Militias in eastern Turkey aligned with the insurgent Kurdish PKK have taken the war against the state to the streets, and Turkish security forces are panicking.
“The Turkish military is not familiar with this kind of urban warfare,” Metin Gurcan, a former Turkish military adviser in Afghanistan and Iraq (2002-2008), told Business Insider.
“This is a new phenomenon for them, so they are reacting by crushing the urban resistance. The critical question, which is being discussed right now in Ankara, is to what extent the conflict should be militarized.”
Violence has consumed large parts of Turkey’s southeast as the military battles the PKK in the Kurdish strongholds of Cizre – considered the center of Kurdish resistance – and Diyarbakir, besieging the cities and placing them under a curfew.
PKK rebels have reportedly killed 33 police officials in recent days.
Many cities have been blocked off entirely by security forces, and a new law has authorized the military to use live ammunition to quell protests and shoot at those who break curfew.
Many civilians caught in the sharpshooters’ sniper fire have been unable to receive treatment due to the blockade. Food is running out and bodies are piling up.
“We were running out food as electricity and water were cut. They didn’t do this even in the 1990s,” Gamze Arslan, a dentist in Cizre, told the Wall Street Journal. “Curfews then lasted two, three days at most.”
The chaos has resulted largely from the emergence of PKK-affiliated youth militias who have endeavored to shift the conflict from rural areas to cities – and the military’s relative inexperience in urban warfare.
“While in the past, the PKK mostly fought in the mountains or did hit and run attacks, there are now civilians taking up arms in the name of youth militias in the cities,” Wladimir van Wilgenburg, a journalist specializing in Kurdish affairs, told BI by email.
“[The violence] is related to the fact that youth militias such as the YDG-H are fighting the Turkish police in urban settings.”
Gurcan, who is now a research fellow on security policies for an Ankara-based think tank, noted that security forces are not familiar with the PKK’s new model of warfare, which calls on insurgents to form ‘neighborhood’ self defense forces inside the cities.
“The Turkish armed forces was able to suppress the PKK back in the 1990’s using tanks, artillery, and heavy armor, but they weren’t fighting them in cities,” he said.
Now, security forces are in a bind: The PKK is generating a level of violence that is higher than the police can confront, but lower than what the military is usually called in to handle.
“This explains why the police [force] is fighting and not the army, and the government tried to give them more authority to deal with this with armed force,” van Wilgenburg noted. “As a result, several civilians were killed.”
- Mahmut Bozarslan/Reuters
Last week, Erdogan approved an order to transfer responsibility for the nation’s counterterrorism operations from governors to the military, which has been raiding the homes of suspected PKK and ISIS affiliates since July.
So far, Gurcan noted, the security forces’ standard operational procedures for dealing with the conflict – i.e., through collective punishment and often indiscriminate shooting, as we have seen in Cizre – “are not good.”
“This ongoing transformation of the issue from the political to the military domain is a dangerous trend that should be watched,” he said.
Residents of the embattled southeastern cities have been sharing photos on social media.
- Sertac Kayar/Reuters
“Before they [Turkish security forces] used excessive amounts of teargas during raids on certain neighborhoods, they now immediately resort to the use of firearms,” lawyer Emirhan Uysal, head of the human rights group IHD in Sirnak provinc, told the Guardian.
“We warned that this would happen when the law was discussed in parliament. We are very worried that more civilians will get killed.”
The mask is slipping
Turkey’s longtime desire to join the European Union has forced it to wear a mask of western-style democracy since the late 1980’s.
That mask may now be slipping, as President Recep Erdogan’s renewed war with the Kurdish PKK has raised questions about how much political power he will ultimately cede to the military.
As Halil M. Karaveli noted in the New York Times, Erdogan’s imposition of “de facto emergency rule” throughout Turkish Kurdistan has forced him to give political control back to the Turkish military, effectively reversing what was once a cornerstone of his presidency.
“However the war goes, it will undo his two major accomplishments,” Karaveli writes. “Mr. Erdogan used to be celebrated by supporters of democracy in Turkey for taming the military. He was also on his way to becoming the Turkish leader who brought peace to the country.”
Before his party lost its parliamentary majority back in June, Erdogan had been trying to expand his presidential authority beyond its mostly symbolic role.
The unexpected loss effectively derailed Erdogan’s efforts to consolidate more power, prompting him to call for a snap election if talks to form a coalition government – which he reportedly opposed from the outset – failed.
New elections have been set for November 1st, but what happens before then may determine whether or not those elections are legitimate.
“How far will Erdogan go in violating Turkey’s democratic norms,” asks Foreign Policy’s Nick Danforth, “and how effective will they prove in constraining him?”