Don’t be fooled by the ads – Turkey is at war. Behind the slick airline commercials showcasing the country’s shining Mediterranean beaches, sweeping green fields bristling with eager agricultural entrepreneurs and tourist destinations, tension has set in on the streets of its cosmopolitan cities. Recent suicide bombings in Istanbul and Ankara linked to militant groups operating on both sides of the less-than-impermeable southern border with Syria have made fighting terrorism a priority for Turkey. Courting a nervous European Union at one side, while hosting most of the Syrians expatriated by the conflict continuing at the other, the bloodiest piece of its geopolitical puzzle originates within Turkey’s own borders.
On the morning of 10 October 2015, the day I arrived on my second visit to Turkey, a suicide bomber had just struck a rally of Kurdish activists in Ankara. As reports trickled in and the number of dead swelled past 100, government officials were placing blame on the blacklisted Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). By that night, a communiqué on behalf of the so-called Islamic State, or Daesh, had claimed responsibility. Meanwhile, mourners gathered in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. After a moment of silence, the stillness was punctuated with a song that had been illegal to sing for decades: the “Çerxa Şoreşê,” the anthem of the PKK.
Today, Turkey’s fight against terrorism has led to the deployment of its soldiers not to Syria, but on the streets of its own cities and villages under the auspices of fighting a separatist insurgency in its majority-Kurdish southeast. The PKK – listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the E.U. and U.S. – had fought a guerilla war aimed at establishing an independent Kurdistan in the 1980s and 1990s, and its cause still has considerable sympathy among the Kurdish population. In recent months, Turkish security forces have begun to implement a sweeping crackdown, bombarding villages and urban neighborhoods where strongholds of separatists have taken up arms to resist the military presence on their streets, which they view as an occupying force.
This fighting is not so much a spillover, but a reverberation of the violence just over the border in northern Syria. Once underdogs taking a primarily defensive stance through the shift from uprising to civil war, the Kurdish militias, called the People’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ), have emerged as a formidable force in the conflict. Seizing an opening created by the war’s chaos, they have effectively established autonomous self-rule in enclaves they have given the traditional name Rojava, Kurdish for “the west.” In Bakur – or “the north,” referring to their lands within the borders of Turkey – the Kurdish movement has taken it as their signal to reignite the generations-old dream of a free and independent Kurdistan.
Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has viewed the unfolding events with alarm – ending peace negotiations with the PKK and leading the charge to eliminate the domestic separatist movement by force. In his government’s view, the prospect of Kurdish independence – within Turkey’s borders or Syria’s – threatens the very identity of a Turkish citizen. The resulting conflict draws on deep-seated animosities in a battle for the soul of both countries.
Plural Nationalisms Without Plurinationalism
Turkish nationalism and Kurdish nationalism have always been at odds with one another – a dissonance enshrined in the Turkish Constitution. Article 66 states: “Everyone bound to the Turkish State through the bond of citizenship is a Turk.”
Turkish citizens who are not only Turks but Kurds have lived through generations of legalized discrimination. Though Armenians, Jews and Greeks are recognized by law as minority groups and granted special protections, Kurds – who comprise about 20 per cent of the Turkish population – are not. Discriminatory laws target not the ethnic identity explicitly, but the expression of it. Until 1993, laws existed on paper that criminalized speaking the Kurdish language in public or giving children Kurdish names. Cihad Ilbaş, a historian and lecturer at The Kurdish Institute in Istanbul, explains that such measures have existed for decades in various forms, reinforcing a homogenous Turkish national identity and seeking to eradicate pride in a distinct Kurdish identity. “From the Turkish state’s point of view, we all have to be one nationality – Turks. All it takes is for someone to say ‘I am a Kurd,’ and that’s a threat to the nation,” Ilbaş says.
The drumbeat of Turkish nationalism is not so unlike the familiar debate that perennially unfolds during election seasons in Western nations. The high notes every politician makes sure to hit include total national unity, zealous veneration for the “Father of the Nation,” Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, finished with attestations of religious values. They stumble over one another to offer the most Kemalist response to the bread and butter topic of mainstream debate, which is a distinctly Anatolian variation of a timeless refrain: “Which unites us all as Turks more: the flag or the Qur’an?”
The notion of a diversity of ethnic groups sharing a common demonym remains far more troubled in Turkey than in other diverse multi-ethnic societies like Brazil, South Africa and the United States. For Kurds to demand recognition, much less independence, not only challenges what it means to be Turkish, but reopens old wounds bandaged for nearly a century.
Forged in the republican-nationalist ideology of Kemalism, the Turkish Republic set out from its establishment to unite a nation out of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire. Part of this inglorious history includes the thousands of Armenians and Kurds who were systematically murdered in the early years of the Turkish Republic. Generations of Kurds have since pushed for rights and recognition in Turkey, at times through diplomacy, occasionally through insurrections; both have been suppressed. After the PKK was founded in 1978, the conflict manifested in blood-for-blood attacks during a vengeful campaign of guerrilla warfare lasting until the 1990s.
Two decades of relative calm have seen the PKK abandon a separate state as a feasible goal, instead seeking greater rights and autonomy under the Turkish government as both sides curtailed military operations and entered into peace negotiations. But those talks broke down at a critical moment. In January 2015, the YPG/YPJ succeeded to hold the city of Kobanî through months of siege by Daesh. But even as they were encroaching on its border, Turkey turned its back, shutting its border to fleeing civilians, offering no military support and urging the United States to stop backing the Kurds in Syria.
Cracking Down At Home
Kobanî was a watershed moment which for many Kurds proved that the Turkish government had no real intention of ever granting Kurdish autonomy in either Syria or Turkey. “Before Kobanî, if you took a poll of Kurds in Turkey, most would say that they would want to live together with the Turks under a democratic system with equal rights – but now, people are fed up – it was that the uprisings began,” says Brüsk Çekvar, the now-unemployed manager of a café destroyed by the bombardments in Diyarbakır’s Sûr district, a walled-off neighborhood of winding, tight streets and thousand year old stone buildings.
This ancient city, named Amed in Kurdish, is an especially venerated place for the roughly 40 million ethnic Kurds scattered throughout Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey. If Kurdistan were a sovereign nation, this would be its capital. Here, explosions can be heard all throughout the city as it continues its bustling daily activity while the military continues the crackdown.
“They call everyone they kill ‘terrorists’,” Brüsk tells me with stoic inflection. “People may say this all started because some of them dug ditches and took up guns. But I can tell you that before there were any ditches, before there were any incidents at all, the police were raiding people’s homes, dragging them out into the street, beating them and arresting them.
Like most social movement scenarios, the point of rupture was the coinciding of lingering resentments provoked by an incident of injustice. On the 8th of October, Brüsk’s 15-year-old nephew Aliş Çekvar was shot by a police officer after an incident at school where he had been questioned about affiliations with a terrorist group. There were no witnesses to the shooting itself, but the locals became furious when the police simply left him in the street to die and refused to allow an ambulance to come and collect his body after he did.
The usual street protests followed. But when demonstrators defied the 24-hour curfew declared on 10 October, the crackdown came – swift and deadly. “I had always seen the police use tear gas and water cannons at demonstrations – but on that day, I saw the police cut down the crowd with bullets,” Brüsk told me. “It was only after those incidents that people started digging ditches. They did it to protect themselves, to protect their homes.”
The Syrian Connection
The uncompromising crackdown on the country’s own population in Kurdish cities has earned Turkey’s president comparisons to Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. Images of neighborhoods reduced to grey rubble frame a bleak picture of what the Turkish government has wrought – yet Erdoğan has only become more popular. In February, when surreal stories covered national headlines telling of 60 people burned to death in the basement of a building surrounded for weeks by the Turkish soldiers in the far southeast town of Cizre, the president unapologetically defended the military’s siege of the building, calling it a hideout for PKK terrorists.
President Erdoğan has insisted that the Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD) – whom the United States has backed as a key front line against Daesh – are a group of terrorists no different from the so-called Islamic State, against whom they are fighting. His view, at odds with the U.S. position in the Syrian war, is that a self-ruling Kurdish region adjacent to Turkey will threaten its territorial sovereignty since the Syrian Kurds, Erdoğan argues, are merely an extension of the PKK under a different name.
While equating the two ires supporters of the Kurdish cause, it isn’t entirely inaccurate. Kurds in Syria have faced marginalizations under Assad similar to their cousins in Turkey. In March 2016, the PYD took its boldest step yet, declaring the establishment of an autonomous government over “Rojava.” Just short of declaring their own state, they have begun transforming every aspect of society into “democratic confederalism” – the model pursued by the PKK and developed by its leader Abdullah Öcalan, currently imprisoned by Turkey. Advances by the YPG/YPJ in Syria have undoubtedly emboldened Kurdish rebels declaring autonomy in Turkey’s cities, calling themselves the YPS, or Civil Protection Units.
Government officials state that since military operations began last July, over 1 200 militants have been “neutralized” – a euphemism for killed. The Turkish Human Rights Foundation (TIHV) contends that as many as half of those killed were non-militant civilians. The uncomfortable truth may lie somewhere in the grey area, as numbers still leave an incomplete picture of the pain that compels civilians to turn against the government.
Running on an empty stomach
When I met Ekrem Şen, a taxi driver who, until recently, had been living in Sûr, he struck me as a thoroughly average man, yet one who appears to have just realized he left his keys at home with the stove on. Massaging a pressure point on his hands, he speaks with frank cadence, syncopated with frenetic tangents of rhetorical questions.
“What’s a twenty-four hour curfew, anyway? When it started, the stores were open and people were walking around, and now there is only death on those streets,” Ekrem says casually, before a long pause. “My whole psyche is broken. How is the state capable of such cruelty?” he then demands, almost suspecting there is an answer. “Why, Allah? Why?”
On the day the curfew took effect, the entrances to Sûr were sealed off while Ekrem was out driving a customer. Cut off from his family, he stayed with a friend to keep up his work, phoning home hourly. On the fourth morning of curfew, his daughter Helin called to say she was going out to buy bread. Fifteen minutes later, a cousin called with news that she was dead.
An army commander questioned the distraught father at the morgue where Helin’s body was brought. He asked why the girl was out on the street alone, why the family hadn’t left Sûr, and suggested she might have been killed by militants looking to turn blame and rancor against the security forces.
Ekrem may never know exactly what happened – but his demeanor conveys a clear conviction. As he shows me two photos and an autopsy report, I understand the source of his disturbed temperament: the indelible images of a nine year old girl’s distorted head, ripped apart by two .6 caliber bullets – heavy ammunition that could only have been fired by an artillery gun. The autopsy noted: “the stomach of the deceased was observed to be empty.”
“Isn’t it a pity that our children have to die? What was their sin? Being a Kurd? Soldiers – they are mother’s sons – die also. Isn’t it a pity? And whose doing is all this?” Ekrem laments, before continuing:
“Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.”
The mere mention of the Turkish president’s name invokes controversy. It’s tempting to explain the Byzantine complexity of the conflict in Syria in black and white terms. While President Erdoğan insists he is defending the nation from barbarous terrorists, many of the people to whom I spoke counter that that it is civilians who are being slaughtered; they revere the Kurdish resistance as freedom fighters. The polarized discourse of Turkish politics is steeped in tribe-affirming polemics that provide little insight into the nuances of a complex conflict. An opposition party whitepaper held both sides blameworthy, stating: “the local community is torn between PKK terrorism and the unlawful and anti-democratic practices of the government, and feels resentment towards both.” But moderates are becoming the minority, drowned out by much louder voices.
Kurds in Turkey look to Rojava’s revolution as an inspiration for what they hope to achieve, but it hasn’t all been clean. Not only are the YPG/YPJ seen by other rebel factions as traitors to the Syrian revolution – which set the stage for their gains – they accuse the Kurds of acquiescing to the regime of Bashar al-Assad, pointing out that they have almost completely evaded the bombing campaigns that have decimated most of the country’s urban centers. They have also been accused of expelling Arab Syrians from their homes in an attempt to cleanse the region of non-Kurds. YPG/YPJ spokesman Rêdûr Xelîl has admitted that some Arabs have indeed been displaced from areas where fighting took place, but denies that they were forced by Kurdish forces.
Intransigent animosities continue to problematize the conflict spilling over from the Kurdish front of Syria’s war into Turkey. Any project of state-building will inevitably be a bloody one – and the baptism of nationalism grants a pardon for its crimes. Kurds have fought for years using both diplomatic means and armed struggle to advance their cause. As the Kurds’ emerging efforts towards autonomy – won by the bullet, not the ballot – it remains to be seen how their future will fit in with the rest of Syria, and whether the same crimes that have been committed against them in their history will be repeated.