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The Human Cost of the PKK Conflict in Turkey: The Case of Sur
The Human Cost of the PKK Conflict in Turkey: The Case of Sur
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Niger and Boko Haram: Beyond Counter-insurgency
Niger and Boko Haram: Beyond Counter-insurgency
A woman walks inside a bullet-riddled house in Sur district of the Kurdish dominated southeastern city of Diyarbakir, Turkey, 30 October 2015. REUTERS/Sertac Kayar

The Human Cost of the PKK Conflict in Turkey: The Case of Sur

Around 900 people, including 350 members of the security forces, have been killed in fighting since peace talks broke down last July between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Turkey. As insurgents mix with civilians and rights are violated, some of the worst affected are ordinary people like those in south-eastern Diyarbakır’s district of Sur.

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I. Overview

The breakdown of negotiations between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), reignition of hostilities in July 2015 and subsequent spiral of violence underscore the urgent need for a new peace process. Since December, however, confrontations between Turkish security forces and the PKK – listed internationally as a terrorist organisation – have entered an unprecedented stage. The state imposed urban curfews to “restore public order” in towns where PKK-backed youth militias were resorting to barricades and trenches to claim control. Those curfews, lasting for days or weeks at a time, have resulted in months-long battles in towns and city districts throughout the south east. More than 350,000 civilians are estimated to have been displaced and at least 250 killed as security forces deploy tanks and other heavy weaponry to urban centres and the PKK engages in asymmetric urban warfare to prevent the government from retaking full control.

Though some curfews have been lifted in the last few weeks, the human cost of conflict continues to rise sharply: of the 350 Turkish police and soldiers killed in eight months of fighting, 140 died in the first two months of 2016, according to Crisis Group’s open-source casualty tally. The conflict has also struck the capital, Ankara, twice in two months: on 17 February, a car bomb near the parliament killed 25 military personnel and four civilians, while on 13 March a suicide bomber at a bus stop during rush hour killed 37 civilians. Both attacks have been claimed by the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), an offshoot of the PKK. Nationalist anger was heightened when the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) decided not to sign the parliamentary condemnation of the first attack, arguing that Islamic State (IS) attacks in Suruç, Ankara and Sultanahmet and civilian losses during the curfews should be condemned in the same declaration. Three days later, an HDP member of parliament attended a condolence ceremony for the individual who exploded the bomb. While HDP condemned the second attack, it again did not join the statement issued by the other parliamentary parties. These developments fed the increasing public perception and the government’s steadfast conviction that the HDP, a legal political party, cannot distance itself sufficiently from the PKK.

Domestic political discourse is polarised and hardening, while the space for dissent on the Kurdish issue or other contentious ones such as democratic reform is shrinking, as Ankara adopts an increasingly defensive, often heavy-handed line. The effort of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to lift parliamentary immunity from five HDP deputies, including its co-chairs, for supporting terrorism threatens to dismantle a significant legal outlet for millions of predominately Kurdish voters. It also supports the PKK’s argument that “self-defence” is needed as political options for solving the conflict are narrowed by the rupture of talks with the PKK’s imprisoned leader, Abdullah Öcalan, and arrest of local HDP political representatives.

The densely-populated south-eastern cities and towns are set to remain on the front line, despite the drawdown of the last weeks. With winter’s end and emboldened by the role of its Kurdish affiliates in Syria, the PKK is readying for more pushback against the government, while the prospect of further attacks in the west of Turkey by radical Kurdish groups has risen significantly. Newroz – a festival traditionally celebrated by Kurds in Turkey around the March equinox – risks inflaming further unrest.

Ankara has promised to rebuild shattered towns and districts, but also to beef up the security forces with larger police stations and more checkpoints in the most restive communities. This is unlikely to remain unchallenged by the PKK and its sympathisers. Meanwhile, its plan to sideline the HDP will limit the potential of the government’s initiatives to be embraced by the HDP’s significant constituency in the region. And Ankara’s room for manoeuvre is limited until Kurdish movement representatives condemn violence and refrain from treating armed resistance as a legitimate form of dissent against the state.

The only way toward a durable solution is peace talks with the PKK accompanied, on a separate track, by ensuring further democratic rights for Turkey’s Kurdish population, including full mother tongue education, further decentralisation, a lower electoral threshold for parties to enter parliament and an ethnically neutral constitution. But the immediate priority is to manage the situation to prevent more casualties and displacement. In the short term, Ankara should create a solid legal basis for further curfews, focusing on practices that limit civilian casualties and human rights abuses, and holding security forces accountable for breaches. It must ensure that human rights violations are addressed by due process, reconstruction does not disenfranchise property owners and tenants displaced by fighting, and those who wish to can return to their homes.

Both Ankara and the PKK say the psychological fault lines of the conflict and the loyalties of the predominantly Kurdish citizens in the south east have shifted decisively in their favour. The state argues that the PKK’s shift to urban warfare has enraged once sympathetic residents. The PKK argues that the use of heavy weapons in towns and cities provokes a region-wide backlash against Ankara. Crisis Group research in Diyarbakır, the largest city in Turkey’s majority Kurdish heartland, shows, however, that neither side has markedly shifted civilian sentiments over the three-decade-old conflict. This briefing presents a snapshot of that research. Reflecting perspectives of officials, NGOs, municipality representatives, lawyers and displaced individuals, most of whom were not willing to be identified, it aims to draw attention to the increasing human costs of the confrontation by analysing recent conflict dynamics in the Sur district.

Diyarbakır/Istanbul/Brussels, 17 March 2016

Niger’s soldiers stand at Bosso military camp following attacks by Boko Haram fighters in the region, on June 17, 2016. ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP
Report 245 / Africa

Niger and Boko Haram: Beyond Counter-insurgency

The struggle against Boko Haram in south-eastern Niger is increasingly sharpening local conflicts over access to resources. There is no military solution to this insurgency, and the authorities should instead put the emphasis on demobilising militants, solving local conflicts, reinvigorating the economy and restoring public services.

Executive Summary

For the last two years, Niger has been at war with Boko Haram. The conflict has disrupted this poor country’s development, especially public finances, and destabilised the south east, the main scene of armed clashes. In this region, located some 1,350km from the capital and faced with an economic collapse, the battle against Boko Haram has stoked up local intercommunal tensions and exacerbated violence over access to resources. Despite direct support from Chadian troops since 2015 and improved collaboration with the Nigerian army, Nigerien forces have been unable to put a stop to attacks by insurgents, some of whom have links to the Islamic State (IS). The military option has produced results but has also shown its limits. The war effort must be accompanied by an approach that would allow demobilisation of the movement’s militants and promote a political solution to the tensions that have stimulated its local spread. The government must also prioritise economic revival and public service provision to bring relief to an exhausted population, whose suffering fuels the insurrection.

Despite alarmist scenarios, Boko Haram has failed to extend its influence beyond the south-eastern Diffa region. This relatively wealthy territory has a special relationship with the Nigerian state of Borno. Close historical, religious, and economic ties explain the resonance of the message spread by Mohamed Yusuf, the Nigerian founder of Boko Haram. Many Nigeriens, especially young men, became his supporters after they travelled to Maiduguri, the capital of Borno, only 425km away from Diffa, in search of religious training or business opportunities. When Nigerian armed forces massacred more than 1,000 of his Nigerian followers in July 2009, many members of Boko Haram found refuge in south-eastern Niger. The movement has long avoided conducting military operations in the country to build up Diffa as a refuge and a place to seek funds, supplies and recruits.

Nigerien authorities initially responded to the Boko Haram threat by keeping the movement under surveillance. They believed that it was essentially a Nigerian problem. This attitude changed in 2014, when the threat became more pressing. Boko Haram’s territorial expansion toward the Niger border was accompanied by a new push to recruit hundreds of young Nigeriens. Persuaded by its regional and international partners to become more actively involved, Niger joined the military efforts of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF). The war effort has since proved to be a burden on the national budget and the judicial system and kindled tensions between the government and the military hierarchy.

The Diffa region is suffering from both Boko Haram attacks and counter-insurgency measures taken by the Nigerien authorities, such as the extension of the state of emergency introduced in February 2015 that includes a ban on some commercial activities. Hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally displaced people only survive thanks to foreign aid. Recourse to local vigilante committees and reprisals by Boko Haram against anyone who collaborates with the army have created a difficult atmosphere in which local score-settling, collective fear and informants are all ingredients of a dangerously toxic brew.

On the shores of Lake Chad, in the extreme east of Diffa region, Boko Haram’s presence has aggravated intercommunal tensions, which have degenerated into deadly conflicts since May 2016. Mediation between communities by the authorities since June 2016 is a welcome initiative but has yet to dissipate all of these tensions. On the lake’s islands, a group of combatants who have broken away from the Boko Haram faction led by Abubakar Shekau, head of the movement since the death of Mohamed Yusuf, is exploiting these local tensions. This group is currently trying to take root more permanently and allegedly has close ties with IS.

Faced with Boko Haram’s resilience, the Nigerien government can no longer restrict itself to an approach solely based on military operations and commercial restrictions. In December 2016, the establishment of demobilisation sites signalled a change in the policy of repression that had prevailed since 2015. The government is also drafting a special plan for the resolution of the crisis in the Diffa region. With the support of regional and international partners, it must continue in this direction and expand its counter-insurgency strategy that goes beyond a mainly military response. This is all the more important given that some insurgents have rejected the excesses of Abubakar Shekau and may try to regain the support of the local population by avoiding the targeting of Muslims. The government must also increase cooperation with its neighbours and make contingency plans for the possible disengagement of international partners, whose public finances are deteriorating and who could opt for more isolationist policies in the months to come.

Recommendations

To reduce violence by going beyond the security response

To the government of Niger:

  1. Discourage the development of armed community militias.
     
  2. Pursue and strengthen the efforts to mediate between communities on the shores of Lake Chad started in June 2016.
     
  3. Ensure equitable and fair access to the lake’s resources, including, if necessary, through a thorough reform of the system of chiefs in the lake area.
     
  4. Propose quickly a plan for resolving the crisis in south-eastern Niger, prepared in close partnership with civil society and elected representatives in the Diffa region, and paying particular attention to reconciliation, the reintroduction of public services and economic revival.

To ease the pressure on the judicial system and prepare for the reintegration of Boko Haram militants

To the government of Niger:

  1. Formulate demobilisation and reintegration policies for former Boko Haram combatants, especially those who have not been involved in serious crimes, while consulting Boko Haram’s victims and their representatives to avoid a cycle of score-settling. The recent establishment of demobilisation sites is welcome but the reintegration of former insurgents is a sensitive issue that requires skilful handling and major long-term investment by the government and its partners.
     
  2. Increase the resources allocated to the judicial system to ensure improved treatment of Boko Haram-related cases, including those dealing with suspects of involvement in serious crimes, which are currently clogging up the country’s courts.
     
  3. Insist that the security services make a strong case to justify the transfer to Niamey prison of people who have been arrested on the basis of intelligence provided by informants.

To Niger’s partners:

  1. Provide advice and human resources to boost the resources allocated to the judicial system.

To suspend economic restrictions linked to the state of emergency and launch a plan to revive the economy of the Diffa region as early as possible

To the government of Niger:

  1. Redirect suspended economic flows by channelling them through the town of Diffa and encouraging exporters to use more secure roads toward Nigeria until the southern Komadougou area becomes stable again.
     
  2. Build the capacities of the public administration to provide the population with tangible judicial, health and education services, encourage the recruitment of local civil servants and the granting of temporary bonuses to civil servants working in the regions affected by the insurrection.

To supervise more effectively the security forces and their budgets

To the government of Niger:

  1. Encourage the High Authority for the Fight Against Corruption (HALCIA) to investigate the use of funds allocated to the war effort.
     
  2. Provide the armed forces on the ground with the resources they need to conduct counter-insurgency military operations, while tightening supervision of the armed forces and requiring that military personnel found guilty of abuses and other crimes against civilians are held accountable.
     
  3. Supervise the vigilante committees to limit their role to the collection of intelligence; prepare policies immediately for their complete or partial demobilisation if the insurrection’s decline is confirmed.

Brussels/Dakar, 27 February 2017