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What's Behind Turkey's Deadly Crackdown On The PKK

Battles in the remote town of Silvan are the latest sign that Turkey has widened a military campaign in the Kurdish Southeast after the ruling AKP party won a major victory in November elections.

by Noah Blaser
Nov 13 2015, 11:10am

Un vehículo blindado de Turquía en Silvan/Imagen por EPA

The phone rang a dozen times before Mehmet Yalman answered, his voice weary after days of gun battles outside his storefront in Turkey's remote southeastern town of Silvan.

"Everyday, the battles start with gunshots, but end with rockets and tank shells," the 32-year old shopkeeper told VICE News. The phone, and scattered reports from social media, are the only way to get updates from the city, where few journalists have dared to tread since Turkish security forces began a crackdown on local members of the insurgent Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) on November 3.

Crisscrossed by cinder-block barricades and pockmarked by bullet holes, the majority-Kurdish city has been the scene of heavy fighting for almost two weeks. Photos posted on social media show tanks patrolling the streets of the town, where seven residents and a soldier have reportedly died in the battles.

The crackdown is the latest sign that Turkey's government has widened a military campaign in the Kurdish Southeast after the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, won a sweeping victory in November 1 parliamentary elections. Since then, an emboldened President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has stepped up military response to a revamped Kurdish armed insurgency.

"A few months ago these two sides were at peace," Yalman said, referring to the Turkish Army and the Kurdish militia. "Now people are fleeing this city in fear as the government is turns its own citizens into refugees." Video that appeared on Turkish media on Thursday seemed to show residents vacating the town amid continued violence.

Turkey's three-decade-old Kurdish insurgency flared to life this summer, when a bombing suspected to be the work of the Islamic State killed 33 pro-Kurdish activists in a town along the Turkish-Syrian border. Accusing Turkey's government of covertly aiding the bombers, the PKK murdered two policemen in retaliation, ending two years of ceasefire and unleashing a wave of violence that has seen at least 172 security officers and 91 civilians killed, according to the International Crisis Group.

The AKP had promised to end that violence in the run-up to elections, dismissing accusations that it preferred a war footing to boost its image as defender of people's safety – and its performance at the polls. Voters roundly endorsed the AKP's message, helping the party secure 317 of parliament's 550 seats and win back the majority it had lost in a June election.

"Today we have buried chaos, violence and instability," declared Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu after his party's victory. Since then, however, the government has announced curfews in several majority-Kurdish cities and boasted of increasing its campaign against the PKK. Even before the election, in late October, the armed forces launched strikes against PYD, a PKK-linked Kurdish militia which is fighting the Islamic State in Syria.

"With elections out of the way, the AKP could seek peace, but it obviously has chosen not to," said Ziya Pir, a deputy for the Kurdish-rooted Peoples' Democracy Party (HDP) who visited Silvan on November 11.

The military, he said, is using tanks and mortar rounds in Silvan, though those claims cannot be verified independently, as few journalists dare travel to the town. Last month, a Turkish police officer was videotaped threatening a local journalist in Silvan at gunpoint. Turkey has deported three foreign journalists working in the Southeast in 2015, including two working for VICE News. A third VICE journalist who was arrested with them, Mohammed Rasool, has remained in a maximum security prison in southern Turkey since August.

Related: The EU Has Now Slammed Turkey's Imprisonment of Journalists

While the fight in Silvan remains far from view, the government's region-wide crackdown is easier to grasp, said Metin Gurcan, a Turkish security analyst and Al-Monitor columnist. "The government wants to add military victories to its political one," he said.

"At the same time, the PKK is content to fight in cities with little regard to civilian casualties. Both sides are locking themselves into a cycle of violence and throwing away any political solution."

Earlier this year, a historic peace deal seemed within reach. In March, imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan called on his fighters to plan a withdrawal from Turkish territory. In June, parliamentary elections saw the Kurdish-linked HDP party gain more than 10 percent of the national vote for the first time, surpassing the country's electoral barrier and denying the AKP a single-party government for the first time in 13 years.

The ensuing political impasse led to the November ballot, which saw a reversal of fortunes for the HDP after Kurdish armed activity resumed. Harrowed by urban gun battles that raged before the elections, 1 million fewer people voted for the HDP, which shares political roots with the PKK. The HDP's national vote share dropped from 13.1 percent in June to 10.3 percent.

"A few months ago, everybody spoke of peace. When I think of those times now, my heart starts to break."

"The PKK should absolutely cease operations in the cities, where civilians are vulnerable," said Tahir Elci, head of the bar association in Diyarbakir, one of the biggest cities in southeastern Turkey.

Elci shot to the top of national headlines last month, when he declared on national TV that he did not consider the PKK a terrorist organization. He was arrested for the comment, while CNN Turk, the news channel which hosted the program, was fined the equivalent of $244,000.

"Only a few months ago, even government negotiators were saying, 'the PKK is more than just a terror group,' because they know it also represents the very real problems of Kurds," said Elci. "Now I am arrested for saying exactly the same. I fear [the government] is now rolling back Kurdish rights across the board." Last week, a Turkish court cleared eight former security personnel of any involvement in the killing of 21 Kurds in the 1990s, dashing hopes in a case activists had seen as a landmark for Kurdish rights.

In September, Turkish police launched an offensive on the town of Cizre, resulting in the death of 21 residents. When VICE News visited Cizre in late October, residents only seemed hardened by the fight. Kurdish youth stood guard beside sandbag bunkers while a flag bearing Kurdish colorsflew over one neighborhood of the town.

"There is no way Ankara can achieve 'victory' in towns like Silvan or Cizre," said security analyst Gurcan. "Youth will continue to join the PKK, and the barricades will go up the moment the police and military leave."

As the government pledges to continue its crackdown against the PKK, shopkeeper Yalman worried about the future of Silvan. "Is our choice really going to be 'abandon your home or lose your life?'" he said, describing a row of burned-out buildings visible from his shop window. "A few months ago, everybody spoke of peace. When I think of those times now, my heart starts to break."

Follow Noah Blaser on Twitter: @nblaser18