Why has the situation in Turkey’s ethnically Kurdish eastern region abruptly degenerated into civil strife, insurrection and savage state crackdowns, after a long period of relative peace and negotiated progress? In this essay, Vahap Coşkun casts much of the blame on the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party and its new strategy of erecting barricades and digging trenches in the region’s cities: provoking clashes .
The regional context is important however. Kurds, who make up maybe a fifth of Turkey’s population, are a substantial ethnolinguistic minority in the mountains that straddle the borders between western Iran, northern Syria, eastern Turkey and northern Iraq. For more than a decade, Iraqi Kurds have inhabited an autonomous pseudo-state that emerged when war and occupation weakened Baghdad’s control, a situation that now appears likely to repeat itself in Syria’s Kurdish areas. The militants of Turkey’s PKK have operated freely in Iraqi Kurdistan, and participated in the fight against ISIS in northern Syria; and now over the past year have pushed many of Turkey’s Kurdish cities into a state of civil insurrection and siege by the Turkish state. A critical assessment of the PKK’s ‘trenches’ strategy, from Turkey’s Yeniyuzyil:
In a meeting with the [Turkish] People’s Democratic Party [leftist and historically Kurdish]committee in Ankara, the leader of the [Iraqi] Kurdistan Democratic Party Masoud Barzani reportedly said that the trenches should be shut down as soon as possible. Barzani also underlined that no one would benefit from a shift from a peaceful approach to open warfare.
In the meeting, Barzani relayed a personal anecdote regarding trenches. He said that during a period when Iraqi Kurds were clashing with Baghdad they wanted barricade and occupy their city, but his father Mustafa Barzani prevented it by saying: “That would not be the right strategy. Conquering somewhere you cannot defend later would harm both the people there as well as the conquerors themselves.”
The road you take when you begin digging trenches is a dead end. The trenches, from whichever angle you approach them, produce but one result: death, damage, and destruction. Despite this fact, the [Turkish militant leftist] PKK is still insistent on resorting to trenches. They will not retreat from a strategy of turning Turkey’s Kurdish cities into molehills, and making life unbearable in them. Qandil [the Turkish PKK’s mountain refuge in northern Iraq]is relegating the political process to a side-note, and rejecting democratically obtained gains. I have wondered why this is the case; I suggest here that are three possible reasons:
The PKK may be thinking that the trenches will actually prove to be successful in and of themselves. The PKK has plenty of members in Turkish cities today, and it is obvious that they have stockpiled enough supplies to fight the Turkish state. There are two goals in PKK’s struggle to create “safe zones” that the Turkish state cannot enter: one is to exhibit their strength by demonstrating that they are the dominant power in these regions. The other is to lure the Turkish state into an extreme reaction, then channeling the resulting anger of the people and organizing a public outcry.
It may be that the PKK may want to reenact their experiences from Syria in Turkey. However, PKK cannot be aiming to liberate or save those places where HDP gained up to 80 or 90 per cent of the votes by digging trenches or claiming self-governance. Their goal is to create a chaotic civil environment like the one in Syria, and obtain the maximum gains from this. But what would result here are gains for the PKK, not the Kurds. For some time now, there has been a widening gap between the rights of Turkey’s Kurdish citizens and the interests of the PKK, and PKK keeps its own interests at the forefront.
Finally, the PKK might be planning to bring actual warfare into the cities; thus putting the Turkish state on the spot, and forcing it to confront the PKK’s major goals. The party first aims to force Turkey into recognizing its authority in certain areas in neighboring Syria. Secondly, it wants to give itself the upper hand in negotiations with Turkey over its domestic role.
If the current situation in the Middle East and PKK’s alliances are also taken into consideration different and more complicated possibilities may of course obtain. But one way or another, these trenches are crucial for PKK. PKK believes that digging these trenches is an essential move to reaching their goals in the new period. For this reason, the party is extraordinarily harsh with anyone who criticizes the trenches. People who publicly deem these trenches a mistake – even if they are from [historically Kurdish nationalist]HDP, like Altan Tan-or non-partisan personalities like Tahir Elçi – are assailed in the PKK media organs. These organs sometimes go to great lengths claiming that people who criticize PKK do not have the right to live in Kurdistan.
As a matter of fact, the harshness of the reactions shows how wrong it was to go down this road in the first place. By making the trenches immune from criticism PKK wants to prevent people from questioning their decision, from noting and talking about the party’s mistakes. But this is impossible. Because as [sociologist]Mücahit Bilici puts it, there is not “an issue of self-governance but an issue of self-destruction” there. What PKK should do is not silence these criticisms but pay attention to them and eventually step back from this lethal mistake that turned into self-destruction.
Coşkun’s first-hand account of the trenches in Turkey’s Kurdish city of Dyarbakir-Sur:
DEFENDING THE TRENCHES, FROM A SAFE DISTANCE
The curfew in Diyarbakır-Sur was interrupted for 17 hours and the wreckage was revealed in all its intensity. The demolished houses, devastated streets, deep ditches, the neighborhoods that could not even be entered anymore; the mosques, inns, schools and hamams that had been burned to ashes… and more tragically, the losses of lives.
This story is not only limited to Sur. The same images and devastating scenes are found in Cizre, Nusaybin, Silvan, Lice and other towns. People who have the chance head out of their towns, taking only a small amount of their belongings. Everyone is struggling to leave this hell. The news agencies ceaselessly serve images of migration. Even though the reason is constantly changing Kurdish people are always those who are forced to migrate. In the nineties Kurds were migrating due to state oppression. Now they are escaping the trenches and the self-governance of PKK.
The number of people who are forced to migrate ascends to the hundreds of thousands. The economy is ravaged. In the words of the head of the Diyarbakır Union of Merchants and Craftsmen, Alican Ebedinoğlu: “Three hundred and eleven businesses ceased trading in Sur. Fourteen hotels have shut down. The tourism industry has almost halted. Three thousand people were left unemployed. One bank withdrew from Diyarbakır and several banks closed down their branches. In the whole region ten thousand workplaces have shut down. There is an employment loss of fifty percent. The trenches that have caused all this were not encouraged by the public. Business owners come to us and complain about the trenches. Due to the curfews and the armed conflicts business owners came to a point where they cannot pay their checks and credits…”
Wherever you look you are faced with great damage. A big mistake is occurring here. It is apparent that the actions taken are not benefiting the Kurds. However, some people persist in defending the trenches. Putting aside the staunchest supporters of the PKK, there are two other groups advocating the trenches that I believe should be mentioned.
One of them is the group that perpetually wants to use the Kurds and make them fight for their own causes. They seem very friendly to the Kurds from the outside and they constantly stir up the PKK. They have no intention to make an effort. They do not hesitate to put Kurds on the frontline. They can argue for violence to be raised to the utmost level only if it is occurring in regions far away from themselves. They worship the idea of violence from safe areas, in the warm cafes, and in front of their desks. They mention the creativity of violence and the great values generated by it. They expect a more militant performance from PKK.
The other group is constituted by wealthy Kurds. I know some of them very well. They are very well-to-do. They have every opportunity to move to Western Turkey if these regions were to be set on fire. They have a great deal of alternatives, they have roofs under which they can live. They send their children to very good schools. They do not sacrifice their lifestyles and their personal tastes.
It is apparent that neither of these groups would like to see trenches by their houses. They do not predict a future for their children where they would be digging trenches. They would also not arm their children and send them on duty to the trenches.
But when you look at them you see blood spilling out of their mouths. They have turned into keyboard guerrillas in social media. They are the bravest in the virtual world. They cannot stop applauding the trenches. They are posing as heroes on social media and polishing their personal images using other people’s blood, suffering and demise. On top of that they supposedly denounce those who criticize this act of sheer folly to the PKK.
We ought to appreciate that some of them are very successful. However their success cannot cover the fact that they have lost their sense of morality.
Vahap Coşkun Translated from Turkish by International Boulevard
26 Jan 2016