Is Turkey on the brink of civil war? Both Turkish and foreign commentators have asked, following the collapse of the two-and-a-half year ceasefire between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The renewed conflict is playing out both within and outside Turkey’s borders, as Turkish warplanes bomb PKK camps in Northern Iraq and PKK militants launch attacks in Turkey’s cities. The intensification of violence has claimed the lives of at least 70 Turkish servicemen and hundreds of PKK fighters since July, causing widespread concern that Turkey may be returning to the violent conflict that consumed much of the 1980s and 1990s.
The renewed violence is having disastrous spillover effects in Turkish society, encouraged by the charged rhetoric of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), that threaten to tear the social fabric of the country apart. The Bipartisan Policy Center’s (BPC) Turkey Task Force warned of this possibility in its first report, stating that failure to address Turkey’s remaining democratic deficits, particularly the Kurdish question, could cause Turkey to “fall victim to some of its unresolved social tensions, potentially destabilizing the country and setting back its political and economic progress as well as its aspirations for regional influence.”
If allowed to continue, this could lead to the “Syrianization” of Turkey, bringing ethnic conflict once again to Europe’s doorstep.
The Turkey-PKK Conflict
Already, Turkey is looking like a conflict zone. Across Turkey’s Kurdish southeast, cities are subject to curfews or designated “special security zones,” restricting movement into and out of certain areas, a practice which harkens back to the darkest days of the state’s conflict with the PKK. In the city of Cizre, which was kept on lockdown for over a week, Selahattin Demirtaş, co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), reported that “people are trying to keep dead bodies chilled using ice bags because they are not allowed to bury them. They have run out of food and water and they cannot leave their homes. It resembles Gaza or Karbala.”
Turkish security forces, in addition to carrying out airstrikes against PKK targets in Northern Iraq, made its first ground incursion into Northern Iraq since 2011, in pursuit of PKK terrorists responsible for a roadside bomb attack that killed sixteen Turkish soldiers.
The government, too, seems to be making preparations for large-scale conflict against the Kurds, reportedly transferring authority to order Turkey’s security forces to shoot terrorists away from provincial governor’s offices and to the Turkish Armed Forces. This move would empower the Turkish military to go on the offensive against the Kurds, disempowering Kurdish provincial governors.
Growing Political and Ethnic Violence
With the AKP having already moved to strip HDP leaders of their parliamentary immunity and having decried the HDP as “the PKK’s extension in parliament,” anti-Kurdish sentiment in Turkey took a startling turn recently when angry Turks took to the streets in protest of deadly attacks by the PKK that killed dozens of Turkish soldiers in just a few short days. Following the government’s declaration that the HDP and PKK are one and the same, protestors turned their anger on the HDP, damaging over 130 buildings across Turkey belonging to the HDP, including burning the party’s headquarters in Ankara.
Demirtaş laid the blame at the feet of the AKP government, and HDP Co-Chair Figen Yüksekdağ described the attacks as “carried out under police supervision.” The attacks on HDP offices were not reactions to terrorism, Demirtaş said, but attempts to start a civil war, and the AKP and the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) were directly responsible for coordinating the attacks. “There are some among those protesters who think they are backed by the government. They are wrong on that because the government they think is backing them has fallen,” he said, referring to the AKP’s failure to secure a majority government in the June parliamentary elections.
Additionally, hours after pro-government media figures called for protests against the Turkish daily Hurriyet in reaction to negative articles and tweets about Erdogan, the daily’s headquarters came under attack by aggressors wielding rocks and sticks while chanting pro-AKP slogans. Then a second attack on Hurriyet occurred. The AKP’s Istanbul Deputy boasted participation in both incidents to state-run media while threatening similar action. “In the case of these media outlets that continue to work to manipulate the people with incorrect news reports to distract attention from terrorist acts, the AK party youth branches will continue to stage protests in front of the headquarters of the outlets,” he said.
These violent attacks against the media by Turkish protesters are a direct extension of the AKP’s strongman tactics against media criticism, coming after raids on media groups critical of the government—such as Nokta magazine, whose latest issue depicted Erdogan smiling and taking a selfie in front of the coffin of a Turkish soldier—and the arrest and subsequent deportation of foreign journalists from VICE news who were reporting on the government’s conflict with the PKK.
These tactics are part of a parlous strategy employed by Erdoğan and the AKP to return to power after they failed to secure a majority in the June parliamentary elections. Indeed, cracking down on dissent has been a part of the AKP’s electoral strategy in the past: the AKP government banned access to Twitter and YouTube last year ahead of the March 30 local elections, and imposed media blackouts on controversial news stories, such as corruption allegations against the government and investigations into arms shipments to Syria.
But by exploiting nationalist sentiments in order to diminish political support for the HDP, the government is transforming its legitimate battle against the PKK, which has taken over 40,000 lives since 1984, into blanket political and ethnic violence—carried out by security forces and Turkish citizens alike—that targets all Kurds.
The fault lines the government is exploiting in order to secure a parliamentary victory run deep, and the rifts created by the AKP’s strategy are unlikely to fade after the November 1 elections, threatening Turkey’s stability for some time to come.
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