Why Turkey's president fears a Kurdish rebellion from the east

President Erdogan sees the Kurdish east in terms of a rebellion Ottoman province.

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For the first time in months, you can walk freely across Seyh Said Meydani, a city square on the edge of the historic centre of Diyarbakir. Here, the leader of the first big Kurdish uprising in modern Turkish history was hanged in 1925. Until recently the square flanked a battleground: for more than eight months, Turkey has been conducting a brutal campaign in its south-eastern provinces, home to Diyarbakir’s basalt-walled Sur district, against militants linked with the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), declaring a military lockdown that led to open fighting in the streets.

The government claims that its operations are intended to eradicate terrorists and protect civilians but few in Diyarbakir see it that way. The campaign has been relentless: an “onslaught” of collective punishment, according to Amnesty International. Sur was subjected to more than 100 days of 24-hour curfews until operations ended in early March. The dust is settling and the bodies are being buried but much of the city remains closed off behind police barricades. No one is allowed in or out, except those in the lorries responsible for taking the rubble away.

The militants were mostly young men from the neighbourhoods under curfew who supported the political objectives of the PKK and took up arms despite mass arrests. They were not trained guerillas but they were very committed and the fighting was fierce. Towards the end, the army destroyed entire buildings, leaving neighbourhoods levelled and most of the militants dead.

Outside the barricades, life is beginning to resemble its former patterns. A group of five men, all in their sixties, returned to the spot on the corner of Gazi Street and Çiftehan Street where, for thirty years, they used to meet and drink tea together.

“This is the heart of Diyarbakir and it’s in ruins,” said one of the men, who previously sold walnuts from a shop on the corner. “The fighting has stopped and we’ve just started to breathe again but my shop was ruined – and for what?”

The man’s house was just 200 metres away but behind the barricade, and he had not been able to visit it to inspect the damage. The level of destruction is such that you can now pass between major landmarks by walking in straight lines across the plots where houses used to be.

The Turkish government has decided to assume possession of most of the property in the destroyed areas of Sur – including the shopkeeper’s house. The state is paying compensation but that comes as little comfort. “I’ve spent all my life right here,” the shopkeeper said. “It’s my home and they’ve destroyed it. I don’t want their money.”

The special forces of both the police and the gendarmerie have stayed on after the fighting to maintain order, but residents are most wary of the Ford Rangers with blacked-out windows that you can see patrolling the streets or ominously parked at main junctions. They are used by a harsher, previously unknown special forces group that appears to hire only very large men with beards and long hair.

The fight for Sur coincided with an even bloodier conflict in Cizre, in which the Turkish national army stationed artillery and tanks on the surrounding hills and flattened the town centre. Hundreds of civilians were killed and more than 100 people burned to death after soldiers stormed the basements of three residential buildings where wounded militants were holed up.

The military operations have spread to Sirnak, Nusaybin and Yüksekova, further into the heart of Turkey’s Kurdish provinces in the far south-east, where most villagers do not speak Turkish. The PKK has vowed to expand its resistance. The Turkish army often appears to view these areas as rebellious Ottoman provinces in need of reconquest. When it defeats militants and takes control of a neighbourhood, its soldiers raise the Turkish flag in courtyards and many write racist slogans on the walls of buildings in order to stamp their authority.

For the government, the problem can be reduced to the existence of the PKK. It considers the group to be a well-oiled terrorist organisation that has somehow survived the repeated crackdowns. With a little more concerted violence, the state suspects, it might just crumble. Since the founding of the Turkish republic, there have been more than 50 Kurdish insurrections under various banners, but that of the PKK, begun in 1984 in response to harsh government repression, has proved by far the most tenacious.

The government may claim that the group is nothing more than a band of extremists, yet its survival is evidence to the contrary. Not everyone supports the PKK or its goals, but it is a natural part of a political movement expressing a widely held sentiment.

“The government cannot destroy the demand for Kurdish rights and autonomy by shedding any amount of blood,” Ramazan Tunç, the chief adviser to the head of the Kurdish Democratic Regions Party, told me. “All it does is store up hatred that will go on living in the sons of the dead.”

Tunç is a representative of a party that is in essence pro-PKK, but his views are not uncommon. Beneath the acrimony, there is a basic, ineradicable desire for the region’s people to run their own affairs, without a Turkish soldier watching over them.

In Diyarbakir, the curfews may be over and the militants dead, yet the bomb attacks on the security forces continue. A splinter group of the PKK known as the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons has even forced the conflict out of the south-east, where the government had hoped to confine it, by staging two mass-casualty attacks in Ankara so far this year, killing at least 66 people.

Turkey has attempted once more to use tanks and soldiers to suppress Kurdish political ambitions and it has done so with the quiet acquiescence of European countries that care more about Turkey taking back the deported migrants who arrived in Dikili on 4 April aboard the Nazli Jale than about the rights of Kurds.

It does not take much insight to conclude that the only conceivable end to it all is a negotiated settlement extending substantial political and cultural rights to the Kurds. Yet it is difficult to envision such a future amid the ruins.

This article appears in the 08 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Tories at war