“With the ongoing security situation in southeast Turkey and the possibility of spontaneous demonstrations, the U.S. Embassy reminds U.S. citizens to maintain a high level of vigilance, avoid demonstrations, review personal security plans and be aware of your surroundings.”
That’s from the official security message of the United States embassy in Ankara on July 23.
That same day, the Turkish National Intelligence Organization issued a more specific message warning people of possible of bomb attacks at major metro and metrobus stops, Taksim Square, and “crowded places.” Everyone was advised to avoid them all.
In the press, they say that the Turkish Armed Forces have stepped up the fight against terrorism, targeting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) — or “ISIS” as we say in the US for some reason — as well as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) but they’re mostly concerned with the PKK.
Well, to put a finer point on it, they’re concerned with the Kurdish people and all of their political organizations, inside and outside of Turkey. President Erdoğan is calling for the removal of parliamentary immunity for the elected deputies from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and the Turkish Armed Forces have been attacking PKK targets in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq.
It’s worth pointing out that the HDP and the PKK aren’t the same organization. In fact, each of them regularly criticizes the approach and perspective of the other. To Turkish nationalists though, they’re the same because they’re both “pro-Kurdish.”
To be fair, the Turkish army did engage in a long firefight that day across the border with Syria with ISIL. But to be even more fair, less than two weeks ago, the president was already talking about sending in troops to Syria to keep the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) from creating a unitary Kurdish state out of the overwhelmingly Kurdish territory that they have successfully won back and defended against ISIL.
In the Western press there’s a celebration of Turkey’s decision to finally take on ISIL but little recognition of how much energy is being directed at Kurdish and “pro-Kurdish” forces, armed or peaceful, separatist or autonomist, all over the map.
The government has also taken to blocking “pro-Kurdish” websites and recently they blocked Twitter for a brief period of time, as they do whenever there’s a political crisis.
Turkey still hasn’t managed to cobble together a government since the election and it is very likely they there will be a new election very soon. Cynical Turks will say that this current situation is too convenient for the ruling party, who recently lost their super-majority to the “pro-Kurdish” HDP.
Since I’ve been in Turkey, I’ve seen the HDP demonized by nationalist, republican and Islamist groups alike. Their activists were harassed in the streets and their offices bombed during the election campaign but they still won a historic 13% of the vote.
Some people died for that 13%.
And now more people are dying. In Suruç last week a suicide bomber killed 30 people organized by the Federation of Socialist Youth Associations who were on their way to Kobani, the Kurdish city that has become a symbol of resistance to ISIL for the entirety of this fight while the Turkish Armed Forces stayed out of it altogether. Another 100 were wounded.
The bombing is attributed to ISIL, which would make sense enough, but according to a very trusted government whistle-blower known as “Fuat Avni,” it was actually a government action designed to create a situation in which the forces of the state could justify attacking Kurdish targets.
Obviously, I can’t say for certain one way or another.
Since then, the PKK has killed Turkish policemen (blaming them for allowing ISIL to operate freely) in a number of cities as well as an ISIL operative of some importance who was getting hospital treatment here in Istanbul. A number of HDP members and offices have been attacked, just as they were during the elections. The Turkish air force has been seeking out PKK targets in the southeast as well as in Syria and Iraq. They’ve scooped up more than 1,000 people in raids and a number of people have died in shootouts. Most of those suspected of ties to ISIL have apparently been let go. I don’t believe the same is true of those suspected of PKK ties.
Leading up to this moment is a sad history of oppression, resistance, and warfare.
Something like 70% of the world’s 35-40 million Kurds live in Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. Most of them live in areas that border each other. In every country, they’ve been systematically denied what we might call basic civil rights — including official bans on the use of their language for decades — and have often been subjected to intensely violent repression.
Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons to suppress an Iraqi-Kurdish revolt in the 1990’s took place while the PKK was waging an all-out war against the Turkish state. There has lately been a series of peace negotiations aimed at resolving the conflict in Turkey and a cease-fire has been mostly maintained but it would appear that’s all over. In Iraq, the Kurds have an autonomous regional government, thanks largely to the 12 years of chaos since the US invasion.
Now it looks like a three-way war has broken out, between the Turkish state, Kurdish paramilitary groups in three countries, and ISIL. All of them are killing each other. It’s totally unclear how messy this will get.
And here we are, foreigners without connections to anything in this great conflict that appears to be erupting again. I’m not in a position to relate. I’m not in a position to do anything of any kind other than to heed the warnings of the various governments and try to stay away from “crowded areas.” It’s a privileged position I guess, because I have no real stake in any of this and even the desire to relate in some way is an expression of that privilege.
It’s really not a position I’m comfortable being in.
PS: The flat where we’ve been staying is next door to a police station which has recently, for fairly obvious reasons, increased the number of body-armored, submachine gun-toting guards to three. Previously it was zero.