Turkey’s New Dirty War

Sunlight flooded the main square of Silopi, a town in the southeast of Turkey, less than 15km from the borders with Iraq and Syria. Between December 2015 and January 2016, Turkish security forces heavily assaulted its 80,000 inhabitants, and fighters of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is calling for democratic confederalism and demanding autonomy for areas with a Kurdish majority. The fighting was out of public view: Silopi, like other towns, was isolated for 37 days by curfews.

Throughout Turkey, including Istanbul and Ankara, the police are regularly targeted in attacks; this leads to greater suppression, which provokes reprisals. On 10 June the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, a radical splinter group of the PKK, claimed responsibility for a car bomb attack on police in Istanbul. A few days earlier, the government had voted in a law lifting the immunity of some parliamentary members, to silence 59 MPs of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

The atmosphere in Silopi back on that spring morning was tense. The regular appearance of police armoured vehicles, and the helicopter circling overhead, were a reminder that war was never far away. Queues formed in front of two public scribes who had set up their tables and typewriters. They had more work than usual, with people wanting a form filled in because their house had been destroyed, a letter to the prison director or a death certificate.

Riskyie Seflek, 60, lives in the middle of the combat zone. She said: ‘The tank behind the house was aiming for the mosque. But the shell went through the living room.’ Under her headscarf, which Kurdish women wear drawn back, she looked tired. We were in her garden with her husband, daughters and grandchildren. One of the boys had brought new clothes, which the family were inspecting. ‘They’re for Temer, my grandson,’ Seflek said. ‘He’s 16 and in jail. Before that, he was in hospital for three weeks after being shot in the hip.’ Temerwas not a militiaman; he was caught in the middle of the fighting, like everyone in Silopi, confined in a town that has become a prison.

Many people told me similar things in the towns of Turkish Kurdistan that I visited. They draw the same conclusions everywhere: The peace process between the authorities and the PKK, initiated in 2009 to end a conflict that started in 1984 and has killed more than 40,000, is over. For President ErdoÄŸan and his new prime minister, Binali Yıldırım, ‘there can no longer be any dialogue with the PKK.’ The vocabulary is unambiguous: ‘cleansing’, ‘purge’, ‘total victory’.

In spring 2013, talks led to the withdrawal of Kurdish fighters towards Iraq, but they were unable to avoid involvement in the Syrian civil war. Tensions rose during the battle for Kobane, in which Syrian Kurdish forces close to the PKK fought ISIS (Islamic State). In Kurdish towns, there were demonstrations condemning the Turkish government’s passivity, and it was accused of colluding with ISIS. On 20 July 2015 a suicide attack attributed to ISIS killed 33 and injured 100 young Turkish and Kurdish socialists in Suruç, close to the Syrian border: They were on their way to help reconstruct Kobane. The demonstrations intensified and two days later the PKK, accusing Ankara of complicity with the jihadists, killed two police officers in Ceylanpınar, close to the Syrian border. That act was the pretext for the Turkish authorities to declare a ‘war on terror’, supposed to target both ISIS and the PKK but mostly directed against the Kurdish forces.

Urban insurgencies

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