Wed, Dec 30, 2015, Stephen Starr in Constantinople
Turkey’s military operation against militants in the Kurdish-populated southeast has entered a third week with government forces still unable to decisively root out the rebels.
More than 200 Kurdish militants and at least 49 civilians have died in clashes in Cizre, Nusaybin, Silopi and Diyarbakir’s Sur district. Several security officers have also been killed in one of the largest military operations in Turkey for years.
So-called civilian protection units and youths allied to the YDG-H, the youth wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), have laid roadside bombs stopping troops from advancing into Cizre and in turn forcing the military to launch often indiscriminate bombardments into the border town.
Cihan, a pharmacist who has remained in Cizre throughout the two-week operation, said night-time shelling by government forces had intensified since last Thursday.
Representatives of the secular opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), were last week refused entry to districts of Diyarbakir, the de facto Kurdish capital in Turkey, where clashes are ongoing.
On Sunday local media reported that a three-month-old girl and her grandfather were shot dead in their home in Cizre, though responsibility for the shooting remains unknown. Civilians in the town have been unable to leave their homes for 14 days, and access to electricity, food and medicine has been restricted.
Increasingly, militant Kurdish groups acting in the name of the PKK, including one that carried out an attack on an Istanbul airport last Wednesday killing a cleaner, are doing so against the PKK’s wishes.
Amid the unrest a call for autonomy by Kurdish leaders including Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) co-chair Selahattin Demirtas has further driven a wedge between the AK Party government and Kurds. “The region has embraced autonomy. The people are standing behind autonomy, they should see this well,” said Demirtas.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed that the rebels would be “buried in the trenches they have dug”.
“They are talking about separating our land in this country. With God’s permission, we will never allow a surgery on the unity of our country,” he said.
Last week Demirtas met Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, further straining ties between Ankara and Kurds following the downing of a Russian jet by Turkey last month.
“Should people act like lambs to the slaughter in the face of all pressures? What did people do against the blockade during the Sarajevo resistance, which you [Erdogan] mention with praise and enthusiasm? They dug ditches and they dug tunnels,” Demirtas said of the unrest in the southeast.
Across the border in northern Syria, the recently formed US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, a rebel coalition led by Kurds and other groups, took a major dam on the Euphrates river from Islamic State extremists on Saturday in a move that will also worry Ankara.
In October, Turkey launched air strikes against Kurdish militias in Syria after declaring territory west of the Euphrates a “red line”. Turkey fears that the success of Kurdish militias just kilometres across the border in Syria has fuelled nationalist sentiment inside its borders and may create a corridor of Kurdish-controlled territory along its border.
The conflict between leftist Kurds and the Turkish state reignited last July following the breakdown of a two-year peace process when 32 Kurdish and other activists were killed in Suruc by a suspected Islamic State militant.
The HDP and many Kurds say the AK Party government has done little to protect them, turning Kurds into a rival political force for Erdogan and the government. This year has been one of the most violent in recent times in Turkey with 102 people killed at a peace rally in Ankara on October 10th.