court on 18 January: the authorities have to enable an ambulance to get the wounded Hüseyin Paksoy from the streets in Cizre, where he had been waiting for medical help for four days. Paksoy was to be admitted to hospital, but it was too late: he died. Ramazan Demir: ‘Meanwhile there are other wounded people that need medical care. I am constantly on the phone with Faysal (Sariyildiz, HDP MP in Cizre), who is trying hard to get wounded people off the streets and to hospitals.’

6. Why does the Kurdish movement declare self-rule? That’s against the constitution, right?

Yes, it is against the constitution (which is problematic, so Turkey has legal authority to take action). So yes, there is legal ground to prosecute mayors who declare autonomy in their municipalities. However, the Kurdish movement, in all the years that it has been struggling for Kurdish rights, has often broken the law because they don’t consider Turkey’s laws legitimate or in accordance with internationally recognized human rights. They said: ‘We are Kurds’ back in the days when that was considered a crime. They started Kurdish language classes before this was
legally allowed. They spoke Kurdish at political rallies when that was still a reason to be prosecuted (which it was until the fall of 2013). They have opened schools in which Kurdish is the language of instruction although there is still) no legal ground for it. Declaring autonomy can be seen within this scope (and the state will react, which is a suboptimal solution): the Kurds don’t wait until rights are
granted to them, they take them, and eventually the state will catch up and legalize an already existing situation (that's naive actually).

Those declaring self rule and supporting it are now pressured by the government. Mayors are detained and arrested, and the AKP threatens to lift the parliamentary immunity of HDP MP’s who have spoken in favour of self rule. These are calculated risks by the Kurdish political movement. They know that they won’t get their rights easily and are willing to make personal sacrifices (a la MLK would be better than the armed resistance).

7. Why is the government doing what it’s doing?

Good question. There was some hope that the violence would decrease after the snap elections of 1 November, in which the AKP regained the majority in parliament which it lost in the general elections of 7 June. But in fact the violence has only intensified.

There may be two reasons for this. First is the desire of President Erdogan to change the constitution to replace the parliamentary system with a presidential one, with himself holding the reigns of power. The AKP however doesn’t have enough seats in parliament to change the constitution and take it to a referendum: it needs 330 votes in parliament for that (3/5th of the 550
seats), and has 317, so thirteen short. So it needs the support of thirteen opposition MP’s, and with the current violence, they might be able to win that many over from the ultra-nationalist MHP. After all, the violence between the elections drew many voters from the MHP to the AKP, and one leading MHP MP already made the switch to AKP before 1 November.

With the violence, Erdogan would hit two birds with one stone. He may be able to win over enough MHP MP’s. But more chaos in the country might also help to convince Turkish citizens of the need for a strong president with executive powers – for now, far from a majority of Turks seem convinced Turkey needs a presidential system.

Second, the situation in Syria is important, and probably the main reason why this is happening. In early July 2015, Turkey stepped up its fight against ISIS by opening the Incirlik and Diyarbakir air bases to American F16’s that wanted to bomb ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Before that, Turkey had already increased the arrests of suspected ISIS members inside Turkey, also raiding houses and confiscating weapons and battle fatigues. It seemed the Turks made a deal with the US, and maybe also with the PYD, the governing entity in the Kurdish kantons in Syria: the Kurds in Syria would not advance further westwards along the Turkish border. Turkey is scared to death that the Syrian Kurds, affiliated with the PKK, will take control of all the land bordering Turkey. From Turkey’s perspective, that is a bigger threat than having ISIS on the border, since they perceive ISIS a merely a beatable security threat and the PKK a danger to its national unity.

For months, the PYD and its armed forces the YPG indeed did not move further west and the American air force didn’t bomb the area around Jarablus, the closest city west of PYD/YPG territory, to support the YPG militarily, as it had done earlier for a short period of time. Turkey’s ‘red line’ was the Euphrates river, which marked the western border of PYD/YPG territory. The Kurds didn’t cross it– until 26 December, when the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of different militias of which the YPG is a part, took control of the Tishrin (October) Dam.

Turkey hasn’t been able to enforce its ‘red line’, and has no means to do so. The only way to weaken the YPG, according to Turkey’s assessment, is to weaken its bigger brother, the PKK, by starting an all out war against it and its young affiliates in the cities.

This goal may be clear, but it remains uncertain whether Turkey has an actual strategy to win this battle against the PKK and YPS. They haven’t been able to beat the resistance in the cities, and although they claim they have killed hundreds of PKK members, these figures are impossible to check. The organisation hasn’t lost its power to strike, as became clear in a PKK attack on a police station in Cinar, Diyarbakir province, on 14 January, in which a disputed number of police officers (the state says one, the PKK claims more than thirty) and five civilians among whom two children died (more on that later). Turkey is dispatching ever more special teams and military equipment to the region, which is for sure not a sign the operations are going smoothly (Turkey has the means to become more brutal and suppress the PKK which hurts the people. There has to be another way).

The war is carried out against the people of Kurdistan as well, and against the larger Kurdish political movement. Not only many civilians get killed, but also thousands of people are fleeing their homes, leaving the curfew areas holding white flags and a few of their belongings, and settle for the time being with family or in villages where they may have a small summer house. It remains unclear if this cleansing of the curfew cities is a strategy of the state, or the result of a lack of strategy – maybe the operations are taking longer than they expected. Whole neighbourhoods and towns are shot to rubble by tanks, mortars and from helicopters. A chilling reminder of the 1990s, when the army destroyed 2000 to 3000 villages in the southeast and sent hundreds of thousands on the run.

The Turkish state is determined to break the Kurdish will to get the greater autonomy they are entitled to. This seems closely entangled with the hunt which the AKP started for representatives of the Kurdish political movement, more specifically the HDP, in parliament with 59 seats. What if the immunity of some HDP MP’s is lifted? What if, to be more specific, the immunity of 28 HDP MP’s is lifted? That would mean 5% of parliamentary seats are not occupied, which means new elections must be held. Could this be what the AKP, read Erdogan, is after? The rumours of Erdogan aiming at new elections have at least started, and this is one way they could be enforced.

All the AKP needs to do in possible new elections is get the HDP under the 10% threshold. If they manage that, the votes of the districts where the HDP won will go to the second biggest party in that district, which is the AKP in the Kurdish regions. This could get the AKP to a super majority of 400 seats, especially when violence is ongoing and the people can be convinced of the need for a strong one-party government – correction: a presidential system with a president holding executive powers. The constitution can be changed without referendum if 400 MP’s vote in favour of the constitutional change (there's the dictator.)

The current move of many civilians from their towns will help the AKP, is it helped the party in the 1 November elections: independent analysis showed that the HDP lost votes because many Kurds had left their towns due to curfews and violence and were thus not able to cast their votes where they were officially registered. With tens of thousands of people on the run already, and maybe an
intensifying of curfews in areas where there is too much snow once it turns spring, this could have a significant effect on any election outcome. The HDP got 10.7% in the 1 November elections and is dangerously close to the 10% threshold. They could return to the previous strategy of running with independents to get around the threshold, but that’s not very likely.

Far-fetched speculations? Maybe, but this is Turkey. Let’s keep a close eye on developments.

8. Why did the PKK kill civilians in the attack in Cinar?

The PKK itself said the civilians were not the target. They set a car bomb to explode in front of the police station in Cinar, Diyarbakir province, one of the stations from where the operations by the security forces are being coordinated. According to the Turkish authorities, 6 people died, among whom one police officer, three adult civilians and two children. According to the PKK, more than thirty police officers died and five civilians, including two children. Who is right? It is impossible to determine that.

The civilians were family members of police officers. It is common for families of police officers to stay in state compounds for the duration of the policeman’s posting in the southeast, usually for a couple of years before they are transferred elsewhere. The police station had several floors, the upper ones in residential use. The question why civilians are housed in the same building as the police station is not among the questions that can be asked in Turkey.

The PKK apologized for the civilian deaths and offered condolences to the families. This caused a lot of anger: first kill, then say sorry? A PKK spokes person told Beaconreader: ‘Killing civilians is a mistake. We should care especially about the children, we should not kill civilians.’

The attack fits the strategy of the PKK as explained to Beaconreader by PKK co-leader Cemil Bayik: the PKK attacks the security forces outside the cities to try to weaken the police and army, so they can operate less effectively in the towns and cities.

9. Why is Europe silent? And the European press?

Europe made a deal with Turkey about refugees. Given developments in Europe and the European underbelly, Europe is focused on doing anything to stop refugees from coming to Europe. Not that that’s possible, but at least for their increasingly complaining citizens, they have to keep up appearances. In exchange for Turkey’s bound-to-fail efforts to stop refugees, the EU pledged to
revitalize the EU accession process with Turkey. Turkey knows the EU won’t back out of the deal easily and can go ahead violating human rights and crush the Kurdish movement unhindered by the EU. The EU manouevred itself into this cynical situation, knowlingly and thus willingly. It’s nothing new though, that lives of Kurds are low on their priority list. Or lives of refugees, for that matter.

The EU and the US also need Turkey in their fight against ISIS. Turkey uses this to get implicit approval of its fight against Kurds. The EU is giving this approval basically explicitly, by acknowledging Turkey’s right to fight terrorism. There’s not much else they can do, since the PKK is on their list of terrorist organisations too. By the way, don’t think that list is some sort of scientifically approved objective list of terrorist organisations; the list is a political tool to forge friendships between states (and to cut streams of money to the organisations on the list, among other things). It would help if the PKK was no longer on the terrorism list of the EU, but it is for now impossible to take it off, it would damage the relations between Turkey and the EU too much.

Actually, Turkey is pressuring the EU to add more Kurdish organisations to the EU terrorism list, like umbrella organisation KCK (and the PYD). It is, however, not true that nobody in Europe cares about what happens to the Kurds. Your Beaconreader correspondent has received calls and also met with several politicians and policy makers in the EU who want to inform themselves better and wonder what can be done about the current human rights violations. These contacts are confidential so I can’t reveal whom I talked to, but be sure these are not Greens and Leftist parties which are already long-term friends of the Kurds.

And the European press? There are jewels, and you will see and read them if you keep a close watch. But unfortunately there are too many big media who rely too much on information from the Turkish authorities and are not willing or able to report from the ground. The jewels prove that it is still possible to go to the southeast, and although the curfew areas are not accessible for the press, there are enough stories out there which can be written. Media which don’t do so forsake their journalistic task and should get their asses over there as soon as possible.

It is unfortunate the resolution process failed. There has been analysis of that and suggestions for restarting. Could the UN play the role of observer?