MESOP NEWS REPORTS BY Berkay Mandıracı – Analyst, Turkey – For International Crisis Group (ICG) – Brussels
Turkey’s PKK Conflict Kills almost 3,000 in Two Years
20 July 2017 marks the two-year anniversary of a collapsed ceasefire that previously held for two-and-a-half-years between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Crisis Group’s new analysis of open-source data reveals that the ongoing cycle of violence has now killed three times as many as the 2011-12 escalation.
On 20 July 2015, an Islamic State (ISIS) suicide bomb attack killed 33 and injured more than 100 mostly pro-Kurdish young activists in the majority Kurdish town of Suruç in south-eastern Turkey. That same day in nearby Adıyaman province, an alleged attack by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) killed a Turkish corporal. This marked the breakdown of a two-and-a-half-year ceasefire between the PKK – listed as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the U.S. and the EU – and the Turkish state. It was also the start of a violent cycle that has taken at least 2,981 lives, about three times more than during the July 2011-December 2012 escalation, when Crisis Group confirmed almost 1,000 deaths.
Among the deaths confirmed through Crisis Group’s open-source data collection, nearly half were PKK militants (1,378), followed by state security force members (976) and civilians (408). The remainder (219) were “youths of unknown affiliation”, a category created to account for confirmed urban deaths, aged 16-35, who cannot be positively identified as civilians or members of the PKK or its urban youth wing.
On 20 July 2015, an Islamic State (ISIS) suicide bomb attack killed 33 and injured more than 100 mostly pro-Kurdish young activists in the majority Kurdish town of Suruç in south-eastern Turkey. That same day in nearby Adıyaman province, an alleged attack by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) killed a Turkish corporal. This marked the breakdown of a two-and-a-half-year ceasefire between the PKK – listed as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the U.S. and the EU – and the Turkish state. It was also the start of a violent cycle that has taken at least 2,981 lives, about three times more than during the July 2011-December 2012 escalation, when Crisis Group confirmed almost 1,000 deaths.
Among the deaths confirmed through Crisis Group’s open-source data collection, nearly half were PKK militants (1,378), followed by state security force members (976) and civilians (408). The remainder (219) were “youths of unknown affiliation”, a category created to account for confirmed urban deaths, aged 16-35, who cannot be positively identified as civilians or members of the PKK or its urban youth wing.Since [June 2016], around 90 per cent of all deaths, as tracked by Crisis Group, occurred in rural south-eastern districts.
Violence peaked between February and May 2016 when fighting erupted in some urban districts of south-eastern Turkey for the first time in the conflict’s 33-year history. The PKK had built up an armed presence in the region during the 2012-2015 peace process. Around one third of all deaths occurred in Hakkari province’s Yüksekova district, Şırnak province’s Cizre and Silopi districts, Şırnak’s provincial centre, Mardin province’s Nusaybin district and Diyarbakır province’s Sur district. In June 2016, the conflict moved back to its traditional rural arena. Since then, around 90 per cent of all deaths, as tracked by Crisis Group, occurred in rural south-eastern districts.
The PKK or its affiliates have not carried out any major attack in the country’s urban centres and the west of Turkey since December. U.S. pressure, intense operations by the Turkish military and PKK’s strategic considerations appear to have contained its attacks. Nonetheless, Ankara is alarmed by the boost of PKK’s self-confidence especially following the U.S. decision to arm the YPG, the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, for the Raqqa offensive. Once the Raqqa offensive ends, the likelihood of military confrontation may increase if U.S. engagement wanes or if Turkey decides to strike the YPG in north-west Syria. Moreover, the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) – a PKK offshoot widely believed to maintain links to the organisation – threatened new attacks on Turkish cities and tourist sites in a statement issued 6 June. These dynamics could herald an increase in violence in the coming months.
What follows are five main conclusions derived from the data collected over the last two years by Crisis Group. The analysis focuses on the last eight months of the conflict (December 2016-July 2017), but also looks at broader trends.
1. PKK attacks on local ruling party officials have intensified Turkish nationalist feelings
The recent killing of Justice and Development Party (AKP) political figures and civilians in the south east has heightened nationalist feelings in Turkish society. Since March 2017, when the Turkish military intensified its operations against the PKK, there have been seven attacks on political figures and civilians in the region. All are widely assumed to have been carried out by the PKK, though so far it has only taken responsibility for three of them.
Attacks claimed by the PKK:
- On 9 June, a group of militants attacked the official car of Kozluk mayor (Batman province) Veysi Işık, killing 22-year-old music teacher Aybüke Şenay Yalçın, who was walking by.
- On 16 June, Necmettin Yılmaz, a primary school teacher, was abducted while driving his car which was found burned in Tunceli province. The PKK announced that Yılmaz was “penalised” for collaborating with Turkish security forces. His body was found in a nearby river on 12 July.
- On 1 July, AKP deputy head of Diyarbakır’s Lice district Orhan Mercan was shot dead in front of his house. The women’s branch of PKK’s urban youth wing, YPS-Jin (Civil Protection Units-Women), claimed responsibility, alleging Mercan was spying for the state and trying to recruit Kurdish youths as spies.
Attacks attributed to the PKK:
- On 9 March, gunmen wounded Tayfun Ayhan, AKP head of Esendere town in Hakkari province’s Yüksekova district, and killed his brother, Murat Ayhan, while they were carrying out campaign activities for the presidential system referendum.
- On 15 April, the motorcade of AKP Muradiye district head Ibrahim Vanlı was attacked in Van province. Vanlı’s nephew Adnan Vanlı, himself a village guard, was killed.
- On 1 July, AKP deputy head of Van province’s Özalp district Aydın Ahi was shot dead.
- On 8 July, two lorries and two cars were attacked in Hakkari’s Yüksekova district. Four civilians, Harun İbişoğlu, Dursun Doğan, Sadık Aktaş, and Hüseyin Kartal, were killed.
The PKK’s targeting of AKP political figures is probably an attempt to show the state, the AKP and its local supporters that it can still carry out dramatic attacks, despite an intense military crackdown. But this could backfire: instead of weakening the government and the president, these attacks are strengthening AKP support. Reports of slain security officials, political figures and civilians dominates the national media, justifying, in the eyes of many, harsh anti-PKK operations. Fuelling nationalist fervour over the past two years has allowed Ankara’s political leadership to consolidate support for its agenda, strengthening its alliance with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which helped it win the April 2017 presidential system referendum. Meanwhile, PKK attacks also allow Ankara to justify the prosecution of some opponents by labelling them “terrorists” or “collaborators”.
As the AKP continues mobilising nationalist segments of society and banks on its alliance with the MHP, it is unlikely that the political leadership will return to a more constructive agenda addressing Kurdish demands or resuming peace talks in the medium term for two reasons:
- Following the April referendum, the AKP still relies on its alliance with the MHP – which opposes concessions to address Kurdish aspirations – to pass new internal parliamentary regulations and other adjustment laws.
- Two significant elections are scheduled for 2019: local and presidential. The AKP and the president will continue to rally nationalist constituencies to mobilise support.
2. An escalatory cycle of increased IEDs against security forces and intense Turkish military operations
Around 60 per cent of all security force fatalities since July 2015 were caused by improvised explosive devices (IEDs). During June and July of 2017, the number of IED attacks in rural areas increased, mostly along roads leading to military bases, including an attack on 17 July in Hakkari’s Yüksekova district that injured seventeen soldiers.
There are several reasons why militants use these devices:
- IEDs are relatively cheap and easy to employ;
- They can inflect greater casualties by targeting a group of security personnel with a single explosive;
- Since IEDs can be detonated from a distance, militants can avoid direct armed confrontation, limiting their own risks.
This occurred amid intense military operations against the PKK in rural south-eastern districts which most recently focused on Lice district in Diyarbakır, Çukurca district in Hakkari and Başkale and Çaldıran districts in Van. The objective is both to target militants and destroy PKK ammunition depots.
Beginning in March 2017, the Turkish military carried out what it described as its most intense operations in years, deploying about 7,000 soldiers, special forces, police officers and village guards. In March, at least 79 PKK militants were killed, up from 23 in February, thirteen in January and six in December that Crisis Group could confirm.
3. Fewer PKK attacks prior to the April referendum
The number of security force members killed was relatively low in the run-up to the April referendum. While seventeen security force members were killed in PKK attacks in the two-and-a-half-month period prior to the referendum, this number almost quadrupled with 67 security force fatalities in the two-and-a-half-months after the referendum. There were no such fatalities in February 2017, the first month without security force being killed since July 2015. Aside from two urban IED attacks in Diyarbakır in January and April, the PKK or its affiliates did not carry out major, dramatic attacks in urban centres in Turkey and in the west of the country in the months prior to the referendum.
Sources close to the PKK told Crisis Group that they made the strategic decision to hold back in order to avoid generating further nationalist support for the “Yes” vote. As noted above, increased military operations by Ankara and U.S. pressure likely also played a role in curbing attacks. Regardless of the reason, this suggests the PKK has the ability to determine the timing and intensity of its attacks as well as to control its militants on the ground.In the run-up to the referendum both the PKK and the government used the threat of violence to rally their supporters.
In the run-up to the referendum both the PKK and the government used the threat of violence to rally their supporters. Cemil Bayık, a PKK leader, warned on 9 April that if the “Yes” camp won, “the war” would intensify. AKP officials raised the spectre of PKK terrorism in their campaign for a “Yes” vote. President Erdoğan on 2 March equated voting “No” with supporting Qandil (a reference to the PKK’s headquarters in northern Iraq). Other officials said a “Yes” vote would put an end to all terrorist activity in the country whether carried out by the PKK or by what the government calls the Fetullahist Terrorist Organisation (FETÖ), allegedly led by Fethullah Gülen, an exiled cleric living in the U.S. who the government blames for masterminding the 15 July coup attempt.
Ankara saw the referendum results as vindication of its hard-line approach: it interpreted the fact that the “Yes” camp received 10 per cent more votes in the south east than the AKP got in the 2015 elections as demonstrating support for its strategy to “eradicate” the PKK. In turn, a strengthened president mobilising nationalist support made it easier for the PKK to legitimise in the eyes of its supporters resort to violence.
4. Violence more dispersed in the south east
Although security force and PKK militant deaths have remained largely concentrated in the south-eastern provinces of Hakkari, Şırnak, Mardin and Diyarbakır, violence was more dispersed in the south east over the past eight months. From December 2016 to July 2017, around 50 per cent of all confirmed fatalities occurred in these four provinces, compared to around 70 per cent in the previous sixteen months (July 2015-November 2016). Fatalities resulting from military operations rose in other south-eastern provinces, in particular Tunceli (28 confirmed militant deaths in February) and Bitlis (38 confirmed militant fatalities in May and June). Crisis Group also confirmed 29 militant fatalities in northern Iraq in March and April as a result of cross-border airstrikes by the Turkish military.
Confirmed fatalities in Tunceli, Bitlis and northern Iraq resulted from the military’s decision last spring to intensify its efforts to track down militants in mountainous areas and conduct cross-border operations in northern Iraq. At the same time, the military has been winding down operations in urban districts (such as Cizre, Sur, Silopi, Nusaybin, Yüksekova) located mostly in the provinces of Hakkari, Şırnak, Mardin and Diyarbakır, another factor possibly explaining the extension of deaths to other provinces.
5. Kurdish village guard deaths have increased since April 2017
Fifteen members of the state-funded Kurdish Village Guard were killed between April and July 2017, a slight increase compared to the first four months of the year. Ankara has ramped up recruitment for these paramilitary forces since January 2017 when it retired 18,000 guards over the age of 45 in a force that totals about 50,000. It plans to recruit 25,000 new paid guards, between 22 and 30 years old. Turkish media outlets reported that the newly-hired guards would be equipped with heavy weapons and take part in operations against the PKK.
Civilians interviewed by Crisis Group in Nusaybin in early 2017 confirmed that Kurdish-speaking security personnel – most likely village guards – participated in anti-PKK operations. Guards receive two weeks of basic military training immediately after joining plus supplementary training once a month.Fifteen members of the state-funded Kurdish Village Guard were killed between April and July 2017
The government recently revitalised its system of “neighbourhood guards” in urban areas, probably in response to the PKK’s urban tactic last year. The government plans to place neighbourhood guards in urban stations around the country to assist police and the military in maintaining “public order”. The nationwide recruitment process continues: about 280 guards were recruited in January 2017 to operate in several majority-Kurdish urban neighbourhoods (69 in Diyarbakır, 40 in Hakkari, 49 in Mardin, one in Şanlıurfa, 121 in Şırnak). As Crisis Group previously warned, these urban and rural guards sometimes use their state-backed authority to advance personal interests. The system could thus ignite tensions and clashes between Kurdish clans and large families in the south east, a situation that the PKK could easily exploit.
Looking Ahead: A Grim Picture
Violence is unlikely to diminish in the near future. Instead, there is a risk of greater conflict as Ankara steps up military efforts to eradicate the PKK (including through cross-border military actions), limit YPG gains in northern Syria and marginalise the domestic, legal Kurdish movement. As for the PKK, it remains focused on gains in northern Syria and may be further emboldened by the direct military support its affiliate, the YPG, now receives from the U.S. for the Raqqa offensive. The U.S. appears to temporarily have helped curb risks of escalation by pressuring the PKK to rein-in attacks in Turkey’s densely-populated urban centres including in the west of the country and by remaining closely engaged with the YPG (including in some instances by co-locating its special forces). However, violence could escalate once the Raqqa offensive ends, if US engagement falters, or if Ankara further intensifies military operations against the YPG around Afrin, in north-western Syria.
There is a risk of greater conflict as Ankara steps up military efforts to eradicate the PKK
Domestically, the government’s crackdown on the Kurdish political movement continues. Avenues for constructive engagement and political channels remain closed. As Crisis Group argued in its latest report, the marginalisation of the legal Kurdish political movement could have long-term consequences, legitimising resort to violent means and driving up PKK recruitment. A resumption of talks appears unlikely in the foreseeable future but remains the only viable path to resolving this deadly conflict.
Nusaybin, a political stronghold of the Kurdish movement bordering Syria, is among Turkey’s urban south-eastern districts that saw unprecedented levels of violence in 2016. Particularly in the wake of the failed July coup attempt and in the run-up to the 2017 presidential system referendum, emergency rule conditions resulted in the arrest and/or removal from office of elected representatives of the legal Kurdish political movement. While conflict fatigue can be observed in this town where 30,000 lost their homes, so can a distinct sense that a political solution is not in sight. Ankara’s effort to meet residents’ basic needs and compensate their material losses is notable, but managing the conflict’s social/political fallout and addressing grievances of Kurdish movement supporters will be crucial if that marginalised constituency is not to be left more susceptible to mobilisation by the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and drawn toward violence.
Since violence resumed in July 2015, the 33-year conflict with the PKK, which Turkey, the U.S. and European Union (EU) consider a terrorist organisation, has devastated neighbourhoods and livelihoods across urban districts of the majority-Kurdish south east. In twenty-one months, at least 2,748 died, around 100,000 lost their homes, and up to 400,000 were temporarily displaced. Turkish security forces conducted hundreds of operations in urban and rural areas of the south east, while the PKK – after a period of intense clashes in urban centres and attacks with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) also in western cities of Turkey – returned to fighting in rural areas in June 2016. With the rise to dominance of nationalist cadres and hardline policies in Ankara, the state’s approach is to weaken the PKK as much as possible; marginalise the main legal Kurdish political entity, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP); win over locals via better services and infrastructure,; and nurture other Kurdish political actors that might serve as an alternative to the HDP.Residents in the conflict-torn south east are fed contradictory narratives as to why the escalation reached such levels.
Residents in the conflict-torn south east are fed contradictory narratives as to why the escalation reached such levels. Government affiliates retroactively blame cadres linked to what they call the Fethullahist Terrorist Organisation (FETÖ) – also blamed for the 15 July 2016 coup attempt – for the PKK mobilisation in south-eastern urban districts during the peace process (2013-2015). Conversely, hardline Kurdish movement representatives assert that elements in Ankara favouring nationalist policies, and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself, orchestrated the escalation to justify the crackdown on the legal Kurdish political movement. Residents are bitter toward the state but also blame the PKK for being ready to sacrifice its social base in Turkey to pursue the unrealistic ambition of carving out autonomous neighbourhoods with trenches and barricades.
State initiatives to rebuild Nusaybin’s neighbourhoods and compensate residents for material losses have taken time to develop, and transparency is lagging. The government is making diligent efforts to compensate for the true value of destroyed property, but administrative gaffes and delays exacerbate longstanding mistrust of state authorities. Clearing explosives from neighbourhoods where fighting occurred, the authorities say, required flattening buildings that were still standing, but it fuelled speculation that the destruction was intended to allow new construction that would facilitate security measures against renewed urban warfare. Despite genuine progress, the physical reconstruction of houses will not be sufficient to restore trust between the state and the local population or to rejuvenate fully the town’s social dynamism any time soon. The government needs to meet expectations regarding revitalising small businesses, which may require allowing controlled border trade, and adequately address the psycho-social needs of people traumatised by the conflict.
More broadly, the central authorities’ removal of elected representatives and purge of locally-trusted municipality personnel have consolidated a sense among Kurdish movement supporters that their political orientation and culture is not recognised. That, plus the stifling of public debate, ban on mass protests in some areas and strong security force presence also has strengthened the perception that there is no outlet for democratic politics. For some, it has left armed struggle as a legitimate response.
In the wake of the 16 April referendum, in which 79 per cent of Nusaybin residents voted “no”, the government extended for three months the emergency rule that has been in place since the failed coup. This is hardly the best way to suggest a shift toward the inclusive, pluralistic policies required to win hearts and minds. At a minimum, state officials should engage with local residents by hiring staff that is more attuned to the social fabric, and proactively try to address the trust deficit.
Ideally, President Erdoğan – having now secured an executive presidency – would focus on healing social divides, including with respect to the ideological diversity among Turkey’s Kurds. With no elections scheduled for two years, he may be less intent on mobilising nationalist constituencies. That would be the right choice. The alternative – impeding channels for the legitimate representation of the Kurdish movement and ignoring longstanding political demands and grievances – would ensure that adversity festers and segments of the population radicalise. By the same token, if the government continues to broadly apply anti-terror legislation so as to criminalise the mere fact of contradicting official accounts, there will be no hope for the resumption of more constructive, peaceful public debate on resolving Turkey’s PKK conflict.
That is the key. With the coming of spring, mutual escalation of that confrontation is likely; the Syrian war, in which Ankara and Kurdish affiliates of the PKK are at odds, further magnifies the danger. The only way to durable peace remains new talks between Turkey and the PKK, accompanied – on a separate track – by an effort to satisfy Turkey’s Kurdish population on core issues such as mother-tongue education, de-centralisation, a lower electoral threshold, reform of anti-terror laws and an ethnically neutral constitution.
Ankara/Brussels, 2 May 2017
During the 2.5-year PKK-Turkish state ceasefire and peace process (March 2013-April 2015), the Kurdish organisation deepened its presence in urban districts of the south east. Urban warfare followed the ceasefire’s collapse in July 2015. From August 2015, a number of regional mayors from the Democratic Regions’ Party (DBP), an HDP sister party, announced their autonomy from Ankara. PKK militants set up barricades and dug trenches to keep state security forces out. The government imposed curfews, closing residential neighbourhoods of some 40 south-eastern districts for periods ranging from hours to months.Residents were asked to evacuate their homes during months of security operations aimed at clearing out PKK, […] where entire neighbourhoods were demolished.
In the most serious cases, residents were asked to evacuate their homes during months of security operations aimed at clearing out PKK, notably in Diyarbakır’s Sur district and Şırnak’s centre, Cizre and Silopi districts, as well as Mardin’s Nusaybin and Hakkari’s Yüksekova districts, where entire neighbourhoods were demolished. International organisations and local human rights NGOs have reported extensively on alleged human rights abuses.
Crisis Group’s open-source casualty infographic indicates the conflict’s death toll between the breakdown of the ceasefire and 25 April 2017 has been at least 2,721.
Crisis Group last reported on the conflict in the region in March 2016, when it examined the human cost in Diyarbakır’s Sur district. Operations had ended in many districts, but the most intense period was just beginning in the town of Nusaybin, where a 134-day curfew ran from 14 March to 25 July 2016. Since then, operations have taken place only in rural areas of the town, reflecting the general shift of the fighting away from urban centres back to the traditional arena of the 33-year conflict. When Crisis Group visited Nusaybin in February 2017, there was relative calm in the town but also a strong security presence, and security operations were ongoing in rural areas and villages of the district.
The south east’s atmosphere has been deeply impacted by larger domestic political developments. Over the last year, Turkey has experienced an unprecedented consolidation of presidential power, particularly in the aftermath of the 15 July 2016 coup attempt attributed to the network Ankara has labelled “FETÖ” (Fethullahist Terrorist Organisation).
The emergency rule that the government declared in the coup’s aftermath paved the way for sweeping purges and arrests of those suspected of links to either FETÖ and/or the PKK, both alleged to be used by foreign powers that want to destabilise Turkey. The post-coup climate and emergency rule enabled a massive purge in state institutions, along with intense pressure and restrictions on media, academia and civil society, while impunity for security forces increased with legislative changes.
The referendum campaign both fed off and played into marginalisation of the Kurdish movement.
In an effort to convert the government system from parliamentary to presidential, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), in conjunction with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), proposed eighteen constitutional changes that were approved by 51.4 per cent of those who participated in the 16 April 2017 referendum. The referendum campaign both fed off and played into marginalisation of the Kurdish movement. The political leadership framed a “no” vote as support for terrorists, while high-ranking PKK figures expressed opposition to the constitutional changes.
Thirteen HDP parliamentarians and 84 DBP mayors spent the campaign and voted in prison. Local Kurdish movement representatives not arrested were under immense pressure. Nevertheless, 61 per cent of voters in the twelve provinces that in November 2015 supported the HDP voted against the changes. The “no” vote in the main urban conflict districts of Cizre, Sur, Nusaybin, Yüksekova and Silopi was 75.3 per cent, among the highest in the country.
The Turkey/PKK conflict also has considerably aggravated Turkey’s relations with the U.S. and European Union (EU) in the past year. Ankara blames Washington for providing support to the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG)/Democratic Union Party (PYD). It accuses the EU and its member states – with which relations are also strained over what Ankara considers unfair obstacles in the accession process and failure to keep its end of the refugee deal, while Brussels objects to what it sees as Ankara’s dangerous disregard for liberal principles and EU values – of leniency toward the PKK and aiding PKK-linked individuals in their countries and pushing for changes in Turkish anti-terror laws that could embolden terrorists. The EU visa liberalisation process, about which EU member states are highly sensitive given the refugee/migration crisis, has stalled primarily due to Ankara’s reluctance to reform those anti-terror laws, the broad interpretation of which potentially qualifies more Turkish citizens for asylum in the EU.
While Ankara’s public line is that a military solution to the PKK conflict is within reach, officials privately acknowledge that the insurgency’s eradication is unrealistic.
Rather, the strategy appears to be to weaken the PKK as much as operationally possible, curb its affiliate’s aspirations in Syria, paralyse and discredit the HDP and dilute its influence by nurturing alternative Kurdish actors.
A year after examining the human cost of the conflict in Sur, Crisis Group looks in this report at Nusaybin, on the Syrian border, an area deeply impacted by the recent cycle of violent escalation between the PKK and the Turkish state. The report assesses the extent to which Turkey’s strategy is yielding desired results as opposed to unintended consequences, as well as how the conflict’s human cost and its social and political fallout might be better managed.
II. Nusaybin: Conflict Dynamics and Narratives
A. The Surge of Violence
Nusaybin, in Mardin province at the border with Syria and with a population of around 120,000, predominately Kurdish, many of whom have relatives in the Syrian town of Qamishli, is a political stronghold of the Kurdish movement. The town is strategically important for Ankara due to its close proximity to Qamishli, which is predominately PYD-controlled.
The HDP won 90.4 and 89.4 per cent of the vote in Nusaybin in the June and November 2015 parliamentary elections respectively. Political consolidation paralleled a surge in Kurdish nationalism in the town, where the PKK had begun during the peace process (2013-2015) to mobilise youths. After the June vote, members of the PKK’s youth wing, YDG-H (Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement), became more active in the town and the main actors in the ensuing fighting.
Nusaybin saw unprecedented violence in 2016, with a death toll of at least 184, of whom 24 were civilians. Six of the town centre’s fifteen neighbourhoods were fully destroyed; some 6,000 buildings were demolished or heavily damaged; around 30,000 people lost their homes. While officially the town lost 10 per cent of its residents in 2016, a local source estimated the decrease at around 35 per cent.
With the help of PKK militants, some of the town’s youths dug trenches and set up barricades in the Fırat, Abdulkadir Paşa, Yenişehir and Dicle neighbourhoods (see map in Appendix B below). Because state security forces first focused on operations in Sur and Cizre, PKK militants temporarily were able to control parts of Nusaybin, which they and some civilians perceived as “liberated”.
When small, intermittent security operations began in October 2015, the number of trenches and barricades was estimated by local sources at around 150. By March 2016, just before large military operations began, that figure had increased to 450-500, a majority of which were barricades erected with cobblestones removed from roads.
PKK propaganda in the town stimulated “self-defence” sentiment by playing up allegations that security forces had burned civilians in basements in Cizre. Between 1 October 2015 and 25 July 2016, security forces imposed seven curfews, the last of which was declared on 14 March and lasted 134 days. During this intensive phase of clashes, the curfew was only lifted at brief intervals to allow civilians to escape. A middle-aged man who lost his home explained:
Some armed militants came to our house and asked me to arm myself and resist with them. I didn’t want to join and left my home together with my wife and kids. When we returned after the curfew was lifted in our neighbourhood for a short while, our house had been burnt down completely.
This sense of being squeezed between the state and the PKK was particularly felt by women. Some mothers said they had begged their sons to leave the region, do seasonal work or join relatives in other provinces so they would not be taken by PKK militants. Women said they were tormented by guilt for having left fighting sons and daughters behind in Nusaybin. “I should have died with my three sons” a mother said, in tears. Others related stories of grandmothers who during the curfews and clashes continued to knit socks “to send to their boys in the mountains”. Some fretted their teenagers had been indoctrinated or forcibly recruited by the PKK and they had nowhere to turn for help.
While many Nusaybin residents felt caught between powerful forces, some were motivated and emboldened to support the PKK youths. Others were pressured to take part in active fighting and give logistical help. Yet others left town once a curfew was announced, because they knew the security forces would interpret their presence as support for the PKK, so they might become targets. Curfews continued to be imposed in rural areas of Nusaybin throughout late winter/early spring.
B. Who Is at Fault? Conflict Narratives
While the conflict essentially is being fought between the PKK and the state, its binary nature is blurred by the conviction of government representatives that Gülenist (FETÖ) infiltration and deception also is involved. According to the official discourse, FETÖ-linked cadres have nestled in the state for years, pursuing their own agenda, for instance allowing the PKK to build itself up militarily in some south-east districts during the peace process. Hard-line Kurdish factions close to the PKK, on the other hand, allege that state agents infiltrated the insurgency and orchestrated the escalation in order eventually to discredit the legal Kurdish movement and provide grounds for criminalising its representatives. Amid rampant speculation, retrospective re-interpretations of how escalation was prepared and advanced feed into parallel conflict narratives.
Government officials generally acknowledge they tolerated PKK activity during the 2.5-year peace process so as not to disrupt the talks and on the assumption the mobilisation would dissipate voluntarily once a deal was reached.
But, as noted, some also now say FETÖ played a role in the PKK mobilisation, alleging that FETÖ-linked governors, police chiefs and military commanders acted in ways that put the government in a difficult situation, including purposely underreporting the gravity of the security problem in the south east. Police suspected of FETÖ ties were disproportionately represented in the south east: in the wake of the December 2013 corruption allegations against the government, which officials equated with a “judicial coup”, the authorities dispatched those with suspected ties to the Gülenist movement to the area – a decision in line with the traditional practice of sending untrustworthy bureaucrats to the east to live in relatively poor conditions. The paradoxical result, according to Ankara-based state officials, was to put “risky” cadres in positions from where they could undermine the political leadership.
Some local AKP politicians are convinced that “contacts” between FETÖ-linked police and soldiers stationed in the south east started in 2011. Osman Doğru, the former AKP district head of Nusaybin, said:
FETÖ-linked law enforcement personnel turned a blind eye to the entrenchment of PKK in the town. They did not inform their superiors [in Ankara]. The governor would even inform PKK of the whistle-blowers [within PKK, who gave information to the police and the military] so that PKK could punish them. The police allowed PKK to threaten people to vote for HDP in the 7 June elections. It is no coincidence that the former governor, various commanders/generals, police chiefs and chiefs of intelligence units were later arrested for being linked to FETÖ.
After the failed coup, such convictions spread more widely in Ankara. Of the four Mardin governors from 2011 to 2016, two have been arrested, and one suspended on FETÖ-related charges.
The fourth, Ömer Faruk Koçak, who served between February 2015 and May 2016, is now governor in the western Aydın province and vocal in asserting a FETÖ role in the failure to prevent PKK mobilisation in Nusaybin.
Koçak told the press a month after the coup attempt that FETÖ-linked military commanders had caused the district’s high death toll. Three of those in charge of Nusaybin operations were arrested.
He said he warned these generals that the PKK had dug tunnels in the neighbourhoods to move fighters and weapons, but they did not act, allegedly because they wanted to produce chaos, including by not responding to his requests for military help when clashes became too intense for the police, leading to a six-month delay in producing a sufficient security response. He also said they tried to get him to authorise attacks on civilian areas and house demolitions and intentionally drove up casualties by sending troops to streets where they would be killed.
In contrast, Kurdish movement representatives vehemently deny FETÖ responsibility for the conflict getting out of hand. Those within or close to the HDP do not deny the existence of a Gülen network but say it was always nationalistic and thus had done the most harm to their movement, so collaboration was out of the question. “Even if Gülen … affiliates were adversarial toward the AKP or used their media outlets for negative AKP coverage in the run up to the June elections, this cannot be construed as collaboration per se with the Kurdish movement”, one argued.
Some critics of the AKP from traditional nationalist circles, such as those within or close to the MHP and the military, also point out that – far from the government being kept uninformed by alleged Gülenists nestled in the state apparatus – much information was being sent to the AKP and state institutions about PKK activity, and the state was aware of PKK mobilisation during the peace process.
A very different narrative of infiltration is propagated among the Kurdish movement by critics who argue that the state orchestrated the escalation in the south east. They say the state started to plot from the time the AKP lost its parliamentary majority in the June elections to create grounds for dealing severe blows to districts considered PKK hotbeds and eliminate the political threat the HDP posed to AKP majority rule. Ankara allegedly was determined to nip Kurdish aspirations in the bud because of its concern over the rise to prominence of the YPG/PYD in Syria and in light of the AKP decision to seek nationalist votes for its project of establishing an executive presidential system.
Under this view, the government allowed PKK-linked militants to mobilise for an urban fight so as to have an excuse to crack down on them. “Why else would the state watch for 45 days as trenches and barricades were being built by the neighbourhood youth in Nusaybin”, a DBP member asked, “and allow the people to think that PKK was going to win this battle”?
Kurdish movement representatives say the state calculated that holding off as the PKK mobilised would embolden the insurgents to pursue self-rule initiatives that could then justify a crackdown; criminalisation of HDP politicians; and destruction of neighbourhoods that would subsequently enable a security-oriented reconstruction – wide streets, large police stations – that would make it impossible for the PKK to prevent future state access to districts.
In the absence of a free and open debate and with critical voices curtailed, it may take years to learn the real reasons for state and PKK strategies.
Conflict narratives involving infiltration and betrayal abound in Nusaybin, where a sense that “agents” are everywhere is prevalent. This is compounded by official pressure to express only the government narrative in public; alternative views are seen as unpatriotic or charged as criminal acts “supporting terrorist interests” or other offences against state authorities. In the absence of a free and open debate and with critical voices curtailed, it may take years to learn the real reasons for state and PKK strategies. Until then, speculation/conspiracy theories will compound the feelings of many that they are victims of games by big players that destroyed their livelihoods.
III. Crackdown on the Kurdish Movement
Ankara has systematically sought to silence, discredit and marginalise the HDP and its DBP sister party, particularly after the June 2015 parliamentary election in which HDP received 13 per cent of the national vote and the AKP lost its absolute majority. Most unprecedented has been removal of elected DBP mayors and the transfer of their responsibilities to governors or district governors already in office under a September 2016 amendment of the law on municipalities that allows trustees to be appointed to substitute for elected mayors or municipal council members “who have engaged in or supported terrorism”.
The removal of Kurdish movement representatives was followed by widespread purges of municipal staff on charges of PKK affiliation after the declaration of emergency rule in July 2016.
So far, 136 DBP co-mayors have been removed, 84 of whom have been arrested, while the interior ministry has appointed 83 trustees to run relevant municipalities.
The government justified the municipal upheavals as necessary to establish public order and security as well as provide better service. But the removal of elected figures and staff with local familiarity has had concrete negative impacts, particularly on use of the Kurdish language and access to services related to women’s needs.
Nationally, HDP parliamentarians and locally HDP branch officers have been victims of a crackdown, coinciding with the 16 April referendum campaign. The state also has sought to empower alternative Kurdish actors in an effort to drive a wedge between Kurdish movement representatives and their supporters. That there have not been large street protests against the crackdown has led to state/AKP assumptions that support for the movement is diminishing, but Crisis Group field research suggests that a critical mass in the region disapproves of the current state policies and continues to back the Kurdish movement.
A. Dismissals from Municipalities and Relative Public Silence
In the last local elections (2014), the DBP won at the provincial level. Ahmet Türk, one of the Kurdish movement’s most moderate and inclusive figures, became mayor of Mardin metropolitan municipality. The DBP also won seven of Mardin’s nine districts, the AKP two.
Today, however, the metropolitan municipality and the seven district municipalities are run by state-appointed trustees. Türk was arrested in November 2016, charged with “providing money to PKK and being a member of the PKK”. He was released on 3 February 2017. Sara Aydın and Cengiz Kök, co-mayors of Nusaybin, where DBP won 78.8 per cent of the vote, are in prison, charged with supporting the PKK.
After the appointment of trustees, many municipality employees were suspended for alleged connections to the PKK/Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK). A 22 November 2016 executive decree dismissed 413 employees of municipalities across Mardin on the same charges. Nusaybin municipality lost half its personnel that day.
The UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) has underlined concern that “the collective nature of the dismissals and suspensions pose the questions of legality of the grounds for dismissals and the arbitrariness of the precautionary nature of announced dismissals [as well as], the absence of a legal remedy …”. Ahmet Türk told Crisis Group:
Informants supposedly gave information that money was being funnelled to the PKK from my municipality. But we always carried out all our tenders openly and transparently. We have been inspected regularly. There was no irregularity. They also said money was cut from workers’ salaries to send to the PKK. To-tally groundless. They alleged we had hired people close to the PKK, but every family in the region has a member close to the PKK, so, if they want to try to find links, they always can.… An explosion was carried out by PKK that involved our municipality disinfestation truck. I had reported that this truck had been confiscated hours before. They accused me anyway.
HDP local officials assert charges are based on unidentified informants because inspections of activities and accounts found no wrongdoing. An ex-employee said she was purged on informant information, “but we believe it was totally arbitrary. Saying there was a secret informant is just a way to proceed without evidence”.
While the HDP is the Kurdish movement’s main legal political actor, the DBP operates at the local administration/municipality level on its behalf and is known to be more hardline, arguably with closer PKK links. Various moderate HDP figures hold that PKK sympathisers in the DBP municipalities across the region acted with the insurgency by declaring autonomy and igniting “self-defence”-oriented violence, using municipal personnel to aid militants with material and logistical support. This in turn, they argue, gave the state the excuse to remove elected representatives.
The many staff who have not only lost jobs but been dismissed from professions cannot find other work, so have trouble sustaining themselves and sending their children to school.
As one explained, the process of appealing dismissal has been in flux, necessitating multiple renewed applications, most recently with the announcement of a central commission in January that is not yet operational. Given how slow judicial processes are – particularly after the post-coup purges of prosecutors and judges and the unwillingness of lawyers to take up terrorism-charge cases – there is little confidence in legal remedies. And court cases, of course, require money. Locals sympathetic to the HDP view all this as “punishment” geared to them. A dismissed municipal employee said:
I think this is all an effort to create obstacles, stall processes, gain time, so that we cannot apply to the ECHR [European Court of Human Rights] for a long time. It is also an effort to frustrate and create fatigue among us. In this region we already de facto lived under emergency rule, now it is the emergency rule of the emergency rule.
A local functionary of HDP’s Mardin branch described crackdown consequences:
Most who work for our party are in prison. The number of police per capita here has skyrocketed. Those of us not in prison are subject to intimidation and harassment. They disperse our party meetings saying they are illegal and search our party office. They use emergency rule to disperse any gathering. We cannot express ourselves …. Security forces collected 16,000 of our 2017 calendars be-cause they had the picture of Demirtaş [imprisoned HDP co-chair] on the cover. Why this level of crackdown? The aim is to get people to give up, … to shut them up, to marginalise, criminalise them. They want … the connection between our HQ and the field to be severed. This is why they are arresting our party’s employees. We are the only force against dictatorship, and they want us to give up … for the sake of the president’s power consolidation.
Mardin HDP parliamentarian Mithat Sancar confirmed grassroots contacts have become very difficult because the mayors, HDP district branch representatives and NGO activists close to the party have been arrested. They were the ones who ordinarily organised constituency gatherings and HDP legislators’ visits from Ankara.
That said, while HDP and DBP activities have been seriously curtailed, there are conflicting views about the effect on constituency loyalty. The dismissed employees say they continue to do party work in their free time – which they now have more of – and that public support for Kurdish movement representatives has if anything increased. In contrast, AKP representatives and state authorities say they are gradually winning away HDP and DBP supporters who are angry at their elected representatives for complicity with or outright support for the PKK. This, they say, is why there was no serious protest in Mardin or elsewhere in the region when Kurdish movement representatives were removed from office. However, a closer look reveals that the restrictive environment is an important reason for the silence; indeed among some elements, being marginalised has firmed up support for the movement.
In light of the limited space for expression of dissent and the crackdown that has imprisoned figures who might mobilise such dissent, there is no straightforward way to gauge public sentiment. HDP supporters say the main reasons for silence are fear of persecution and lack of conviction that protest can bring positive change. Where locals organised protest or issued statements, some faced dismissal, detention or closure of their organisations, and that now apparently deters others from taking to the streets.
The heavy security presence is also a deterrent. The municipality building’s high walls and barbed wire and the tanks that surround it to guard against a PKK attack are reminders that calm may be skin-deep. A local described a feeling that the municipality is run by “invaders”: “They erect so many Turkish flags that it is as if they didn’t think this was part of Turkey before, and now they have taken it”.
Some […] are fatigued by conflict and destruction and would prefer the state to provide security and address economic needs over continued conflict.
Some disillusionment at the apparent futility of HDP political efforts also has contributed to contradictory leanings among locals essentially aligned with the Kurdish movement. Some, resenting the PKK for urban warfare, are fatigued by conflict and destruction and would prefer the state to provide security and address economic needs over continued conflict.
They note that the region’s people have had better conditions in recent years with urbanisation, increased access to health facilities and education, improvements in state and municipal services and, while it lasted, the peace process. But for more ideologically-driven, reactive youths, escalation of fighting and removal of elected representatives underscore the need for an armed option and fuel motivation to join the PKK. An HDP Mardin branch representative explained: “Our constituency is telling us, you are being snubbed; the will [of those] you represent is being trampled on; why don’t you just give up legal politics”?
While government efforts to marginalise the HDP seem to be working in the short run to cripple its mobilisation and silence it in public, it also sets in motion a dynamic that in the long run is likely to produce unintended consequences. The crackdown ignites a reaction among the most dedicated in the Kurdish movement: with political channels closed, those who believe armed means are legitimate feel empowered, playing into PKK hands. Designating non-violent Kurdish movement supporters as national security threats or terrorists or defining the “enemy” too broadly not only violates rights, but also hinders efforts against the PKK. Closing non-violent channels and decreasing confidence the state can distinguish real threat from political critic significantly limit options for ultimately settling the conflict.
Measuring Kurdish opinion by the April referendum is tricky. Though the margin was narrow, Ankara has interpreted the support of a presidential system as approval by Turkish nationalists and some segments of Kurds for its hardline approach to the Kurdish movement. That the “yes” vote from Kurdish majority provinces was 10 per cent higher than the AKP’s vote in the November 2015 elections feeds into the claim that more Kurds now support that policy. There are methodology pitfalls in comparing two elections with distinct dynamics, however.
Voter turnout in the referendum was also lower in these provinces than it was in the parliamentary election. Focusing on the higher than anticipated “yes” totals in some provinces downplays the considerable majority that voted “no” despite much pressure. In the sensitive environment in which allegations of irregularities are being voiced, Ankara should abstain from interpretations and discourse that increase the sense of alienation among “no” voters. It is also important to show that claims of state pressure and voting violations are investigated transparently.
Some Kurds do believe that if anyone can solve the Kurdish issue, it is likely to be the further empowered President Erdoğan and anticipate his return to a constructive agenda. A larger number, however, appear to have no confidence in an end to escalation as long as he is in power and expect the PKK to resume higher levels of attacks.
- Municipal Service vs. Representation – Trust vs. Trustees
While elimination of political representation causes significant grievance among local residents who voted for the DBP, state appointees are realising some expedited infrastructure projects. In both the Mardin metropolitan and Nusaybin district municipalities, the authorities are trying to show that living conditions will improve without the DBP. They are aided by the fact that trustee-run municipalities can work more closely with central state institutions, allowing for more funding and more efficient decision-making. However, they typically are not trusted by the people they are charged with serving, and are less accessible due to heavy security and language barriers (particular upper echelons, who mostly know no Kurdish). Also, DBP municipality services geared to the needs of women have significantly weakened.
Nusaybin’s district governor, Ergün Baysal, now running the town’s municipality as trustee, said that compared to the DBP’s time, government works much better:
With the same budget, we can do much more. They financed 100 people, for example, for cleaning, but only half would really be doing that job. We have twinned Nusaybin and Kocaeli metropolitan municipality. Kocaeli has partnered to build four new parks in Nusaybin, for example. They transfer know-how to the staff here. They share equipment and personnel when needed. We have many new projects, developing sports facilities, a condolence house, a mosque and monastery, a walking track, improved lightening and infrastructure for sewage, water and roads. We have fewer personnel, but we hire on meritocracy, unlike HDP that chose on allegiance. We can better coordinate with central state institutions, increasing productivity.
It may be too early to see all results, given the tumultuous first six months, he added, but the difference will be apparent in the next six, when the new projects are actualised. “Locals who judge us on the basis of service will see we deliver more than those they elected did”.
This may be so. Crisis Group observed in January 2016 in Diyarbakır that lack of cooperation between state institutions and DBP municipalities tended to have an important effect on service delivery. The state knows it cannot win over ideological, dedicated Kurdish movement supporters by performance, but it is trying to appeal to citizens who may have voted for HDP but can become more favourable toward the Ankara political leadership if living conditions improve. While entering the municipality building is cumbersome for locals because of beefed-up security, it is easily justified: “The threat is real. Where security is lax, PKK attacks!”
Try as the appointed trustees may, however, some elements of municipal service are inevitably weaker. One reason is that the many new staff mean loss of institutional memory; the new employees often also do not know the local context, feel affinity for the people or places they serve or see their future as intertwined with the district’s.
Locals lament that they are not comfortable enough to come in and complain when they are displeased with services, as they did when their elected representatives were in office. The reluctance to visit the municipality is particularly pronounced among women. That services are not available in Kurdish is an additional obstacle to accessibility.
Because the HDP and DBP implemented a gender quota, proactively recruited many women as staff in the municipalities they ran and carried out activities aimed at maternal and reproductive health care, domestic violence and/or access to credit facilities, their female constituencies have been affected disproportionately by the municipal staff changes. Overall, the networks set up by previous cadres and their social policies have mostly stopped functioning.
All 96 female HDP and DBP co-mayors in the region have been removed from office. Arrest warrants were issued for 35, mostly for aiding and abetting the PKK or PKK membership; 32 of 84 co-mayors in prison are women.
In many municipalities, female employees have been dismissed or relegated to powerless positions. In most districts where trustees have been appointed, the women’s centres have been closed or their activities suspended. This is also the case in Nusaybin, where the female co-mayor, Sara Aydın, was sentenced in March 2016 to five years in prison for “membership in an armed group” and “committing crime in the name of such a group”, and another year and three months for “inciting hatred in the public”. She remains in prison.
A former Mardin metropolitan municipality female employee recounted: “They appointed a man as the head of the women’s centre in the metropolitan municipality. They reduced the number of women working at the municipality by 80 per cent”.
She worries that the lack of female staff may prevent women from making formal complaints about domestic violence. She also said the centre’s name had been changed to “family centre”, reflecting the government’s conservative, stereotyped approach to gender roles that tends to associate women’s issues solely with childbearing and marriage, and to value family integrity and conservative values over women’s individual rights and liberties. Moreover, HDP supporters suspect the women hired by the state appointees of being wives of civil servants or police officials from other provinces, stationed in the region, alien to the local social fabric and with no particular background in municipality affairs.
In light of the sensitivity attached to bringing domestic problems outside the home and distrust of the state, losing trusted municipality figures can have real consequences as to whether women seek help when faced with domestic violence or need other support. Going to the police is even more feared, because its staff generally lacks gender awareness and is widely seen as an extension of the state counter-terrorism apparatus.
Given the vulnerability of women in Nusaybin, the loss of the safety net provided by having women representatives in the municipalities has come at the worst possible time. The risk of rising rates of domestic violence in the post-conflict period requires monitoring and proactive inclusion of trusted local women in all public outreach efforts by authorities, be it on urban planning, creating jobs or psycho-social support.
Ultimately, though the state has sought to provide effective municipal services to constituencies whose representatives it removed from office, superior services are unlikely to make up for any infringement of people’s right to be governed by officials they elect. Ideally, elections would be held so new local representatives not tainted in the state’s eyes for cooperation with the PKK could be chosen. In the absence of this, appointees running municipalities and local state institutions should carry out more inclusive decision-making and engage the people they serve more deliberately and systematically.
C. Can an Alternative to the Kurdish Movement Gain Traction?
Ankara often has tried to nurture Kurdish actors without even indirect PKK ties to create an alternative for Kurds who want their identity represented politically.
According to local sources and Ankara officials, this also is an element of the strategy to marginalise the HDP. There are signs in the region that point to such an undertaking. The Turkish Kurdistan Democratic Party (T-KDP), an operationally-independent branch of President Masoud Barzani’s party in northern Iraq, was reestablished after 49 years in 2014. Other legal but small Kurdish political parties (PAK, PSK, Hak-Par, PAKURD, Azadi movement, Hüda-Par, etc.), some which, on paper, appear to voice more radical demands than the PKK or the HDP, have been invited to hold informal workshops with significant clan representatives and religious leaders. Some local stakeholders in this initiative consider that influential but conservative HDP representatives with whom the government thinks it can work might also eventually consider engaging on such a platform. A leading clan member and ex-village guard who has joined related discussions said:
Our aim is to create a new movement that will not have any armed force behind it, but will be a Kurdish alternative for the people in the region. Around 80 per cent of Kurdish voters vote for the HDP because there is no other Kurdish alternative [emphasis added]. When there is competition and they [Kurds] see that there is an unarmed alternative, they will support it.… Barzani is an important figure for the people in the region. He can mobilise them to support this alternative party.
State representatives confirm that “creating other actors so the HDP and PKK seem less like the only representatives of Kurdish identity” is being considered.
This, officials say, is viewed as a way to break the monopoly of the “PKK-friendly” HDP.
However, such an initiative with no real social base is not likely to get much traction under current circumstances and risks engendering both inner-Kurdish friction and more animosity toward Ankara by supporters of the Kurdish movement.
Barzani is well-respected among mostly conservative Kurds in Turkey, but in the short-run, given the lack of a real social base, discrepancies among the respective visions of the other parties/factions and the dominance of the HDP, DBP and PKK, a new Kurdish political actor seems unlikely to be a game-changer. A loose coalition of diverse Kurdish actors, if formed, likely would attract conservative Kurds who already vote AKP; more broadly, any state effort to nurture an alternative movement probably would be viewed sceptically by Kurdish movement supporters and face serious threats from the PKK. Nevertheless some pundits believe that if President Erdoğan is willing to take up longstanding legitimate Kurdish demands like full mother-tongue education, such an alternative actor eventually might gain traction.
That Hüda-Par (Free Cause Party), a small Sunni-Islamist Kurdish political party, openly supported the “yes” campaign in the referendum was widely seen as a reflection of the political leadership’s efforts to nurture relations with alternative Kurdish entities. In his speech in Istanbul on the night of the referendum, Erdoğan specifically thanked Hüda-Par for its support, thus strengthening belief further collaboration is envisioned.
IV. Remedying the Human and Material Losses
A. Rebuilding Homes and Lives
As noted above, between March and June 2016, some 6,000 buildings that had housed around 30,000 individuals in six of fifteen urban neighbourhoods of Nusaybin were heavily damaged or destroyed.
Locals believe a majority of the destruction was conducted deliberately by the security forces after operations had ended. Many consider the flattening of these neighbourhoods was unnecessary, disproportionate and meant to punish the residents for supporting the Kurdish political movement or PKK. Reflecting a wider perception, a resident said:
Only around 5 per cent of the buildings in the six conflict neighbourhoods were damaged as a result of fighting. Despite that, the military came in and demolished all other buildings. This was not necessary. They are trying to punish us.
Officials say most buildings were destroyed during clashes, but others had to be demolished later as uninhabitable or because PKK militants had planted bombs in them and dug tunnels beneath them. “During the clean-up of rubble, our security forces were detonating around 70 explosives a day planted in the houses. This was one of the main reasons why the whole process took so long in Nusaybin”, a Turkish official explained.
Plans for Nusaybin’s reconstruction were announced on 6 December, when Minister of Environment and Urban Planning Mehmet Özhaseki visited and said in a speech in the town, “… now it is time for the government to show its compassionate face; now it is time for construction and recovery”. His ministry announced that day that the Zeynel Abidin neighbourhood, located in the southern part of the town adjacent to the Syria border, would be turned into a “security corridor” and not fully rebuilt.
Turkish officials said the neighbourhood was designated an archaeological site, hence not suitable for housing complexes. Authorities also confirmed that reconstruction of other neighbourhoods would not replicate the narrow streets and irregular buildings that made it easier for PKK militants to build up militarily, penetrate and fight security forces.
Environment and urban planning ministry officials explained that as compensation for their destroyed houses, residents will have three options: new flats in demolished neighbourhoods of Nusaybin; stand-alone houses with barns/gardens reflecting previous life patterns in a “reserve area” around 3km outside Nusaybin; and housing complexes provided by the Housing Development Administration (TOKİ) in other provinces, based on availability.
The size of the new flats will correspond with that of a resident’s lost property. Residents who opt for a larger flat will be able to apply for bank loans at reduced interest rates. The option of stand-alone houses – with 135, 160 or 185 sq. metres for living and 500 sq. metres of private gardens suitable for animals – will apply only if sufficient residents choose it.
If they prefer moving to Istanbul, Ankara, Hakkari or other cities, valuation will apply, and they may need to pay the difference. Residents with damaged or destroyed belongings will also receive 12 per cent of the value of their demolished houses after they sign a contract agreeing to one of the three options.
Following the initial displacement, the district governorate apparently paid displaced citizens who applied a monthly social aid of some 600 Turkish liras (TL, about $160). A total of 6.5 million TL (about $1.8 million) was paid to 13,000 people by the interior ministry through local governorates. The environment and urban planning ministry disburses another form of assistance monthly, rent aid of 745 TL (about $200), to displaced residents who sign contracts for new housing. These are negotiated at the local Urban Transformation Bureau that opened on 8 February in the centre of Nusaybin. Since then, ministry officials say, 100 to 150 residents visit daily.
As of 5 April, 183 residents had signed contracts with the ministry for flats in the central neighbourhoods. None so far has opted for stand-alone houses in the reserve area or asked for housing in another city. Judging from experience in other conflict districts such as Silopi, ministry officials estimate that as the word spreads promises are being kept, sign-ups will quickly increase. Residents with a title deed (around 70 to 80 per cent of those who lost homes) will also be compensated for their land value, while residents without one will still receive a deed for a new house. It is envisioned that residents with title deeds are also to be compensated for half the value of their previous gardens/barns. Irrespective of whether they signed contracts, a lump sum payment of 5,000 TL (about $1,400) for belongings began to be distributed in March to residents who lost houses.
After the clearing of rubble was completed in February and March 2017, the ground-breaking ceremony in Nusaybin was held on 30 March. During the ceremony, the environment and urban planning minister announced that construction of some 4,500 housing units was to be completed toward the end of the year.
Nevertheless, despite diligent efforts by the central government and their local outposts to compensate for material losses, residents complain that the process has dragged along, and they have been promised a lot without concrete results.
Many still bemoan that reconstruction plans do not meet their demands. Some say they would rather get back their land and receive money to rebuild the houses themselves. Ministry officials say they try to keep affected residents informed by text messages and public meetings, but locals say public communication has been delayed and inconsistent.
Indeed, Nusaybin residents asked Crisis Group staff whether they had information on what was being planned and steps they would have to take.
Local HDP representatives criticise the government for a security-oriented approach to rebuilding and reconstruction. They say the process is managed top down, without much consideration of the resident’s demands and needs.
Crisis Group observed, however, that the state is demonstrating a distinct effort to take into consideration people’s demands and wishes. More problematic is that reconstruction is largely equated with physical rebuilding of houses dominated by security considerations, neglecting the need for regenerating the town’s social fabric and economic life and providing adequate psycho-social support. A middle-aged woman who lost her home in Nusaybin and had to move to an apartment in nearby Mersin province said:
I used to live here with my family and all my social circles. I used to visit my friends who were next door. Now everyone is spread out. It will be impossible to rebuild the life I had here. They think building us houses will remedy our losses, but what about my family, relatives, social life? … Once we move to apartment complexes, women like me will not be able to leave home. This happened to many women from around here who had to leave their previous housing. They got stuck home because their family would not let them wander around among strangers, and the women had psychological distress and physical ailments from not getting outside the house.
Other women expressed similar concerns, worried about proximity to health centres or familiar neighbours.
Indeed, being driven from their homes impacts women in unique terms of daily life and psychological health. Some interviewees were months later still recounting their lost belongings, memories and social circles. Women’s participation in public life and mobility are drastically curbed when they no longer live among neighbours and vendors whom their family knows well or to whom they are related. There are cultural and economic barriers to socialisation outside their homes and visiting markets or hospitals. Officials in charge of designing the new compounds, however, explained that residents who sign contracts for housing will have the chance to choose flats near their preferred families, and health centres, grocery shops and the like would all be in close proximity.
State initiatives to address post-conflict traumas and deep-seated grievances to enable rebuilding of lives and show improved practices have been far from adequate. The provincial head of the family and social affairs ministry in Mardin said publicly in September 2016 that 34 staff members had given psychological support to 13,ooo families in Nusaybin.
Crisis Group interviews with ex-social workers sent there suggest, however, that rather than psychological support, the work was aimed at identifying material needs and residents’ personal/family details. An ex-social worker whose duty was in Mersin province and whom the ministry appointed to one of the field teams said he was informed only a day in advance:
We began our work without any prior information or briefing on the situation/conditions there and what the aim of our mission was. They gave us … meaningless survey questions that had nothing to do with psychological support and explicitly told us to ask about nothing else.
Another problem was that social workers centrally appointed to conflict regions did not speak Kurdish. One appointed to Şırnak’s Cizre said, “we were there for two weeks but were not able to speak to 40 per cent of the people because no one in the team could translate Kurdish. We reported this to our superiors, but no measures were taken …. We filled in the forms with whatever information we could get”.
Some residents did not respond to questions or let the social workers enter their houses. Some perceived questions like “where is your husband?” as an effort to determine if the family’s head took part in active fighting or joined the PKK ranks. Adequate psychological support is needed to address the main drivers of the conflict and the multiple layers of grievances.
The state’s physical reconstruction plans largely recognise the complexity of people’s needs and rights, and authorities try to accommodate preferences in this regard. While officials explain the time it has taken to begin building new housing as normal, given the infrastructure and technical work entailed, residents who are fundamentally suspicious about any state initiative tend to perceive delays as intentional. Implementation and communication challenges trigger concerns about officials’ sincerity. More effective dissemination of information through local authorities is needed so residents clearly understand how and when the reconstruction process will proceed and to avoid ungrounded speculation the PKK is keen to capitalise on.
B. The Economic Cost
The conflict’s economic cost has profoundly impacted lives in Nusaybin. Small shop owners and tradesmen living on border trade have been hit particularly hard. Around 2,500 of 4,500 small shops/businesses (tailors, barbers, welders, servicemen, grocers, restaurants, etc.) were damaged. After the curfew was lifted on 25 July 2016, 1,000 went bankrupt.
Though the state has offered some compensation and the option to apply for interest-free loans of up to 30,000 TL ($8,300), shop owners complain this does not cover losses, and bureaucratic obstacles make access to resources difficult. A shoe-seller explained:
During the operations, I lost goods/materials at the value of around 120,000 TL [$33,000]. I presented all invoices of the goods that were in my shop as proof. Despite that, the district governorate offered me compensation of only 3000 TL [$830]. Of course, I did not accept.
Local shop owners and tradesmen also cite looting, allegedly by security force members, as the main cause of losses. A local business association representative said:
Right after the main operations in Nusaybin began in March and everyone had left the town, around 2,500 shops were completely plundered. These were shops in areas where no active fighting was ongoing and which were under the control of security forces. The people lost all their goods; their lives have been completely shattered.
Compensation for economic losses and restoration of Nusaybin’s bazaar are important not only to revive economic activity, but also to show the state stands by residents. As time goes by, belief that the state will take concrete steps is withering.
Nusaybin, on the historical Silk Road, has traditionally been a regional trade centre. Following the drawing of modern Turkey’s borders, legal and illegal border trade/smuggling shaped its economy, and in the late 1980s Nusaybin was one of the centres where new electronic devices of all sorts could be found.
It was also a transit hub for trade from Europe to the Middle East. “In the ‘80s Nusaybin was the Dubai of the Middle East”, Gani Bilge, president of its Chamber of Merchants and Craftsmen, explained.
On 8 December 2011, Syria closed the Girmeli border crossing from Nusaybin to Qamishli, telling Turkish officials it was for “repair and maintenance”.
The closure was politically influenced, however, by Turkey’s anti-Assad stance. It came four days after the Syrian regime imposed a 30 per cent tax on Turkish goods and a day after Ankara said it would respond with the same tax on Syrian goods. The border crossing to Qamishli had been an important trade route for small businesses and tradesmen, with some 1,000 people using it daily. Local shopkeepers brought tea, sugar and agricultural products such as cotton and linen as well as fuel oil and spices from Syria; manufactured goods such as carpets and flour were sold to Syrian buyers.
The closure has also hit larger companies operating out of Mardin province hard. Business owners complain they must take long detours to the Öncüpınar border gate in Kilis, 430km from Nusaybin, to send goods across the border, some of which end up in Qamishli city. Turkey’s decision to build a wall along the Syrian border in 2013 made border trade nearly impossible, further crippling Nusaybin’s main economic activity. Kurdish movement representatives say the wall’s aim is to cut off Kurds’ social, economic and political relations, while the authorities cite security concerns, including illicit crossings of PKK militants and weapons.
Only ten months before the closure, a promising step had been taken to modernise the Nusaybin Border Gate and turn it into a Customs Gate mutually operated by Turkey and Syria. Ground was broken on 26 February 2011.
The plan was to open the gate that August, but construction was never finalised.
Since the new cycle of conflict began, exports in Mardin province (with an economy based on agriculture, construction, agro-industries, tourism and logistics) fell from a $1 billion value in 2014 to around $860 million in 2015, and $880 million in 2016. Closures of the Habur gate at the Iraq border, 142km east of Nusaybin for 22 days between 14 December and 5 January 2017 and of the Mardin Organised Industrial Zone for 43 days for security reasons dealt further blows to the province’s export-driven economy. A local businessman said 90 per cent of Mardin’s nearly 270 export companies’ business was channelled to northern Iraq through the Habur gate: had it been closed one more week, all would have gone bankrupt.
Mardin’s tourism fell 60-70 per cent in 2016, according to local sources. With a history dating to the eleventh century, Mardin has a rich fabric of cultures, languages and religions.
The province attracted up to a million foreign and domestic tourists per year in 2013 and 2014, when the peace process was ongoing, and the south east was relatively quiet. Some prominent hotels had to close after violence increased; shopkeepers also suffered severe tourism losses.
Unemployment […] is on the rise, contributing to radicalisation of youth and PKK recruitment.
Unemployment, an endemic south-east problem, is on the rise, contributing to radicalisation of youth and PKK recruitment. A 2014 study found that the age for militants to join the PKK is between fifteen and 21; prior to joining, 1 per cent worked in the public sector, 21 per cent in the private sector, with 78 per cent unemployed.
Supporting small businesses, providing more economic incentives to local businesses and reviving the economy in conflict districts would help generate jobs, bring more well-being to the region and create grounds for citizens to envision improved lives. These steps also would help discourage some youths from joining the PKK. It would be especially important for towns where not only lives and homes, but also jobs were massively lost.
Such measures are vital to mitigate the negative impact of the lengthy PKK conflict on Turkey’s economy and public well-being.
In the short-run, satisfactorily compensating the financial losses of small businesses in the region is crucial to restore local trust and win hearts and minds. In the long-run, the state needs to invest more in providing and institutionalising services. Holistic reconstruction needs to include comprehensive plans for reactivating economic life and revitalising local business.
Options allowing controlled border trade could considerably reinvigorate economic activity in Nusaybin.
Nusaybin residents in the last year have experienced what many first felt was a PKK siege and now liken to occupation by Ankara. After witnessing disproportionate destruction, suspension of many rights under emergency rule and removal from office of their chosen politicians, a sense of hopelessness reigns. Ankara needs to better understand that giving physical compensation for property does not restore lifestyles and social fabric; efficient municipal services provided by state appointees do not compensate for the loss of elected representatives; and imposing allegiance to the state or conservative religious outlooks does not erode the Kurdish movement and its ideological pull. To counter the perception that what happened in Nusaybin resulted from the state’s hostility to their identity, residents’ grievances must be adequately addressed.
While it is legitimate for Ankara to prioritise restoring public order and protection from PKK intimidation and violence, there needs to be constant consideration at the same time of how to avoid alienating communities. Otherwise the state plays into the PKK’s hands and empowers those who see violence as legitimate.
Essentially, there is no military solution to the conflict; peace talks between Ankara and the PKK is the only sustainable way forward, accompanied on a separate track by answers to the legitimate demands for democratic rights of Turkey’s Kurdish population: full mother-tongue education, decentralisation, a lower electoral threshold, reform of anti-terror laws and an ethnically neutral constitution.
An early return to Turkey/PKK negotiations, however urgent, unfortunately is unlikely in present political circumstances. Both Ankara officials and PKK figures insist the other will only compromise if forced to; neither is in the mood to take the first step. Both are looking to regional and global developments to strengthen their position.
Still, there are steps Ankara should take immediately to alleviate the suffering of ordinary citizens caught between the PKK and the Turkish state and restore a sense of justice and hope. An important beginning might be made by adopting a discourse that engages rather than marginalises the Kurdish movement’s constituency, reopening channels for legitimate political representation by the legal political parties of the Kurdish movement nationally and locally and investing in regeneration of social and economic life in the south east.
Ankara/Brussels, 2 May 2017
Appendix A: Map of Turkey
Map of TurkeyMike Shand/International Crisis Group, 2017
Appendix B: Map of Nusaybin
Map of NusaybinMike Shand/International Crisis Group, 2017
Appendix C: Satellite Image of Nusaybin
Satellite Image of Nusaybin©2017 CNES / Astrium, Cnes/Spot Image, DigitalGlobe, Landsat / Copernicus, Map data ©2017 Google
Appendix D: Glossary of Terms
AKP – Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (Justice and Development Party): Turkey’s ruling party, currently led by Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım. It received 49.5 per cent of the vote in the November 2015 parliamentary elections.
CHP – Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (Republican People’s Party): Turkey’s main opposition party. It received 25.3 per cent in the November 2015 parliamentary elections.
DBP – Demokratik Bölgeler Partisi (Democratic Regions Party): The main legal political sister party of the HDP that operates only at the local level. In the 2014 local elections, it won in eleven provinces, 68 districts and 23 town municipalities in the majority Kurdish south east.
ECHR – European Court of Human Rights.
EU – The European Union.
FETÖ – Fetullahçı Terör Örgütü (Fethullahist Terrorist Organisation): The designation given by the Turkish authorities to Gülen movement members the state considers responsible for illicit infiltration into state institutions and the 15 July 2016 failed coup attempt. The Turkish government seeks the extradition of Fethullah Gülen, a self-exiled Muslim scholar living in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania.
Hak-Par – Partiya Maf û Azadiyan (The Rights and Freedoms Party): A pro-Kurdish political party in Turkey established in 2002. It has a limited social base and advocates federalism.
HDP – Halkların Demokratik Partisi (Peoples’ Democratic Party): The main legal party representing the Kurdish national movement in Turkey. It received 10.75 per cent of the total vote in the November 2015 parliamentary elections.
Hüda-Par – Hür Dava Partisi (Free Cause Party): Sunni-Islamist Kurdish political party known to be a continuation of the Kurdish Hizbollah, formally only operational in Turkey’s south east. In the 2014 local elections, which it contested only there, it received 89,655 votes – 0.2 per cent of the national vote. It is known to have a strong influence especially on rural residents in the south east.
ISIS – Islamic State in Iraq and Syria: The best known of the jihadist militant opposition groups fighting in Syria and Iraq, it generates strong criticism for its authoritarian tactics, public executions, ideological extremism and vicious sectarianism.
KCK – Koma Ciwakên Kurdistanê (Union of Communities in Kurdistan): Created by the PKK in 2005-2007, it is an umbrella organisation for all PKK affiliates in Kurdish communities in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria and the diaspora.
MHP – Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi (Nationalist Movement Party): Turkey’s largest nationalist party. It received 11.9 per cent of the vote in the November 2015 parliamentary elections.
OHCHR – Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
OSCE – Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
PAK – Parti Azadi Kurdistan (Kurdistan Freedom Party): A Kurdish political party in Turkey with a very small social base, established by Mustafa Özçelik in 2014 and sympathetic to Masoud Barzani, the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region and leader there of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).
PAKURD – Partiya Kurdistanî (Kurdish Party): A Kurdish nationalist party in Turkey led by İbrahim Halil Baran that enjoys very limited social support.
PKK – Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê (Kurdistan Workers’ Party): Co-founded in 1978 by Abdullah Öcalan, it started an armed insurgency in Turkey in 1984. It is banned as a terrorist and drug-smuggling organisation by Turkey, the EU, the U.S. and a number of other countries.
PSK – Partiya Sosyalîst a Kurdistan (Kurdistan Socialist Democratic Party): A Kurdish party with a small social support base, legally founded in Turkey in May 2016 and informally operational in the country since the 1970s.
PYD – Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat (Democratic Union Party): The Syrian Kurdish affiliate of the PKK/KCK, founded in 2003.
SDF – Quwwat Suriya al-Dimuqraṭiya (Syrian Democratic Forces): A multi-ethnic coalition dominated by the YPG fighting in Syria and supported militarily by the U.S.
T-KDP – Türkiye Kürdistan Demokrat Partisi (Kurdistan Democratic Party of Turkey): A Kurdish political party formally established in 2014 in Turkey, affiliated to the northern Iraqi KDP and its leader Barzani. Though through its affinity with Barzani it enjoys some sympathy, its social base is limited compared to that of the Kurdish political movement.
TOKİ – Toplu Konut İdaresi Başkanlığı: Housing Development Administration of Turkey.
TÜİK – (Türkiye İstatistik Kurumu): Turkish Statistical Institute.
YDG-H – Tevgera Ciwanen Welatparêz Yên Şoreşger (Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement): The youth wing of the PKK, it reorganised itself within the YPS in December 2015.
YPG – Yekîneyên Parastina Gel (People’s Protection Units): The PYD’s armed wing in Syria, established in 2012 and deriving from the PKK. It is the dominant armed Kurdish force in Syria.
YPS – Yekîneyên Parastina Sivîl (Civil Protection Units): A PKK-affiliated urban militia group consisting of PKK youth militia and rural PKK militants that fought against Turkish security forces in predominantly Kurdish-speaking urban areas in Turkey’s south east predominantly between January and June 2016. It was formed by the PKK in late December 2015 with the stated aim to better organise the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H).