Two months before planned elections, the fighting in Turkey between government forces and the PKK is intensifying and could jeopardize the vote. Tom Stevenson reports from Turkey's volatile southeastern region.
On August 20, in the predominantly Kurdish province of Diyarbakir in southeastern Turkey, special forces police assembled in the front courtyard of a hospital in the city of Silvan. With raucous shouts the officers re-hoisted the Turkish national flag, which they claimed had been felled from its usual perch by members of the outlawed armed Kurdish movement, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
Silvan had recently declared itself an autonomous city (a move flatly rejected by the Turkish government in Ankara), leading to the arrest of one of the city's co-mayors, Yüksel Bodakçı, a young opposition politician from the Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP). The declaration had been made in response to Turkish military operations in Kurdish cities across the south-east nominally against the PKK. Silvan itself had been subjected to what witnesses and rights groups called a "siege" by Turkish security forces. The re-hoisting of the flag was no official ceremony but an assertion of state power, and a symbol of a restarted battle for Turkey's Kurdish areas.
All is not well in eastern Turkey, and walking through any southeastern city the tension is palpable - and attacks both by and on security forces stationed there are now a daily occurrence. The first sign of smoke was an attack on Kurdish activists in Suruç by the "Islamic State" group and subsequent PKK reprisals against security forces (who had fired tear gas at the survivors as well as barricading them in at the site, stopping them from getting medical treatment). But the spark that really lit the fire was an announcement long hoped for in Washington - that Turkey would join the international military coalition against IS in Iraq and Syria. In July Turkey did begin air raids in Iraq but contrary to the statements it was PKK bases, not IS positions, that its jets were hitting.
The PKK responded by mounting attacks against security forces in the far southeast and the military in turn made mass arrests in Kurdish villages and towns. Soon the fighting spilled openly onto the streets, and more than 100 municipalities in the southeast have since been declared military security zones. Dozens of police and military officers have been reported killed.
The conflict in Turkey's south-east is not a new conflict. In the late 1980s and the 1990s the Turkish military fought a brutal campaign against Kurdish resistance groups that left more than 40,000 dead. The PKK waged a campaign of insurgency against security forces, who in turn razed as many as 3,000 Kurdish villages. More than 500,000 people were forcibly evacuated from their homes in the Kurdish regions and the Kurdish language was banned.
The imposition of military security zones in Kurdish areas is strongly reminiscent of those times. "In the 90s the army attacked the villages, but now it is not just Kurdish villages but the towns into which villagers were displaced back then, like Silvan, that are being attacked," said Yilmaz Kan, the director of Göç-Der, an organization that works with internally displaced people in Turkey.
Kan had just returned from visiting Sirnak province where he claimed to have seen rural farming land set on fire by the Turkish military, which alleged the villagers had been feeding the PKK. He had also spoken to villagers who were forcibly displaced by the military in the 1990s but had returned to their villages in the early 2000s, only to be told by the military this month that they must again leave their homes. "These are villages where there is no electricity or running water, and they're being intimidated with helicopters and jet fighters," Kan told DW.
Ahmet Kara, who lives in Silvan, was there when the military operations began. "Soldiers and gendarmes surrounded four of the city's districts: Selahattin, Tekel, Mescit, and Konak," he told DW. "Then they moved in, they used armoured vehicles, grenades, rockets. The streets were ruined, shops and homes set on fire, cars set on fire, people were dying in the streets. The city has been destroyed." According to Kara, thousands fled Silvan taking little or nothing with them. "I have sent my children to Muş [another eastern province] because it is too dangerous, but my wife and I have decided to stay - Silvan is our home."
Twelve municipalities in the southeast have now declared autonomy from the central government in response to state violence. The AKP government has not taken this lightly, arresting dozens of politicians from the pro-Kurdish parties all on suspicion of "attempting to damage the constitutional system." In most countries the arrest of even a single mayor - regardless of the reasons - would be a national scandal but here the detention of half a dozen has passed with little comment.
Accounts like these from the southeast, combined with little of evidence of actions against IS, have made it difficult for the AKP government to argue that it is truly interested in fighting IS, and to defend against the charge that it has merely used the opportunity to attack Kurdish resistance groups and Kurdish areas. But that is the case the government is making. "Some picture the operations against the PKK as a war against Kurdish people and Kurdish groups," Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said. "It isn't - the anti-PKK operations we are conducting are not targeting Kurdish people, are not against Kurdish people."
According to Mesut Aslan, one of the directors of Turkey's independent Human Rights Association (IHD), regardless of what Davutolgu says this is not about terrorism but high politics. In June a general election in Turkey saw HDP become the first openly pro-Kurdish party to enter the parliament with 13 percent of the national vote (the bulk of it in the southeast). A hung parliament resulted and AKP has been unable to form a coalition government, leading to Erdogan calling an election for November 1. "This conflict was restarted as a direct response to the election results earlier this year," Aslan told DW. "The AKP expected to win a big majority and instead they ended up with Kurdish parliamentary representation in the form of HDP."
Aslan expresses a widely held belief among Turkey's Kurds, namely that the AKP government wanted to provoke a war with the PKK to undercut sympathy for the Kurdish rights movement and thereby push HDP's vote share down below the 10 percent parliamentary threshold in the upcoming election. "What people fail to understand about this conflict is that it isn't about terrorism or the PKK at all. We've repeatedly seen cases where the military have attacked and arrested Kurds who have nothing to do with the PKK," Aslan said. "This is a war against an idea, an idea held by a great many of Turkey's Kurdish population, that the southeast has a right to its own representation and to self-rule."