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Turkey’s PKK Conflict: The Death Toll
Turkey’s PKK Conflict: The Death Toll
Integrating Syrian Refugees in Istanbul’s “District of Victimhood”
Integrating Syrian Refugees in Istanbul’s “District of Victimhood”
Map showing casualty rates for provinces, cities, towns and specific curfews. CRISIS GROUP

Turkey’s PKK Conflict: The Death Toll

On 20 July 2016, the first-year anniversary of resumption of violence in Turkey's PKK conflict, Crisis Group made public an open-source casualty infographic in order to draw attention to the rising human cost, trace conflict trends and demonstrate how the tactics on the ground are evolving. The infographic is meant to function as a clear, impartial, and factual account of the conflict’s changing dynamics.

The failed coup attempt on 15 July 2016 has focused renewed attention on Turkey’s military and security apparatus at a time when violence is already high.

Exactly one year ago, on the afternoon of 20 July 2015, an Islamic State (IS) suicide bombing tore through the majority Kurdish town of Suruç in south-eastern Turkey, killing 33 and injuring over 100 people, mostly young activists en route to support reconstruction efforts in the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani.

Just three hours later in the nearby province of Adıyaman, militants of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) accusing Turkey of abetting the IS attack, killed 23-year old Müsellim Ünal, a corporal in the Turkish military. PKK militants killed five more security officials in the following week.

The two-and-a-half-year ceasefire between Turkey and the PKK – internationally listed as a terrorist organisation – had broken down. Since then, the PKK conflict has entered one of the deadliest chapters in its three-decade history. Over the past year, more than 1,700 people have been killed, according to Crisis Group’s interactive, open-source database of the casualties, published online in English and Turkish today.

A fragile ceasefire, which had already been faltering, collapsed as the region was engulfed in the unpredictable mayhem of clashes and security operations, resulting in the displacement of more than 350,000 civilians and massive urban destruction in some south-eastern districts. A year later, whole swathes of Turkey’s majority Kurdish south east have been devastated, bombings have struck at the heart of the country’s largest metropolitan centres, and the PKK conflict is inextricably linked with conflicts in the Middle East, especially the war in Syria.

Though dynamics have changed considerably, the past year contains echoes of what had been the worst period of the PKK conflict in the early 1990s. Then, information was hard to obtain and there were many obstacles to travel in the region. Now the problem is that information is tightly controlled, travel is limited for some, and it can take months to work out what exactly happened even in high-profile incidents.

Tracking the Data

International Crisis Group has long worked to track the rising cost of violence using open-source data, including reports from Turkish-language media, local Kurdish rights groups and the Turkish military. In the last bout of violence, from June 2011 to March 2013, Crisis Group was able to confirm the deaths of 920 people.

Crisis Group is now making public in real time the death toll since 20 July 2015, based on its open-source methodology. The goal of this project is to draw attention to the rising human cost of the conflict, trace the trends of the conflict and demonstrate how the tactics of the parties are evolving. We aim to present a clear, impartial, factual account of what is happening in the conflict, and where violence is taking place to guide policymakers, researchers and public opinion in Turkey and beyond. This is an important task, as casualty figures are generally politicised by all parties as they present competing narratives. This resource should be viewed within the framework of Crisis Group’s calls for de-escalation of the PKK conflict.

Crisis Group first started formally tracking the casualty toll of the 32-year conflict during the July 2011-March 2013 cycle of violence. We used the casualty information released by the PKK and the Turkish military for their own losses, relying on the fact that a relatively clear distinction between militants and civilians was possible in a conflict that mainly took place in rural settings. We were generally cautious about the use of figures presented by either side for the opposing party’s losses, since these were often inflated to mobilise support and legitimise further action.

As the fighting moved to urban areas during the current conflict cycle, the line between PKK militants and civilians became increasingly blurred. The difficulty of distinguishing between civilians and militants led Crisis Group to create an additional category for “youth of unknown affiliation”, covering male and female casualties, aged 16-35, who were killed in curfew zones or areas of clashes, but who were not claimed by the PKK’s military wing (People’s Defence Forces, or HPG) or its urban youth wing (Civil Protection Units, or YPS).

The visualised dataset for casualties since July 2015 utilises a more complex methodology, systematically tracking casualty data together with other indicators such as urban versus rural casualties; types of attacks targeting security forces; age of civilian casualties; breakdown of security force casualties into police, soldiers, village guards; breakdown of PKK militant deaths into HPG, YPS, and TAK (Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, the PKK’s affiliate responsible for attacks in the west of Turkey). The data also accounts for curfews enforced by security officials in majority Kurdish-speaking south-eastern districts, specifying the duration of the curfew and the minimum number of individuals confirmed dead during these operations.

21 July 2016
The fighting in the southeast, which reignited in July 2015, has killed 1,761 people, according to new figures released by the International Crisis Group. Middle East Eye

— Direnç Balık


One of the Most Violent Flare-ups in Three Decades

The July 2015 flare-up of the PKK conflict is one of the most violent episodes in its 32-year history. The most significant indicator for this is the number of state security force members killed, usually accurately reported by military sources and subsequently covered in Turkish media.

Based on its open-source casualty database, between 20 July 2015 and 19 July 2016, Crisis Group confirmed the deaths of at least:

– 307 civilians

– 582 security force members

– 653 PKK militants

– 219 “youth of unknown affiliation”

Since August 2015, security forces have imposed a total of 85 curfews of different durations in 33 majority Kurdish south-eastern districts to ensure government control over areas where members of the Kurdish political movement have declared self rule, and where PKK militant presence grew significantly.

The Turkish military and PKK both maintain their own count of the overall casualties during the last escalation cycle. The Turkish military on 24 May 2016 claimed that since July 2015, 4,949 PKK militants have been killed. The HPG, the military wing of the PKK, claimed on 2 May to have killed a total of 1,557 police and soldiers since July 2015, while for the same period Crisis Group confirmed a total of 465 security force members dead.

What the new infographic shows

The new infographic illustrates changing conflict dynamics in the course of the year, including more large-scale attacks in the west of Turkey, a rise in single PKK attacks creating more casualties, a return to rural clashes in the last two months, and a rise in HPG militant deaths – as opposed to YPS militants in June 2016. Notable also is that one-third of all recorded casualties are concentrated in the districts of Sur, Nusaybin and Cizre, of which the latter two are directly neighbouring Kurdish-inhabited areas of Syria.

  • While the bulk of the PKK conflict has remained highly localised in the country’s majority Kurdish south east, since January 2016 violence has increasingly spread to the west of Turkey. Two bombings by TAK struck Ankara on 17 February and 13 March 2016, killing a total of 38 civilians and 28 security officials. A TAK suicide bomber also detonated herself outside of the Great Mosque in Bursa, a city in north west Turkey, injuring thirteen on 27 April. This was followed by a May 2016 attack in Istanbul’s Sancaktepe district that narrowly missed a bus full of police. TAK also claimed responsibility for a car bomb attack on a police bus on 7 June in central Vezneciler district of Istanbul killing seven police officers and four civilians.
  • Between 1 February and 19 July 2016, of the 312 security force members killed, 150 were victims of improvised explosive device (IED) attacks (48 per cent), while in the four months prior (October 2015-January 2016) of the total of 115 security force deaths, 33 were from IED attacks (29 per cent). This suggests the PKK is engaging in more high-profile attacks, killing more security forces with single IED attacks, which has resulted in an increase in monthly security force casualties since March 2016 (a daily average of 1.8 between March 2016 and June 2016; compared to a daily average of 1.3 between November 2015 and February 2016).
  • Evaluated together with the urban vs. rural casualty information and the location of casualties, the data also indicates that the PKK is withdrawing its militants from urban centres and focusing its strikes in rural areas. May 2016 was the first month since November 2015 in which the number of total rural deaths was higher than total urban deaths (57 per cent of security force casualties occurred in rural areas in May 2016, as opposed to 33 per cent in April and 13 per cent in February). In June 2016, the ratio of rural security force casualties increased to 62.5 per cent. This clearly shows that the PKK is withdrawing from urban areas and shifting back to its traditional rural tactics. Besides intensified military operations of state security force members against militants in urban centres, growing public resentment among Kurds against PKK actions in restive districts around the country’s south east could be one of the reasons for this change in tactics.
  • 30 per cent of confirmed casualties have been in Cizre, Sur and Nusaybin. Over the last year, fighting has been focused in mainly four provinces: Şırnak, Diyarbakır, Mardin and Hakkari. The highest number of casualties were recorded in Şırnak’s Cizre district, followed by Diyarbakır’s Sur district, and Mardin’s Nusaybin district. Casualties in these three districts comprised 30 per cent of the total casualties since July 2015.
  • In March, April and May 2016, a sharp drop in the number of deaths among “youth of unknown affiliation” has paralleled a rise in casualties claimed by militias of the PKK’s youth wing, the YPS. Deaths among “youth of unknown affiliation” peaked in early February, when military operations in Cizre saw over 100 deaths in a single week. YPS deaths rose sharply in the following weeks, peaking in March and April. This could be an indication of two dynamics: either the PKK’s young militants are increasingly joining the YPS, or the PKK has begun reporting these deaths to give the appearance that its “resistance” is embraced by a broader group of youth in conflict areas.
  • Since February 2016, casualties suffered by YPS and HPG militants have been relatively close in numbers, an indication that the two PKK wings have been engaged in fighting (HPG/YPS killed: February at least 13/23; March at least 28/37; April at least 50/59; May at least 21/21). Casualty figures for June 2016 indicate that HPG casualties are rising, with the balance tipping considerably toward HPG militant casualties (HPG/YPS killed: June at least 45/3).
15 July 2016
Nor would a coup decisively end a revived Kurdish insurgency, which has claimed over 1,700 lives since July 2015, according to the International Crisis Group. Foreign Policy

— Noah Blaser


Overall Casualties in the Conflict since 1984

The PKK conflict in Turkey is commonly estimated to have killed around 30,000-40,000 people since 1984. The overall toll of the conflict is difficult to determine given the limitations on accurately verifying death claims. To reflect this ambiguity and minimise the risk of inflation or underestimation, caution in citing the overall death toll is in order.

Over the years, Turkish media and academia have all too often simply cited overall death toll figures voiced by politicians and military representatives. As described in a forthcoming report by Noah Arjomand, an academic at Columbia University, even these figures varied: in December 1997, Süleyman Demirel, then Prime Minister, said 37,000 people had been killed in the insurgency; in January 2005, then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said the PKK had killed 40,000; in September 2008, the chief of general staff said it was 44,042; in February 2013, a parliamentary commission report estimated the total death toll at 35,576.

The same study shows that the breakdown of annual death toll figures announced by the parliament and gendarmerie (rural police) between 1984 and 2009 are divergent, too. The difference was highest after Turkey launched two large-scale operations into northern Iraq in 1997, accompanied by huge claims of PKK casualties in pro-government media: the overall toll reported by parliament was 3,419 killed, the gendarmerie said 8,234. Confirming casualties during this incursion was particularly difficult since, in contrast to reporting from Turkey’s south east, local human rights organisations did not have the means to verify deaths occurring during these military operations due to limited access to northern Iraq.

According to Turkish military figures compiled by Arjomand, the ratio of PKK militants reported killed by the military has tended to increase considerably compared to security force casualties in years of cross-border military operations against the PKK. For most years, the rate of PKK militants killed is, according to military-issued figures, two to four times higher than state security forces killed during low-intensity years of the conflict. However, a significant hike in the ratio can be observed during high-intensity conflict periods involving incursions of the military into northern Iraq, with the peak being the year 1997, when Turkish military claimed that 14.6 times more PKK militants than members of state security forces were killed.

In the current round of escalation that began in July 2015, the Turkish state claims to have killed around ten times more PKK militants than it has lost security forces. Similarly, the PKK also claims to have killed around ten times more state security forces than it has lost militants. Crisis Group’s casualty count of the last year reflects the security force-to-militant ratio at 1.16, while the same ratio was 1.75 for Crisis Group’s casualty count for the 2011-2013 escalation cycle. However, Crisis Group’s open-source methodology does not always allow for an accurate account of PKK militant deaths, which PKK-linked sources often only announce weeks, months, or even years later. Moreover, means of verifying PKK militant deaths in cross border incursions into northern Iraq are particularly limited. Despite these methodological limitations, it is safe to say that PKK claims for the number of state security forces killed, as well as state figures for PKK members killed are inflated. As a human rights activist in Diyarbakır told Crisis Group in January 2016: “Our cities in the region would be flooded with corpses and we would constantly hold funerals if the number the state announces for PKK members killed was correct”.

Given these limitations and ambiguities, the precise figure for the overall casualty toll of the conflict is impossible to confirm, whether by referring to Turkish state sources, or by using reports of human rights NGOs close to the Kurdish movement – who have collected data with differing methodologies for different years. Furthermore, the number of unresolved murders, extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances occurring especially in the 1990s – the conflict’s most deadly period – is unknown. In order to avoid the risk of using inflated figures or excluding unrecorded casualties, the safest option is to refer to the conflict’s overall toll as “tens of thousands of deaths”. Such caution should guide the use of any data on conflict casualties, where even seemingly accurate estimates may be flawed.

Muhamed (L), a Syrian refugee boy, and his older brother Mustafa (R) work at a small textile factory in Istanbul, Turkey, on 24 June 2016. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

Integrating Syrian Refugees in Istanbul’s “District of Victimhood”

Sultangazi is home to a mix of religious and ethnic groups – as well as 50,000 Syrian refugees. The district received the refugees warmly. But resentment is rising, as public services suffer and opposition forces suspect the ruling party of using refugees to exacerbate social divisions.

Sultangazi is an inner-city district of Istanbul located on the European side of the Bosphorus, home to more than a half-million Turkish citizens and 50,000 Syrians. What’s happening there reflects nationwide patterns of refugee integration and assimilation – but also growing impatience among the native population.

The district is a microcosm of Turkish society in terms of faith, ethnicity and political persuasion. Pious Sunni conservatives live next door to left-leaning Alevis; Turkish ultra-nationalists rub shoulders with Kurdish movement sympathisers. There are no formal records of religious affiliation, but locals estimate that 30-40 per cent of Sultangazi’s residents are Alevi and the rest Sunni. Alevis, Turkey’s second-largest faith community, profess a variant of Shia Islam (as do the Alawites of Syria, from whom the Alevis are distinct in historical evolution, culture and religious practice). Around half the population are Kurds – of whom slightly over half are social conservatives who vote for the Sunni Islamist formation ruling Turkey, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party). The rest largely support the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP).

The Syrians who have settled in Sultangazi are mostly Sunni Arabs from rural areas around Aleppo. In addition to the 40,000 who are registered refugees, an estimated 10,000 Syrians are unregistered. There are also approximately 8,000 migrants of other nationalities, mainly Afghans, Pakistanis and Azerbaijanis.

Integrating Syrian Refugees in Istanbul's "District of Victimhood"

Crisis Group’s Turkey Project Director Nigar Goksel talks about identity politics and growing frictions in the job market between Syrian refugees and host communities in the refugee-dense neighbourhoods of Turkey’s major western cities. CRISISGROUP
The Syrians’ socio-economic impact [in Turkey] is becoming increasingly manifest.

In conversations with Crisis Group, residents referred to their quarter as “a district of victimhood” because it brings together so many different people – citizens and non-citizens – who have had to leave their hometowns behind for political or economic reasons. There has been a particularly large influx of Syrians over the past two years, as the Assad regime recaptured parts of northern Syria that had been held by rebels, and as more Syrians moved from border provinces to western cities in search of job opportunities. Sultangazi today ranks among the top five of Istanbul’s 39 districts in the number of Syrians hosted; they now comprise over 8 per cent of its total population.

Many Syrians received a warm welcome in Turkey. But, as their numbers grow in districts such as Sultangazi, some fear that the new arrivals will redraw the demographic map to the detriment of long-time residents. Secularists and leftists, in particular, see the Syrians as pawns in a move by the AK Party government to dilute the concentration – and perhaps, down the road, the electoral strength – of minority constituencies. Such perceptions deepen existing social and political divides (covered in a November 2016 Crisis Group report).

The Syrians’ socio-economic impact is also becoming increasingly manifest. Public services such as health and education, already strained by the district’s rapid expansion, have been further overstretched by the refugee influx. Locals complain about long lines at hospitals, crowded classrooms, skyrocketing rents, packed busses and piled-up trash. The sense that the Syrian influx has worsened the quality of life is sowing resentment among hosts, irrespective of political affiliation. Compassion and solidarity are curdling into hostility.

Crisis Group Turkey Project Director Nigar Göksel talking to a Turkish restaurant owner about the impact of unregistered Syrian businesses in Sultangazi district, September 2017. CRISISGROUP

As underlined by Crisis Group’s 29 January report, Turkey’s Syrian Refugees: Defusing Metropolitan Tensions, the risk of violent clashes between hosts and refugees is higher in places where the stress on public services overlaps with labour market competition and identity-related demographic concerns. Sultangazi is such a place.

The Gazi Hot Spot

The tract of land now known as Sultangazi has witnessed waves of migration, starting in the mid-1970s when people came from across Anatolia. In the 1990s, a large number of Kurds arrived after being forcibly displaced from villages in the south east at the peak of the army’s fighting with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Since 2004 or so, the district has also attracted refugees and migrant workers from countries to Turkey’s east. With plenty of affordable housing and low-skilled job opportunities in textile workshops, Sultangazi has continued to boom, absorbing around 100,000 Turkish citizens in the past decade.

On aggregate, voting patterns in the quarter reflect strong support for the AK Party government, albeit with staunch opposition in certain neighbourhoods. In the November 2015 general elections, the AK Party received 163,000 votes (60.6 per cent), while the main centre-left, secular opposition force, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), garnered 60,000 and the left-leaning, pro-Kurdish HDP got 40,000. Over 60 per cent of voters said “yes” to the April 2017 plebiscite asking citizens to approve measures that greatly strengthened the powers of the president. The Istanbul average “yes” vote was 48.6 per cent. Despite this higher overall support, some neighbourhoods firmly rejected the referendum (see map below for a detailed breakdown).

One of them was Gazi, where a majority of residents are left-wing Alevis, either Kurdish or Turkish in ethnicity. A full 78.9 per cent of its voters said “no” to the stronger presidency. Similarly, the AK Party won only 19 per cent of the neighbourhood’s vote in the November 2015 parliamentary elections, while the CHP received 54 per cent and the HDP 23.8 per cent.

A map that shows the 2017 Constitutional Referendum results in the districts of Sultangazi, Istanbul. CRISISGROUP/MIke Shand

Gazi is legendary in Turkey for antipathy to the state. Left-wing and/or Alevi youth there clashed frequently with the nationalist police in the 1990s. On 12 March 1995, the unrest culminated in what is commonly referred to as “the Gazi incidents”. Unknown gunmen in a stolen taxi riddled five teahouses with bullets, killing one person and wounding numerous others. Residents saw the police response as markedly slow; riots broke out and spread to other neighbourhoods, continuing for about a week. The police reaction to the rioters was swift and harsh, with officers shooting into crowds, killing fifteen people. Many believe the incident was instigated by the “deep state” – ultra-nationalists and their allies in the security forces – to discourage the growth of Alevi and Kurdish dissent in big cities.

Anger spiralled into confrontations with police again during the Gezi Park protests in May-June 2013. Some 2-3,000 neighbourhood residents took to the streets for around one week in anti-government protests. Tensions also rose in Gazi on the night of the 15 July 2016 coup attempt, when pro-AK Party crowds reportedly marched into the neighbourhood chanting “Allahu Ekber” (God is great). Pro-government demonstrators had been summoned into the streets across Istanbul by state-employed imams using the loudspeakers of mosques. Rumours spread that the demonstrators were planning to attack Alevis, and residents gathered in front of the local cemevi (Alevi house of worship). Police dispersed the pro-AK Party crowd before it reached the area.

Many leftists took this series of events as validation of their view that, under AK Party rule, the invocation of Sunni Muslim solidarity is “party politics”, geared toward mobilising the right-wing, conservative-leaning majority of the electorate. They point to statements they perceive as sectarian by AK Party leaders to back up this interpretation.

Blame Game

Across the Sultangazi district, representatives of the Alevi community and the Kurdish movement view the Syrian refugees’ presence largely through the prism of their own accumulated grievances against the state.

The risk of violent attacks on refugees may increase amid the building anger among Kurdish movement sympathisers at the crackdown on the HDP underway since early 2016. Thousands of the HDP’s members and nine of its 53 MPs – including party co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş – were arrested and remain in prison. Another 30 MPs were detained and/or arrested and released since November. “We have no rights. There is police impunity for any action against the Kurdish youth here”, a Kurdish movement figure in Sultangazi told Crisis Group. “This is all building up a frustration [that] can be channelled against the Syrians, many of whom announce Erdoğan as their saviour”.

Alevis also feel worn down by longstanding state discrimination. “We still do not have equal citizenship”, said one representative. “We have so many complaints about our situation that it is hard for us to talk about Syrians …. In a place like the Gazi neighbourhood that locals say is over 50 per cent Alevi, there is a threat perception from the past anyway, and now they think Syrians will be settled here to reduce the Alevis to a minority”.

Distrust runs deep between the authorities and their adversaries [in Sultangazi], leading to competing narratives of violent incidents involving refugees.

The government and its supporters accuse Alevi organisations of being sectarian when they reach out to the minority of Syrian refugees who are Kurds or Alawites. A Kurdish movement representative claimed that the authorities warned Syrian Kurds not to establish relations with Kurdish organisations in Turkey: “Syrian Kurds who came to Sultangazi were told they would be provided all health and education services if they abide by this rule. So, out of fear of being sent back to Syria by Turkish authorities, they have stayed low-profile about their Kurdish identity”.

Kurdish and Alevi oppositionists insist they are not concerned solely with their co-ethnics and/or co-religionists. One Alevi representative said: “At first, we tried to provide support to all the Syrians who came here, regardless of sect or ethnicity. However, when the numbers soared, and since we get no resources from the state, we had to cut down. Since we observed the Syrian Alawites were not so comfortable going to the centres of the Sunni Muslim charities, we concentrated our efforts on them”.

Arabic signs on a shop offer for sale sporting clothes, wedding dresses, pyjamas and lingerie, Sultangazi district, September 2017. CRISISGROUP

People at the Gazi cemevi told Crisis Group they held the potential to help break down sectarian stereotypes, but they lacked the resources: “We provided Turkish language courses for Syrian children and women, and 30 per cent of those who attended were Sunni. It overcame prejudice, but then we didn’t have enough funds to continue”.

Another employee of a mainstream NGO who has been working with Syrians for a few years said that, just as the authorities try to impose an artificial homogeneity of identity and thought on Turkish citizens, they want Syrians to be homogeneous, too. “The government thinks that Syrians in Turkey who have any thoughts beyond support for the Free Syrian Army [a Sunni rebel group fighting alongside the Turkish military in northern Syria] should be invisible”, the NGO worker said.

Widening Local Divides

The Syrian refugee crisis has thus widened the gap between the government’s backers and its critics. The authorities, along with Sunni Muslim charities, blame the negative attitude of hardline Alevi and Kurdish organisations. A local state official who also works for a large Islamist charity, suggested: “Considering they [the Kurds] have also experienced displacement, one would expect them to be more compassionate. However, perhaps because they see the refugees’ presence as being against their interests, I observe that the Kurds speak out less compassionately about the refugees”.

Sign in Arabic on a tree advertises that the Abu Salah Supermarket in Sultangazi district can supply money transfers in all currencies, accommodation for male youths, espresso coffee and all kinds of Syrian goods, September 2017. CRISISGROUP.

Meanwhile, Turkish citizens of Kurdish origin in Sultangazi told Crisis Group they find it unjust that public institutions employ translators for Arabic-speaking Syrians. “There are signs in both Turkish and Arabic in rooms in some hospitals, whereas the Kurdish language has never been tolerated, let alone catered to in such a way”. They point out that many Syrian Kurdish refugees are not fluent in Arabic; hence, translation of signs into Kurdish would merely be an extension of the refugee integration policy. The authorities are trying as well to accommodate Syrian parents’ desire for Arabic language courses in schools, even as the Kurds’ decades-old demands for Kurdish-language education remain unaddressed. Liberal intellectuals privately advocate reforms that would enable service provision in languages other than Turkish in places where demand exists. But open discussion of such options cannot occur at the peak of Turkish nationalist fervour in the country today.

Divergent Perceptions

Distrust runs deep between the authorities and their adversaries, leading to competing narratives of violent incidents involving refugees.

One such incident took place in the İsmetpaşa neighbourhood of Sultangazi on 15 May 2017. A young Kurdish man was killed in a fight with an Afghan, supposedly over who could sit where in a park. Local authorities told Crisis Group that sinister outside agitators, probably members of the outlawed Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C), were planning to use this incident as an opportunity to organise an anti-government protest at the scene of the murder, by claiming the state does not protect its Kurdish citizens. The authorities say they reached out to residents to dissuade them from joining, and that police evacuated 500-600 Afghans and Pakistanis to protect them from reprisal.

The Syrian refugee presence is exacerbating social problems in Turkey and driving a wedge deeper and deeper between the state and the political opposition.

Reflecting a common view among authorities, a deputy mayor in Sultangazi said the far-left elements living in Sultangazi systematically try to sabotage the state’s effectiveness and to rally opposition: “It is no coincidence that there were protests every day in the Gazi neighbourhood before the coup attempt, and then it stopped suddenly afterward. There was an effort to mobilise people for further destabilisation”.

Kurdish/Alevi community representatives, on the other hand, claim the authorities systematically try to provoke Kurdish opposition, in order to create excuses for crackdowns. A local HDP representative said: “This is part of the systematic effort to stir up unrest. Police bully our young men daily. The swarms of Turkish flags in our streets and the playing of janissary [Ottoman soldier] anthems are all meant to provoke our youth. There is police impunity. A young boy was killed by police the other day; they said he disobeyed a stop warning. Who knows? It can’t be proven one way or another”. They also argue that the government is trying to create circumstances that will lead ordinary residents who support opposition parties to move out of Sultangazi, which is becoming lucrative real estate, thanks to its increasingly central location as mega-projects like the planned third bridge over the Bosphorus proceed.

Coming to Terms with Pluralism

At present, the Syrian refugee presence is exacerbating social problems in Turkey and driving a wedge deeper and deeper between the state and the political opposition. But the Syrian influx also has the potential to trigger constructive debates about how to address the demands of the country’s diverse communities, be they tied together by mother tongue, ethnicity or sect.

As long as certain groups feel marginalised by the ruling party, they will be embittered by the integration of Syrians, and social cohesion will be harder to come by. As such, what works in one setting may well backfire in another. In the conservative border province of Şanlıurfa, for example, no one objects to appeals for unity with Syrian refugees on religious grounds. But districts with heterogeneous demographics, such as Sultangazi, need to be approached with more sensitivity to the perception that the government is promoting Sunni solidarity at the expense of minorities.

Tzu Chi, an international Buddhist aid organisation headquartered in Taiwan, has helped fill the gap in aid and service provision to Syrians in Sultangazi, September 2017. Tzu Chi NGO

Government efforts to meet the needs of host communities and Syrians will be more effective and better perceived if the state also reaches out to constituencies who sympathise with opposition parties. Inviting the representatives of NGOs and political parties that are not aligned with the government to refugee-related coordination meetings at the district level in itself would send a message of inclusivity. It would also serve to generate creative ideas about how to bridge divides in localities that are politically divided.

Opposition parties also have a role to play: they need to be careful not to spread misinformation or exploit the growing angst about Syrians among their constituents. Instead, they should work constructively to bridge the divide. Local actors of all political persuasions need to open channels of dialogue, share information and pool capacities to address local grievances and stop trouble before it starts.


Project Director, Turkey
Analyst, Turkey