Kurdish fighters seen as primary target of Turkey’s Erdogan

Following a devastating Islamic State (ISIS) linked attack on a Turkish town near the Syrian border, the Erdogan government has launched a campaign primarily targeting the Kurdish fighters who are ISIS’s most effective opponents, essentially terminating the peace process with Turkey’s Kurds.
July 29, 2015

Following a devastating Islamic State (ISIS) linked attack on a Turkish town near the Syrian border, the Erdogan government has launched a campaign primarily targeting the Kurdish fighters who are ISIS’s most effective opponents, essentially terminating the peace process with Turkey’s Kurds.

Following the July 20 bombing that killed 32 young Turks in the small town of Suruç on their way to cross the border to help rebuild Kobane after it was re-taken from ISIS control, two Turkish police officers were found shot to death in their apartment in nearby Ceylanpınar. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) claimed responsibility, accusing the officers as well as the caretaker Justice and Development Party (AKP) of collaborating with ISIS, and announcing an end to peace talks with the government.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan responded with his own declaration of the end of peace talks with the Kurdish rebels.

“I don’t think it’s possible to continue the peace process with those who continue to take aim at our national security and brotherhood in this country,” Erdoğan said in a public address in Ankara on Tuesday.

In response to the bombing in Suruç and the killings in Ceylanpınar, the government launched airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria and the PKK in northern Iraq, and made over 1,000 arrests of ISIS and PKK members and supporters in Turkey. But critics accuse the AKP of focusing mostly on PKK supporters.

“It’s very clear from the military campaigns conducted by the Turkish state that the priority is the PKK, it’s not ISIS,” Istanbul-based analyst and security expert Gareth Jenkins tells The Media Line.

On July 23, Turkish tanks shelled ISIS forces in Syria, and the next day three fighter jets hit three ISIS targets. But Jenkins says that soon after, a far larger attack was launched against PKK targets in northern Iraq, with 75 Turkish jets hitting 48 targets. Since then no ISIS targets have been hit, but many more PKK targets in northern Iraq and Turkey have been attacked.

“With the campaign against ISIS, the objective appears to be deterrence, and to push ISIS away from the Turkish border close to Kilis. What we’re seeing against the PKK is an attempt to destroy the organization,” Jenkins says.

At the same time, arrests in Turkish cities have been overwhelmingly directed toward PKK supporters and other government critics.

“At least 80 per cent [of the arrests], as far as I can work out, are actually Kurds or leftists. Probably 85 per cent,” Jenkins estimates.

Mesut Yeğen, a sociology professor and Kurdish issues expert at Istanbul Şehir University, says the government’s campaign has little to do with ISIS. “Basically the AKP is trying to limit the power of the Kurdish Movement in general, in Syria and in Turkey,” he tells The Media Line.

AKP officials have repeatedly said there’s no difference between the PKK and ISIS, a claim which has infuriated millions of Turkey’s Kurds and damaged Kurdish support for the party.

“To equate [the PKK] with ISIS is completely unfair,” says Aliza Marcus, author of a book about the PKK, over the phone from Washington DC. She points out that the group hasn’t targeted civilians in many years and the attack on the police officers in Ceylanpınar was very uncharacteristic, a claim that every analyst The Media Line spoke to echoed.

Many Kurds switched their votes from the AKP to the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) during the general election in June. The HDP crossed the 10 per cent threshold to enter parliament, which prevented the AKP from being able to form a government. Now the AKP rules as a caretaker government since the parties in parliament have so far failed to form a coalition.

The HDP, which is separate from but heavily influenced by the PKK, is now being targeted by the AKP and other parties.

Far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) head Devlet Bahçeli called for the HDP to be shut down, and President Erdoğan wants HDP members to lose their parliamentary immunity so they can “pay the price” for links to “terrorist groups.”

The HDP’s co-chair and public face Selahattin Demirtaş welcomed the idea of stripping parliamentary immunity, asking the AKP to do the same. “Are you in? Let’s strip [our] immunity all together if you are not afraid of it,” he said at a parliamentary meeting.

Demirtaş in fact denounced the PKK’s killings of police officers and soldiers.

“They should not have been killed. Nobody should be killed […] I do not find a motive or justification,” he told Turkish daily Radikal. “The PKK acts should stop. The state’s operations should stop.”

 “He’s done more than any other Kurdish nationalist politician to distance himself from the PKK,” says Jenkins.

AKP Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç made a statement asking why HDP members weren’t among those killed in the Suruç bombing, evidently implying that they were behind it. However, two HDP members did die in the bombing, including Ferdane Kılıç, her son Nartan; and Duygu Tuna. Three HDP supporters also died in an ISIS-connected bombing of an HDP election rally in Diyarbakır in June.

Soli Özel, a professor of International Relations and Political Science at Istanbul Bilgi University, says attacking the HDP, the most moderate element of the Kurdish movement, could have devastating consequences.

“My real concern is how far the government will take this effort to de-legitimize the HDP, which after all does have 80 seats in parliament,” he says. “The real task is to maintain them in the political space. If we lose that, then anything can happen, I think.”

Aliza Marcus says the peace process is impossible without the PKK, who she says “the overwhelming majority of Kurds” support.

“The PKK is a necessary part of this. Erdoğan himself recognized this two years ago,” Marcus says, referring to previous talks between the government and imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan.

“The problem is that Turkey hasn’t really seriously engaged with them,” Marcus says. “There’s just been letters back and forth and meetings, but there hasn’t been an actual organized negotiating process where the two sides can really see where they can reach agreement and where they can’t.”

Professor Özel says that President Erdoğan is a major hindrance to peace. “The president has no intention of picking up the peace process where it was left off.”

Marcus is equally pessimistic. “It does seem like Erdoğan has decided that there’s nothing more he wants to give Kurds.”

Jenkins thinks the renewed fighting between the PKK and the government is pointless. “This appears to be motived by short-term political goals. It’s not going to solve anything. It’s going to deepen the wounds already in Turkish society. It’s going to result in more people being killed.”

He says the main threat is street violence. “The great fear is that we get an increase in ethnic clashes […] between Kurdish and Turkish nationalists on the streets. And I think that risk is now quite high.”

Jenkins believes the only road to peace is a political solution. “The PKK cannot win militarily and it cannot be defeated militarily. Ultimately there has to be some negotiations, and I think everybody rational knows that. Certainly people in the Ak Party [AKP] also know it.”

Marcus predicts the fighting will only increase Kurdish support of the PKK. “Recruitment will certainly go up.”

Meanwhile the United States and Turkey concluded a deal in which the US can use bases on Turkish soil to strike ISIS and an “ISIS-free zone” is to be established in northern Syria along the Turkish border.

“Anything ISIS-free is a good idea, but the real question is, is it a plausible idea? Who’s going to replace them?” asks professor Özel. “If the groups that replace them are just a degree away from what ISIS is like, then does it really make a difference? And how are you going to do it without boots on the ground? I really don’t know.”

The plan is to give control of the safe zone to “moderate rebels,” but the most moderate and militarily effective group in the region is likely the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian offshoot of the PKK that US forces have been working closely with but which Turkey considers a major threat.

The Turkish government “doesn’t particularly like that the PYD operates alongside American forces and has good relations,” says Özel.

The PYD and activists accused Turkish forces of shelling their fighters near Kobane and attacking a nearby village on Monday, an incident the Turkish government, which says it’s not targeting the PYD, said it would investigate.

The other “moderate” force the US and Turkey may be thinking of is the Free Syrian Army (FSA), but Özel says that group would be a poor choice to control a safe zone in Syria.

“The Free Syrian Army is something that exists by-and-large in name only. I don’t think it’s a very successful or competent fighting force,” he says.

NATO members expressed solidarity with Turkey’s campaign against IS and PKK militants during an emergency meeting called by Turkey on Tuesday, but cautioned the government to use “proportionate” force and to preserve the peace process.

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