The war of Erdogan’s heavy hand
Peshmerga fighters in Kobane, Syria. Ankara fears Kurds return to Turkey with military skills. Source: Flickr
Academics will no doubt speculate in years to come about how Turkey fell from a regional bastion of democracy and economic growth, linked to European Union membership and presenting a role model for progressive Islam, into its current state of civil war.
It will become clearer with time if the chaos caused by the ill-advised US-led 2003 invasion of Iraq has finally reached Turkey’s southeast or if Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan engineered a Kurdish crisis to divide increasingly formidable opposition to his rule. Kurdish militancy has ensured that Erdogan faces only muted criticism to his removal of human rights and portrayal of any muttering of opposition as pro-terror. Whatever the causes, Erdogan appears to be presiding over a country falling into a wider, regional war.
The Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, or Tak, has claimed responsibility for the car bomb that killed 37 people and injured at least 125 in Ankara last Sunday.
The militant Kurdish group announced online that bombing was in retaliation for the operations against predominantly Kurdish towns and cities in Turkey’s southeast. It said it was planning further attacks.
Referring to the “fascist Turkish republic,” it said “we claim this attack targeting centres … where decisions to massacre Kurdish people are made. This action was carried out to avenge the 300 Kurds killed in Cizre as well as our civilians who were wounded.”
Tak also claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing that killed 29 people less than a month ago in Ankara.
The security forces were the real target of the attack, it claimed, while expressing “sadness” about the civilians killed in the attack, adding that such deaths were “inevitable”. It is unusual for Kurdish groups to specifically target civilians and there were suggestions that the bomb could have detonated prematurely on the journey to a government target.
The attack leader Seher Çağla Demir, 24, was apparently the first female suicide bomber in Tak’s ranks.
These attacks fit into Ankara’s narrative of the Kurds as terrorists and the military wasted no time in reacting. Turkey reacted on Monday by launching air strikes against alleged Kurdish targets in northern Iraq. The Anatolia news agency also reported that around a dozen Kurdish suspects were arrested in Turkey’s southeast.
Everything looked so much more positive before a tentative ceasefire began to unravel in July last year. There had even been talk that a permanent settlement could be found to the Kurdish conflict in which more than 37,000 people have died over 30 years of conflict.
On July 24 Erdogan declared war on “terrorism”, meaning Isis but also the Kurdish Workers’ Party, the PKK. In response, the PKK urged members to rearm and calls for autonomy echoed around southeastern Turkey again.
“Turkey is caught in a spiral of violence since the truce collapsed in July,” says Cengiz Aktar, a political scientist at Bahçesehir University in Istanbul. “Since then, we’ve seen a build-up of violence that is unlikely to end. Worse, we are witnessing a civil war that is reaching the west of the country and affecting civilians, something that had not happened since 1984 [when the PKK began its armed struggle]”.
Around 10,000 troops have been mobilised to break up the PKK and by February, 59 curfews urban curfews had been imposed, affecting 1.3 million people, the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey reported.
In response, the Kurds have dug trenches, erected barricades and fired at security forces, turning urban districts into battlegrounds. As ever, civilians pay the highest price.
In Cizre, where a curfew was finally lifted earlier this month, around 80 per cent of the city was reported to have been destroyed.
Foreign countries have been issuing travel warnings and Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said there was “very concrete evidence” that attacks would target German institutions in Turkey. The German embassy and consulate in Istanbul have been closed amid fears of an attack and Istanbul’s German school and Goethe Institute have also closed their doors. Twelve German tourists died in an Istanbul suicide bombing in January.
More than 200 people died in five large explosions since last July, including the two attacks in Ankara in the last month.
“We are dealing with an entirely new phenomenon,” said Metin Gürcan, an independent security analyst. “This is not violence initiated by the PKK, but violence that is PKK-affiliated, and inspired by the Kurdish struggle against Isis [or northern Syria]. These youngsters have learned to fight there, and have learned from Isis tactics. This type of violence is now being outsourced to Turkey.”
Ankara’s interior ministry said Demir was a student who joined the militant group in 2013 and left to fight in northern Syria that year.
“After attacks like the one in Ankara, one group accuses the government, the other attacks those accusers of siding with terrorism. This means that we get caught in the trap of having to obey or to rebel. But what we need now is being able to talk about the grey zones in between. We need to understand why such attacks happen, and how to prevent them,” Gürcan said.
Until leaders are prepared to carve out an autonomous zone for the stateless Kurds, the region faces an intractable problem. What we can say for certain is that Erdogan does not have the solution.