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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
Yemen: Giving Peace a Chance?
Yemen: Giving Peace a Chance?
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

U.N. envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths speaks to the media during a visit to the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, Yemen November 23, 2018. Picture taken November 23, 2018. REUTERS/Abduljabbar Zeyad

Yemen: Giving Peace a Chance?

Preliminary peace consultations on Yemen are scheduled to start in Stockholm on 6 December. This is the second attempt in three months to jump-start talks. Crisis Group consultant Peter Salisbury explains why the Sweden talks are so important and what could go wrong.

What are the talks in Stockholm expected to achieve?

In September, the UN envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, failed to bring the parties to the table in Geneva after last-minute wrangling. This time he hopes to have better success. The Huthis arrived in Sweden on 4 December, with the internationally recognised government due to arrive the next day.

The talks in Sweden are preliminary consultations to set the stage for eventual negotiations. Griffiths hopes that the two sides will agree on some basic confidence-building measures, including prisoner swaps, the reopening of Sanaa airport and perhaps an agreement to stabilise Hodeida, as well as a broad roadmap for future talks. The two Yemeni delegations – representatives of the Huthi Ansar Allah movement and of the government of Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi – are not scheduled to meet face-to-face on this occasion; instead, the UN will shuttle between them. But given that every round of talks has collapsed – the last meaningful negotiations took place in Kuwait more than two years ago – even these limited goals may prove to be a stretch.

Has anything happened since September to suggest talks in Sweden will make progress?

What has changed is that, over the past three months, the world has become more aware of the catastrophe unfolding in Yemen and of the need to stop it. Leaders in Europe and the U.S. have spoken out with greater clarity about the need to end the war. The murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist, by a Saudi hit squad in Istanbul in early October, has bolstered the ranks of Congressmen trying to force a change in U.S. policy on Yemen, opening the war and the U.S.’s role in it to wider public debate. On 29 November, the Senate voted by a 63-37 margin to advance a resolution that would require the Trump administration to “remove United States Armed Forces from hostilities in or affecting the Republic of Yemen”.

Resolve to end U.S. support for the war appears to be growing.

The Senate is also considering a second bill that aims to curtail U.S. support for Saudi Arabia – as much a rebuke to the Saudis for the Khashoggi killing as it is to Trump for giving the Saudis seemingly unconditional support – despite the Trump administration’s efforts to ward off any action that might damage U.S. relations with the kingdom. In the wake of the CIA director’s testimony before select members of Congress on 4 December on the Khashoggi murder and Saudi responsibility for it, resolve to end U.S. support for the war appears to be growing. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who has become an outspoken critic of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said that he would work to build support for a bill aimed at cutting off military support for the Saudis’ war effort in Yemen in response to the killing.

In an attempt to pre-empt strong Congressional action, the U.S. secretaries of defence and state, Jim Mattis and Mike Pompeo, last month had called for a cessation of hostilities and for all parties to attend the Sweden talks. They subsequently announced an end to American in-air refuelling of Saudi aircraft operating in Yemen. A number of European countries have halted arms sales to Riyadh in protest of the indiscriminate way in which it has been waging its air war in Yemen, and the UK has introduced a draft UN Security Council resolution to address Yemen’s downward humanitarian spiral. But the U.S. position may not have changed as much as its public rhetoric might suggest. While publicly calling for an end to the war, the Trump administration has been vocally supportive of Riyadh’s policy in Yemen and quietly manoeuvring to block the draft UK resolution, suggesting that senior officials’ public statements of concern are less than genuine. In a 20 November statement, Trump wrote that Iran was directly responsible for the Yemen war, while Pompeo said on 1 December that “we intend to continue” military support for Riyadh.

What are the chances of success?

Griffiths might be able to fulfil his limited aim of getting the Huthis and Hadi to agree to confidence-building measures, sign up to a broader framework for negotiations with some tweaks, and schedule substantive peace talks in the near future. But unfortunately, the odds are high that the consultations will break down amid mutual recriminations, as has happened during all previous rounds.

Both sides are disinclined to compromise. The coalition and the Hadi government think that the tide has turned against the Huthis on the ground and are willing to wait to improve their position. The Huthis for their part are unlikely to demonstrate much flexibility, and view the current mood in Western capitals against Saudi Arabia as shifting in their favour. They might even see a battle for the port of Hodeida and the ensuing famine as a way of turning the narrative against the coalition and government, bolstering their bargaining position as Western governments ramp up the pressure to end the war.

Despite these negative dynamics, Griffiths nonetheless should use the meeting to try to build momentum behind his peace plan and line up more substantive talks for 2019. If he can get the parties to at least agree to confidence-building measures – and follow up on them in the weeks and months after the talks – then he will be able to credibly claim that the UN-led process has new relevance.

Most importantly, he needs to obtain an agreement on Hodeida that would spare it from a coalition-led offensive. The Huthis have said they are willing to hand the port over to the UN. Getting the Yemeni government – and by extension the coalition – to agree to this and then taking steps to demilitarise the city would be a major success.

What is the situation around Hodeida today and why is it so critical?

In the past three months, United Arab Emirates (UAE)-led Yemeni forces have tightened the noose around Hodeida, cutting off the main road into the northern highlands where the majority of Yemen’s population resides. This leaves open only the road along the coast from Hodeida northward, lengthening the journey of critical supplies to millions of people. This further raises the cost of goods for people who are already poorer because they have not received their public sector salaries in months. Moreover, the main milling facility east of Hodeida is held by UAE-backed forces who have not permitted the UN to enter it, preventing the processing of grain. The UN humanitarian chief, Mark Lowcock, has warned of “a great big famine” affecting 14 million people (half the country’s population) if the fighting does not stop immediately.

UAE policymakers openly state that they expect the talks to fail.

If fighting breaks out inside the port (let alone the city), the Huthis can be expected to dig in. Fighting and insecurity around the port inevitably would mean further disruption of the last remaining import supply line out of Hodeida. The result: a desperate, hungry population in the highlands could be pushed into outright starvation.

Why are UAE-led forces targeting Hodeida?

The UAE-led campaign for the Red Sea coast, which has been ongoing for almost two years, is an attempt to cut off the Huthis’ access to the sea and to customs revenues from the port. The UAE and Saudi Arabia believe that the loss of territory and a valuable revenue stream will force the rebels to make significant concessions. They may also hope to shift the moral burden for the humanitarian catastrophe to the Huthis: once the Saudi-led coalition controls the port, they say, any hindrance on humanitarian access will be due to the Huthis’ actions, not their own.

The UAE says its campaign is meant to force the Huthis to adopt a more realistic position at the negotiating table. But there are indications that it is intent on capturing Hodeida’s port regardless of the outcome of talks, and possibly the city as well, viewing such a seizure as a key, indispensable step in changing the Huthi’s outlook and the overall balance of power. UAE policymakers openly state that they expect the talks – which they claim are the Huthis’ “last chance” before they push toward Hodeida port – to fail.

The Huthis’ fourteen-year history of armed insurgency suggests that the coalition’s logic is flawed. If they lose Hodeida, the Huthis are unlikely to surrender. Nor would they be entirely dispossessed of revenue streams: they could levy taxes on trucks passing from Hodeida into the north west of Yemen. Finally, they will blame the coalition for the humanitarian catastrophe that would ensue, given that it will be their decision to take the port (notwithstanding the Huthis’ agreement in principle to hand the port over to the UN) that would have caused it. They are confident that much of international public opinion will agree.

What impact might the talks have on Yemen’s humanitarian crisis?

For international actors, finding a way to end the conflict has become increasingly urgent. The war has caused what the UN says is the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. More than 22 million people, out of a population of 28 million, require some sort of assistance. Some 14 million are severely food insecure, living in what the UN calls “pre-famine” conditions. About 10,000 people contract cholera every week; there have been more than 1.2 million cases of the disease, and more than 2,500 deaths, according to the World Health Organization. Save the Children estimates that 85,000 children may have already died of hunger and preventable diseases since the civil war evolved from an internal power struggle into an internationalised conflict in early 2015. Millions of Yemenis are one economic shock from starvation. But there is still a chance to prevent worse. The consultations in Sweden could be an important first step to that end.

What will be the main sticking points in this new attempt at talks?

The Huthis and the Hadi government will arrive in Sweden looking to advance their respective agendas. Getting them to align on even basic issues is likely to be difficult. A recent agreement on swapping prisoners was a good step forward, but had been the subject of UN-mediated and back-channel negotiation for months before these talks. Reopening Sanaa airport or coming to an accommodation on Hodeida is likely to be much harder work, as neither side will be inclined to give anything up to the other.

As the Hadi government sees it, it shouldn’t have to make any concession at all. It believes it should be restored to power under the terms of UN Security Council Resolution 2216, which calls on the Huthis to lay down their arms and for Hadi – named as the “legitimate president” of Yemen – to return to the capital and oversee the completion of the transitional process that ran from 2012 until the Huthis took over Sanaa in September 2014. The fact that this resolution continues to frame the mainstream debate allows the government to approach negotiations as if it were deciding the terms of a Huthi surrender. While the Hadi government has said it will allow the Huthis to participate in future governments in some capacity, it wants a future deal to affirm its legitimacy and sanction the Huthi “coup”.

The Huthis, meanwhile, describe their coup as a people’s revolution, and argue that the war they are fighting is not against the Hadi government but against the Saudis and Emiratis (as well as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State). For this reason, they argue that the war began in March 2015 when the Saudi-led coalition entered the fray, not the preceding September when they took the capital by force. They frame the negotiations as an opportunity to stop Saudi-led “aggression” and argue that talks should be held between them and the Saudi government.

How are the Hadi government and the Huthis currently faring?

Although the Hadi government is presented as a major party to the conflict, in reality its position is relatively weak. Nominally, Hadi oversees a large array of groups, generally described as the National Army and National Resistance; in reality, the groups fighting the Huthis on the ground are deeply divided and often mutually antagonistic. Hadi doesn’t spend much time in Aden, the city that he named temporary capital in 2015, because many districts are controlled by UAE-backed fighters who have developed a rivalry with forces loyal to Hadi.

The Huthis themselves are not in a very strong position.

Hadi is currently in the U.S. for treatment of a heart condition, triggering speculation as to what might or should happen if he were incapacitated or died. Elections are not a possibility and the uncertain process of appointing of a new president would likely prompt a government reshuffle and a change in negotiating strategy; it could also trigger a new conflict among anti-Huthi groups. Southerners, for example, are unlikely to accept the authority of the current vice president, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who under constitutional rules would take over from Hadi for a two-month period in the event that he died, because of his role in Yemen’s 1994 civil war over the south’s attempt at secession.

The Huthis themselves are not in a very strong position. After killing their erstwhile ally Saleh in December 2017, they swiftly consolidated their control over Yemen’s north-western provinces. But they are being squeezed economically and gradually losing territory. That said, they have repeatedly demonstrated an ability to sustain the destructive grind of what has become a war of attrition. They know that any future military gains by coalition-backed groups are likely to come at a high human cost that they can pin on the coalition and the Hadi government; they plan to maintain pressure on the coalition by attacking urban centres in Saudi Arabia and the UAE with drones and ballistic missiles.

So as we go into talks, the old maxim rings true: Hope for the best, plan for the worst.