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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
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

The Fragility of Northern Syria

A full-blown COVID-19 outbreak may trigger a greater human catastrophe in northern Syria, where ISIS activity persists and Idlib’s peace remains ever-fragile. In this excerpt from the Spring Edition of our Watch List 2020 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to support a stronger ceasefire in Idlib and increase assistance to health and governance structures to keep COVID-19 and ISIS in check.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2020 – Spring Edition.

With global attention focused on fighting a deadly pandemic, the security situation in northern Syria remains fragile and could break down at any time. In the north east, erratic U.S. decision-making in 2019 enabled a Turkish incursion that in turn put local anti-ISIS efforts in jeopardy. The arrival of COVID-19 is further threatening the precarious status quo. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an umbrella group of Kurdish, Arab and Syriac militias under the leadership of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), exercises tenuous control over the area. Between leading operations to smash ISIS cells, holding off pro-Turkish forces and guarding prisons housing ISIS fighters, it is already stretched thin. The SDF’s capacities may crumble if the pandemic hits the north east in full force. On 30 March, and again on 2 May, ISIS detainees overpowered guards and took over an entire floor of a prison compound in the provincial capital Hassakeh before SDF personnel were able to quell the uprising.

Idlib is densely populated with civilians living in abject conditions. And it could soon see a far greater human tragedy.

In the north west, Idlib presents another conundrum. The last stronghold of Syrian rebels and jihadists, the province is densely populated with civilians living in abject conditions. And it could soon see a far greater human tragedy. A Russian-backed regime offensive has squeezed the rebels and displaced hundreds of thousands of terrified civilians, many crowding at the Turkish border. Turkish-Russian ceasefires in Idlib have broken down time and again. The latest one, concluded in March, is holding thus far, but it bears all its predecessors’ flaws and is therefore also prone to erode. The spectre of COVID-19 makes a more permanent ceasefire in Idlib all the more urgent, since only concerted international action at a time of relative calm can contain the contagion. The offensive has all but destroyed Idlib’s health care sector, and an outbreak could prove disastrous.

European capitals have a strong interest in helping mitigate Syria’s humanitarian disaster, while keeping ISIS at bay. As such, the EU and its member states should consider the following steps:

  • Contribute additional funding and protection for SDF detention centres holding foreign fighters. The EU and member states should also offer the SDF technical and financial assistance to enhance its capacity to prosecute Syrian ISIS members in its custody or under its control. In addition, they should aid SDF efforts to reintegrate released and former ISIS members into their communities in Syria.
     
  • Revitalise its approach to stabilising the north east by supporting civilian-military governance structures in which local Arab authorities play a central role in predominantly Arab areas. Establishing such structures would require giving the SDF incentives to devolve authority to local governing bodies, including their security services, to avoid an anti-SDF and anti-Kurdish backlash from which ISIS would benefit.
     
  • Maintain diplomatic pressure on the SDF and Turkey to commit to a humanitarian truce in north-eastern Syria. While the SDF has publicly endorsed the UN Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire in the face of the pandemic, there has been intermittent fighting between the SDF and Turkey (and Turkish proxies) along the front lines, diverting resources from the campaign against ISIS and causing civilian casualties.
     
  • Continue humanitarian preparations in the event of a regime attack on Idlib and/or the full outbreak of COVID-19. Plan and build aid infrastructure; pre-position assistance; and materially support Turkey in these efforts.
     
  • Support the COVID-19 response in both the north east and north west, including by increasing humanitarian aid and delivering personal protective equipment, testing kits and ventilators.

The North East

In March, ISIS called on its members to take advantage of COVID-19’s spread to intensify their global war. While there have been no major security breakdowns in north-eastern Syria to date, sporadic incidents of violence raise concerns about the jihadist group’s remaining presence. ISIS has maintained a drumbeat of low-level attacks across the region, despite being geographically and organisationally fractured. It has shown a certain resilience, notwithstanding its territorial defeat and the loss of its top leadership. Its fighters have carried out roadside bombings, drive-by shootings and assassinations targeting local Arab SDF elements, in particular. Its cells have also coalesced to set up checkpoints and extort money from traders crossing Syria’s eastern desert.

Such attacks aim to weaken the SDF and to terrorise the local population into non-cooperation with the authorities. Fear of ISIS retribution has harmed the SDF’s ability to gather intelligence necessary for effective counter-insurgency measures. Residents attribute the persistence of ISIS activities partly to lack of popular confidence in a sustained U.S. troop presence in eastern Syria. ISIS cells have also benefited from mistrust between locals and the SDF – exacerbated by the exclusion of local Arab leaders from decision-making – which gives the militants room to operate among the population. It remains unclear whether ISIS will be able to further reconstitute its local support at a time when the SDF’s focus is elsewhere.

The SDF’s reduced military capacity as a result of the Turkish offensive raises questions about whether it can keep guarding ISIS detainees. In an audio recording released in September 2019, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi exhorted his followers to free ISIS detainees and their families from prisons and camps. The group lately renewed this call, arguing that the coronavirus is diverting the attention of governments or groups holding them. On 30 March, ISIS detainees rioted in a prison in Hassakeh city, wresting control of a whole floor from the facility’s guards. It took nearly a day for the SDF to regain the upper hand and determine that no prisoners had escaped. SDF authorities later explained that inmates had revolted partly because they feared contracting the illness in such cramped quarters. On 2 May, ISIS prisoners took control of another SDF-run detention facility in Hassakeh; the SDF and detainees negotiated an end to the standoff a day later.

Following these events, the SDF is rightly concerned that ISIS could raid its makeshift jails in conjunction with prisoner riots to enable mass escapes. This threat will become all the more serious if COVID-19 starts to spread rapidly and uncontrollably. The prospect that something similar could happen in al-Hol detention camp, which holds over 60,000 ISIS-related women and children and where tensions flared regularly between militant women and guards even before the pandemic outbreak, is extremely worrying. Renewed fighting between Turkey and the SDF on Syria’s northern border would only worsen these problems.

The North West

Backed by Russian airpower, the Syrian regime has pursued an incremental military strategy for reclaiming the rebel-held north west. Its campaign escalated in April 2019; by March 2020, it had left over a million Syrians displaced. Russian warplanes have compensated for the regime’s weaknesses in ground warfare, driving the human toll way up. The combined air and artillery attacks ravaged towns and villages, sending tens of thousands of civilians fleeing to the province’s northern reaches. At least 1,700 civilians were reportedly killed in these strikes. With over a million internally displaced persons (IDPs) on its border with Syria, Turkey followed through on a threat to open its European frontiers, allowing migrants and refugees to pass into Greece, and thus sending the message that it would not shoulder a new refugee burden on its own.

Since key divergences between Ankara and Moscow are unaddressed, Idlib’s new ceasefire remains at great risk of falling apart.

On 5 March, Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey and Vladimir Putin of Russia agreed on a new cessation of hostilities in Idlib, establishing a “security corridor” extending 6km on each side of the M4 Aleppo-Latakia highway, an area under rebel control, to be patrolled jointly by Russian and Turkish soldiers. The agreement froze the conflict along the new front line, letting the regime hold onto many areas it had retaken in the latest offensive, and leaving civilians who fled the conflict with no prospect of returning to their towns and villages. Since key divergences between Ankara and Moscow are unaddressed, Idlib’s new ceasefire, like those that came before it, remains at great risk of falling apart.

A Role for the EU and Its Member States

The entirety of northern Syria remains vulnerable to renewed conflict. In the north east, the EU and its member states should continue to offer much needed support to the SDF to allow it to weather the crisis and remain an effective anti-ISIS force. Building on EU High Representative Josep Borrell’s call for an immediate and nationwide ceasefire across Syria, the EU and its member states should put diplomatic pressure on their Turkish allies and Kurdish partners to commit to a truce that could allow all parties to focus on fighting the pandemic. They should accompany this request with humanitarian aid to help the SDF respond to a coronavirus outbreak if and when it accelerates.

The EU will also need to do more to share the burden with Turkey in north-western Syria.

The EU is one of the largest humanitarian donors in the Middle East. Support for Syrian refugees in the region is one of the short-term priorities in the EU’s Team Europe program responding to COVID-19. On 30 March, it committed support to countries hosting Syrian refugees – Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan – to help them fight the pandemic. While this step is welcome, they should equally make sure to provide assistance inside Syria, particularly in Idlib, including support directed toward health and education. The Brussels Conference scheduled for the end of June, “Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region”, will be an opportunity to mobilise European and other donors to pledge further aid to civilians in Idlib, especially in light of the coronavirus threat. The EU and its member states could also offer direct support to grassroots organisations working in Idlib and encourage EU-funded organisations to focus their efforts on that area. While EU-Turkey relations are strained, Ankara and Brussels should use their renewed diplomatic engagement – triggered by the regime offensive – to preserve and strengthen the ceasefire in Idlib as an immediate priority. European states should continue to back Turkish efforts to maintain a ceasefire in Idlib, both publicly and in direct contacts with Russia. They should emphasise that an all-out assault on Idlib and a humanitarian disaster there would substantially impair their future cooperation with Russia on Syria-related matters.