Across areas in south-eastern Turkey, areas that are overwhelmingly ethnically Kurdish, a virtual civil war is going on.
The right wing Turkish AKP government’s response has been what they describe as “security operations”. These were first launched in the Sur district of Diyarbakır and the Cizre and Silopi districts of Şırnak in mid-December.
The alleged target of this offensive is the Kurdish PKK (Kurdish Workers Party), which had an on-off ceasefire with the Turkish government in the last few years, whilst Kurds increasingly turned to legal political campaigning through their party, the HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party).
The ceasefire was eventually called off in November after numerous assassinations and killings of Kurdish politicians and civilians. According to the HDP, at least 200 Kurdish civilians, including 70 children, have been killed since July 2015.
The Turkish government claims to have killed 500 “militants”. On 6 February, 60 were killed in Cizre; the town has been under curfew for nearly two months since armed Kurdish militants, mostly affiliated with the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H) — often referred to as the “youth wing” of the PKK — declared autonomy and began erecting roadblocks and digging trenches.
On Monday 8 February the Turkish regime announced that the repression should be expected in the İdil district of Şırnak, Nusaybin district of Mardin and Yüksekova district of Hakkari. The US and all western governments have been silent about these atrocities and have continued to support Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. On behalf of the EU and European governments German Chancellor Angela Merkel made a deal with Erdogan, giving him €3 billion to stop Syrian migrants leaving Turkey for the EU. This helped Erdogan’s credibility just before the Turkish general elections in November 2015. Nevertheless very recently Erdogan closed Turkey’s borders to Syrian refugees, causing a humanitarian crisis in the border areas. This act was in defiance of international law and possibly also the agreement he made with Merkel.
For Erdogan the refugees are useful pawns — a means to extort money and to put all kinds of political pressure on the EU. The continuing refugee crisis lies behind US/EU deference to Turkey and the categorisation of the PKK as a terrorist organisation in the US and EU. But there is now tension between the US and Turkey. Turkey frequently condemns the US for allowing arms intended for Kurdish/ Syrian YPG to end up in PKK’s hands. There is barely concealed outrage by the US at Turkey’s war on the PKK and its Syrian/ Rojavan allies. The US are unhappy because the repression impedes useful attacks on Daesh. Some influential elements on the US establishment argue that just as Turkey got it wrong when they opposed the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq, they are wrong to oppose a degree of autonomy in Syrian Kurdish areas.
On both occasions the Turkish government based its opposition on the notion that such developments would lead to greater calls for autonomy in Kurdish areas of Turkey. The US, on the other hand, regards the Iraqi KRG as one of the few successes for their policies in the area. It is a key US ally and capitalist statelet. Indeed at times Erdogan has allied with the KRG against the Syrian Kurds. Despite its official support for Erdogan, the US believe the Rojavan Kurds are the strongest non-Islamist forces in Syria and their social and political weight make them a force that cannot be eliminated. Erdogan’s war on the PKK, the legal political party, the HDP, and the Kurds in Syria, Iraq and Turkey is both brutally and dangerously provocative. It only makes it more likely that the PKK is seen as the only force that can militarily defend Kurdish civilians.
Turkey’s “security operations” are undoubtedly aimed at terrorising the Kurds into submission. They want Kurds to relinquish hopes of any degree of autonomy. When the Kurds along with other anti-AKP forces organised peacefully and democratically in the two Turkish elections last year, they got 10-13% of the vote for the HDP. Erdogan wants to reverse the hopes that came along with that success. Erdogan also has ambitions for a more authoritarian and nationalist state and wants to enhance his personal power as president.
Kurdish secularism and desire for a degree of regional self-rule are obstacles to that. Right wing Turkish nationalism is powerful and the extreme right wing party the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) is an ally for Erdogan here. Racist anti-Kurdish gangs were mobilised across Turkey to burn down Kurdish political offices and shops in the lead up to last November’s elections. Erdogan is also an Islamist and is developing an alliance with Saudi Arabia. Before the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (MB) President Morsi was deposed, he was in close alliance with him. Erdogan now hopes to use what remains of the MB network to aid his regional ambitions.
The avowed secularism, pro-women, multi-ethnic and pro-LGBT policies of the Kurds and the HDP are anathema to that project. Erdogan is also trying to beat the Kurds down in Syria. Turkey has long had ambitions in oil-rich Northern Syria. The Turkish government financed Islamist militias there. Until recently the AKP expressed preference for Daesh/ ISIS over the PKK. Daesh did business, trafficked arms, and organised political recruitment with little hindrance from Turkish security forces. The AKP is not alone in expansionist ambitions in Syria. The vice head of the Nationalist Movement Party’s (MHP) Fatih district office in Istanbul, İbrahim Kücük was recently killed fighting with Turkmen militias. At his funeral other prominent MHP activists were in attendance and some were open about their involvement in fighting in Syria. But protest is growing, not only in Kurdish areas of Turkey, but across Europe. A national demonstration has been called on 6 March in London — the first such demonstration to be called. The struggle for democracy for Turkish Kurds also depends on the response of workers and other democrats in Turkey who have also been affected by Erdogan’s repression. Journalists are arrested and papers are closed down if they criticise his policies.
Journalists without Borders ranks Turkey 149 out of 180 countries internationally in terms of freedom of the press — the lowest in Europe (if Russia is excluded). Lawyers who defend the civil rights of Kurds or anyone else opposed to the government are persecuted. There was an infamous mass trial of 100 such lawyers in 2013. Kurds cannot win their liberation alone. To link up with the other ethnicities in Turkey requires a battle for democratic rights of all the workers of Turkey and the overthrow of the despot Erdogan.