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Caught Between the Islamic State and Erdogan: Turkey's Most Important Opposition Politician Talks to VICE News

VICE News sat down with Selahattin Demirtas, co-chair of HDP and figurehead of the Kurdish political movement in Turkey, as violence between security forces and PKK militants continues to escalate.
Photo by John Beck

Selahattin Demirtas looks weary. He's well-groomed as usual, navy suit, pressed shirt, and neatly trimmed black hair, but his dark eyes are red-rimmed, his broad face somber. As co-chair of the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), figurehead of the Kurdish political movement in Turkey, and perhaps the country's most important opposition politician, a restful existence was never likely, but the strain of the past few months has been particularly intense.


Demirtas, a former human rights lawyer, has been attempting to play peacemaker amid escalating violence between security forces and militants from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) that has riven the country. More than 550 people, including 150 civilians have now been killed since a temporary ceasefire collapsed in July, according to the International Crisis Group, the worst toll in 20 years. In the southeast, the state response has involved military operations and implementing curfews on entire towns.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), meanwhile, has grown increasingly intolerant of any form of dissent. Police have detained hundreds, including HDP members, as part of a broad crackdown in Kurdish areas and targeted opposition press. Demirtas is in danger too, a series of bombings linked to the Islamic State (IS) left dozens of mostly pro-Kurdish activists dead in recent months, and he says there's been at least one direct attempt on his life.

His own security has been increased as a result. VICE News met with the HDP leader in the basement conference room of an unremarkable hotel in Diyarbakir, the unofficial capital of Turkey's majority Kurdish southeast. Bodyguards sporting dark suits and earpieces were stationed around the otherwise empty lobby whispering into radios and eyeing up entrances and exits.

Aides withdrew as the co-chair settled into a leather chair, adjusted his suit and looked ahead. "We had," he began, "a difficult year… we faced heavy massacres organized by IS that they were possibly able to carry out with support from within Turkey."


He chooses his words carefully, avoiding the blustering rhetoric and aggressive speaking-style favored by many Turkish politicians, but clearly feels assailed from all sides.

"Our members are being arrested, our mayors are being arrested and relieved of duty, our members are getting killed in the streets, the graveyards and mosques are being set on fire and shelled," he said, adding that both the ruling party and jihadists share what he describes as a "monistic and fascistic" worldview. "In some ways, actually, AKP is Turkey's IS."

Things have not always been this bleak. Turkey's "Kurdish problem," as it is known, goes back decades. Successive governments have systematically marginalized the country's estimated 15 million Kurds, outlawed their language, and, at times, denied their very existence.

The PKK, designated a terrorist organization by both Ankara and Washington, was one of the consequences of this repressive treatment, and went on to wage a bloody three-decade insurgency against the Turkish state that left 40,000 dead.

Demirtas speaking in Diyarbakir. (Photo by John Beck)

But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — then prime minister — initiated talks with the group's jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan, leading to a 2013 ceasefire agreement, and period of fragile peace. Pro-Kurdish parties, once regularly dissolved by the Constitutional Court for failing to adhere to vague definitions of "Turkishness," were allowed to grow, including the HDP, which Demirtas helped found in 2012.


Since then, the party has broadened its appeal by portraying itself as the progressive face of Turkish politics, emphasizing women's rights and LGBT issues alongside a focus on pluralistic democracy. When the parliamentary election came round in June, it fielded more candidates from minority groups than any other faction. Suddenly young, urban Turks with no background in Kurdish politics were speaking breathlessly of Demirtas, engaged by the HDP's inclusive vision of Turkey, one at odds with Erdogan's strict notion of Turkish identity: conservative, Sunni Muslim, and fiercely nationalistic.

Related: Pro-Kurdish Political Leader Calls for Resistance Against Turkish Security Operation

Those polls were widely seen as a referendum on the president's dream of gaining a large enough majority to alter the constitution and transfer executive powers to his office after 12 years as PM. In the end, the HDP crossed the 10 percent threshold required to gain a parliamentary presence, securing 80 seats and denying the AKP a majority of any sort for the first time since it took power.

Joyous crowds gathered in Diyarbakir and elsewhere in the country to celebrate this historic moment. In Istanbul, Demirtas and fellow co-chair Figen Yuksekdag addressed a room packed full of press shortly after the results were announced. It was, he said, a vote against Erdogan's presidential ambitions, the "end of dictatorship discussions," and a victory for all of Turkey's oppressed groups.


Demirtas was elated. "HDP's sun is enough, we don't need the lightbulb [AKP's logo]," he beamed, to cheers from supporters assembled outside.

Demirtas and fellow HDP co-chair Yuksekdag speaking after the results of the June 7 elections were announced. (Photo by John Beck)

The happiness was short-lived. On July 20 a suicide bomber killed 33 pro-Kurdish activists at a cultural center in the border town of Suruc. Most of the victims had been planning to cross the border into Kobane, the Syrian border enclave that became a symbol of Kurdish resistance against IS after fighters from the PKK-linked People's Protection Units (YPG) managed to drive off a mass offensive with the help of US airstrikes.

The Suruc attacker was trained by IS, but many Kurds blamed Turkish security forces for laxity or collusion, and in the immediate aftermath, the PKK shot dead two police officers in a nearby town, claiming they'd collaborated with IS.

Violence spiraled. Four days after the bombing, Ankara announced a two-pronged "war on terror," claimed to focus on both the PKK and IS, but concentrated almost entirely on the militant Kurds. Attack jets began an ongoing series of airstrikes on the group's positions in Turkey and neighboring northern Iraq that state media claims have killed hundreds, but PKK commanders say have had little effect. In turn, they launched a number of assaults on army and police targets, killing dozens.

Security forces simultaneously embarked on what Demirtas describes as a "shock doctrine" in the southeast, escalating military activity, arresting hundreds in Kurdish areas, and imposing strict curfews that left civilians trapped in their homes. In response, some residents dug ditches and built barricades to stop police vehicles entering, and armed youth known as the YDG-H, which PKK leaders have told VICE News are not under their control, fought police with guns, rockets, and Molotov cocktails.


Residents of the predominantly Kurdish town of Cizre, climb a barricade during a demonstration against the killing of 17-year-old Hasan Nerse by security forces. (Photo by John Beck)

Back in Ankara, with the AKP unable to form a majority government, coalition talks with the country's second and third largest parliamentary blocs — the secular Republican People's Party (CHP) and far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) — were ongoing. They eventually fell apart and Erdogan called snap elections, gambling at being able to pull in a larger share of the vote.

Erdogan's government became less and less tolerant of dissent since his rebuke in the polls. Courts prosecuted journalists responsible for critical coverage, jailed dozens for "insulting" the president, and even arrested members of the HDP for alleged terrorism links. AKP politicians encouraged an ugly strain of nationalist sentiment that resulted in mob attacks on Kurdish businesses and HDP offices.

'There again needs to be a declaration of a will that "yes, we cannot solve this problem through conflict, we cannot solve this problem through war"'

Tragedy struck again on October 10, when two IS-linked suicide bombers blew themselves up at a peace rally part-organized by the HDP in Ankara. 102 people lost their lives, including two of the pro-Kurdish party's parliamentary candidates.

It was the worst terror attack ever to take place in Turkey, but instead of bringing the country together, it highlighted the depth of its divisions. Kurdish activists blamed the state either directly or indirectly, and instead of striking a conciliatory tone, some officials accused the Kurds themselves. Ankara's AKP mayor Melih Gokcek even suggested that the PKK or one of its affiliates had carried out the bombing in an effort to boost HDP support ahead of the polls. That same day, the militant group's commanders declared a unilateral ceasefire, saying it wanted to avoid violence that might prevent a fair election.


A black-clad Demirtas was there the following morning, when crowds gathered to mourn in the city's central Sihhiye square. Standing atop a bus-turned-stage, he expressed his sorrow at the loss of life and offered his condolences to the victims.

Related: Protests Erupt Across Turkey After Killing of Kurdish Lawyer Tahir Elci

"They all came to Ankara with hope for peace, but we couldn't protect them," he said. "We are sorry for that, and we are sending them back home in coffins. But we will stand tall, we will continue singing our songs of freedom and dancing our halays [a type of folk dance]."

The mourners clutched roses and silently embraced as he spoke, but later broke into shouts of "Thief, murderer Erdogan" and held their fists aloft chanting "murderer state will be brought to justice."

A mourner at a vigil for victims of the Ankara bombing. (Photo by John Beck)

The HDP subsequently canceled all scheduled election rallies for safety reasons. Erdogan and other AKP leaders campaigned on the message that only they could bring stability to Turkey. It worked, and the party won an unexpectedly decisive victory on November 1 — regaining a majority and securing another four years of unchecked power.

HDP once again passed the threshold, but by less this time, likely a result of religious Kurds reverting to the AKP or swing voters opting again for the more established CHP.

Demirtas sees the resumption of state violence against the PKK as a play to garner a larger share of the vote for the AKP. "All this created a concern for security in Turkish society all of a sudden, and AKP utilized this concern for security to shift the votes to their side," he said, adding that the November election results should be seen as invalid as a result.


"It was a campaign period AKP carried out by itself alone, and there were ballot boxes set up under state terrorism. We cannot say that all the results from it are legitimate and the outcome of democracy." Under these circumstances, he said, the HDP again securing a parliamentary presence is a huge success.

Things have hardly improved since then. His position secure, Erdogan vowed to "liquidate" the PKK, while the group has now scrapped its ceasefire and leaders say they will retaliate if Ankara doesn't soften its approach. The curfews have begun again too, as have the attacks by the YDG-H.

The HDP said in late November that Demirtas's armored car had been hit by a single bullet while traveling through Diyarbakir. Authorities examined the vehicle but said there was no evidence of gunfire and only that the damage had been caused by a "hard object." A few days later, also in Diyarbakir, the well-known Kurdish lawyer and human rights activist Tahir Elci was killed along with two police officers as gunmen clashed with security forces following a press conference.

A placard at a protest in Istanbul following Tahir Elci's death. (Photo by John Beck)

Police investigations of both cases are ongoing, but Demirtas doubts that further information will be forthcoming on the facts of his, or whether Elci — who had received death threats after saying in a television interview that the PKK weren't a terrorist group — was killed deliberately.

IS has been able to target the HDP thanks in part to their presence just across the border in northern Syria. The YPG are still battling the jihadists there and have carved out an enclave for themselves, known as Rojava. But Turkey is wary of a strong Kurdish presence on its southern border, Erdogan has consistently labeled the YPG as "terrorists," and Kurds often accuse Ankara of providing help to, or at least tolerating, IS in order to contain the YPG.


'We are a huge society without a state, and the states that we live in do not treat us in way that would make us feel like we are in our own county'

Demirtas is more measured, but blames the policies of Turkey, along with what he terms "Sunni bloc" countries of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, for the extremist group's strength, as well as those of the US and its allies to an extent. "Obviously, the West also has its share in it, IS is a consequence of a collective sin," he said.

Speaking after Elci's death, Demirtas stated that the lawyer had been killed by "statelessness." Elaborating in response to a question from VICE News, he said the phrase had a double meaning: that the region's 30 million or so Kurds live without a country of their own, and that those in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran are often denied the freedoms, rights, and security that should come with citizenship.

"The state is not the Kurds' state, and also the Kurds do not have a state in the Middle East. I did not express this to mean there must be an independent Kurdish state in Turkey. However, the Kurds too have the right to form a state in the Middle East and everyone needs to respect this," he said mentioning the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq, as well as Kurdish-controlled areas of Syria.

"In Turkey, Kurds want autonomy. These are all types of states. They do not have to be independent, however, if they are to be independent, again the right of the people for self determination has to be respected. In the end, we are a huge society without a state, and the states that we live in do not treat us in way that would make us feel like we are in our own county."

In Turkey, this treatment, particularly over the past six months, will be difficult to forget. "The polarization [of society] has deepened far more… we won't be able to go back to normal as easily as before," he said, adding that the June 7 elections briefly created a now-squandered opportunity for resolution. And as a measure of the vast divide that exists even in political sphere, he said that the HDP has no contact whatsoever with either Erdogan or his ministers.

Demirtas now finds himself trapped between the Kurdish movement's violent elements, and the inflexible Turkish state, seemingly one of the few attempting to stop the bloodshed. His solution is simple — dialogue and negotiation. He advocates a bilateral ceasefire, the resumption of negotiations and peace process. "There again needs to be a declaration of a will that 'yes, we cannot solve this problem through conflict, we cannot solve this problem through war.' And the broken trust [between the two sides] needs to be strengthened and renewed again." he said, adding that NGOs and the international community, in particular the US, could play a facilitatory role.

Related: In Photos: Kurdish Forces Celebrate Routing the Islamic State From Sinjar

He's doggedly confident that this can be achieved, even though neither side look conciliatory. The alternative, Demirtas warns, is yet more strife. "If the government increases the pressure, we foresee that the resistance in the neighborhoods will spread everywhere… The government approaches the young people with a policy of violence and the young people respond to this violence with violence, by armed resistance."

This cycle continued in the days after his meeting with VICE News. Two protesters died in Diyarbakir during clashes with police and another two policemen were killed elsewhere in the province by a roadside bomb, reported to have been the work of the PKK. A force of several thousand police and military personnel backed by tanks and helicopters then imposed a curfew on the southeastern towns of Cizre and Silopi, sparking heavy fighting that state-media claim left at least 55 militants and one soldier dead.

Peace, for now, seems distant. And for Demirtas and the HDP, the future seems likely to offer little respite.

Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck