20 Nov 2008
Kurdish unrest hits the streets
As the repercussions of the global economic downturn begin to bite, there is a real danger of an escalation in ethnic clashes between Turkish and Kurdish youths, Gareth Jenkins writes for ISN Security Watch.
By Gareth Jenkins in Istanbul for ISN Security Watch
Nearly 400 "social support projects" worth a total of US$26 million for the country's predominately Kurdish provinces in the southeast is Ankara's response to a wave of riots and demonstrations last month as young Kurds took to the streets in support of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has been waging a violent campaign for greater Kurdish political and cultural rights since 1984.
The Turkish government on 12 November announced a package of 398 social projects primarily aimed at young people and ranging from sports programs to student bursaries, financial support for small businesses employing unskilled labor and the building of cinemas and skateboarding parks.
Few impartial observers expect the Turkish government's latest initiative to alleviate the often desperate living conditions endured by the country's Kurdish minority. But its announcement is nevertheless a tacit admission that the PKK's 24-year-old insurgency may now be entering a new phase, as the focus of violence moves down from the traditional battlegrounds in the mountains and onto the streets of the cities, where it is able to feed on the high levels of unemployment and social alienation among a new generation of Kurdish youths who have grown up in a culture of conflict with the Turkish state.
The bloody road to identity
When it first launched its campaign of violence in August 1984, the PKK focused almost exclusively on a classic rural insurgency. By the early 1990s, the organization had nearly 10,000 militants under arms and, particularly after dark, effectively controlled large swathes of the countryside in southeast Turkey.
Gradually, the Turkish security forces began to gain the upper hand, learning from experience and adopting more aggressive military tactics - backed by Cobra helicopter gunships purchased from the US - to push the PKK deeper into the mountains.
The Turkish security forces also applied a scorched earth policy across a large proportion of southeast Turkey in order to prevent PKK units from sourcing food from the local population. Over 3,500 villages were burned down and an estimated 1.5 million people driven from their homes. Most took refuge in southeastern cities or in the sprawling shantytowns that surround the western metropolises.
By the time PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan was captured by Turkish special forces in February 1999, the organization was already in retreat on the battlefield. Ocalan was tried and sentenced to life imprisonment. When, in August 1999, he announced from his prison cell that the PKK would end its campaign of violence there was a sense among many of Turkey's Kurds that the organization had served its purpose.
Despite 15 years of violence, over 35,000 deaths and numerous atrocities committed by both sides, it was difficult to deny that the PKK had firmly established the Kurdish issue on Turkey's political agenda.
Perhaps equally significantly, for a large proportion of the country's Kurds, the organization had given them a real sense of a Kurdish identity to supplement their traditional loyalty to family, village and clan. Although the PKK still had around 3,500 militants under arms in its mountain strongholds in northern Iraq, all of its fighting units were withdrawn from Turkey. Hopes among Turkey's Kurds that the government in Ankara would finally grant them political and cultural rights received a further boost when Turkey was named as an official candidate for EU accession in December 1999.
But the concessions, when they came, were minor and mostly little more than tokenism.
In June 2004, frustrated by the Turkish government's failure to grant extensive cultural and political rights or open direct negotiations with the organization, the PKK announced that it was returning to violence. Although it was undoubtedly militarily much weaker than in the early 1990s, the PKK was nevertheless still able to inflict casualties: combining a rural insurgency in the mountains of southeast Turkey with a bombing campaign in the west of the country.
Turkey in Iraq
Until November 2007, the US had consistently refused to allow Turkey to strike at the PKK's camps and bases in northern Iraq. However, on 5 November 2007, it finally bowed to Turkish pressure and agreed to provide the Turkish military with actionable intelligence on PKK assets in northern Iraq in return for an undertaking by Ankara that any subsequent cross-border military operations would be limited in duration and scope. The first Turkish air raids on the PKK's bases in northern Iraq occurred on 16 December 2007 and have continued at regular intervals ever since. In February 2008, Turkish commandos even staged a nine-day ground attack on PKK camps in northern Iraq.
There is little doubt that the Turkish air raids against the PKK camps and bases in northern Iraq have disrupted the organization's supply lines into Turkey and forced it onto the defensive both militarily and psychologically. But the damage has been limited.
The PKK's camps and bases are scattered through caves and shelters in valleys and ravines, making them extremely difficult to target from the air. Most of the air raids are conducted by F-16s flying out of the Turkish air base in Diyarbakir, the largest city in southeastern Turkey. It takes the planes around 30 minutes to arrive over northern Iraq. PKK sympathizers in Diyarbakir monitor the planes taking off from the air base and relay warnings of a possible air raid to the organization's field commanders in northern Iraq, who are able to order their units to disperse and take evasive action.
For the PKK, the Turkish air strikes into northern Iraq have also lowered the threshold for success. Before November 2007, Ankara was able to claim that it was only the US opposition to cross-border raids against the organization's camps and bases in northern Iraq that was preventing it from eradicating the PKK.
As a result, for the PKK, survival is a victory in itself; and, from its perspective, proof of the validity of its claim that the only solution is for the Turkish state to enter into negotiations with the organization.
On 3 October this year, the PKK further demonstrated its resilience by killing 17 Turkish soldiers in an attack on a border post in the village of Aktutun on the Turkish-Iraqi border. It was the highest Turkish death toll in a single incident in more than a decade. Five days later, the PKK ambushed a police bus in the center of Diyarbakir in broad daylight, killing six of the passengers.
The economics of mobilization
The riots and protests of late October also demonstrated the PKK's growing willingness to mobilize Kurdish youths.
Tens of thousands of teenagers and young men took to the streets across southeastern Turkey to engage in running battles with the Turkish security forces as rumors spread that Ocalan was being mistreated in prison. Hundreds were arrested or injured and one demonstrator was shot dead by the police in the eastern city of Dogubayazit.
In the western cities, particularly in Istanbul, young Kurdish migrants torched hundreds of cars. When Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan visited Diyarbakir on 21 October, he was met with shuttered shops as the city's shopkeepers responded to a PKK call to close for the day; while thousands of youths, including boys in their early teens, took to the streets to hurl stones at the police.
Both Erdogan and the nationalist Turkish press subsequently lambasted the PKK for encouraging children to take to the streets. But the youth of the demonstrators was in itself a demonstration of the size of the challenge now facing the Turkish state.
Approximately 45 percent of the population of southeastern Turkey is younger than 15, around 65 percent younger than 25. Local business organizations estimate that unemployment in the southeastern cities is at least 50 percent, rising to 70 percent amongst young men. Almost all of the youths who were questioned by Turkish journalists during the October riots and demonstrations cited poverty and a lack of jobs - which they regarded as being as much official state policy as the denial of their cultural and political rights as Kurds - as being among the reasons they had taken to the streets.
"Levels of poverty, unemployment and social alienation are highest amongst those who were forced to flee to the cities when their villages were burned during the 1990s," Rustem Erkan, the head of the Sociology Department at Diyarbakir's Dicle University, told ISN Security Watch.
"Although there are rich people in Diyarbakir, around 200,000 of the population of 800,000 are extremely poor. Almost all of the poorest inhabitants are those who have come in from the countryside. It is their children who are taking to the streets. It is through these children - whether they were born in the villages or after their families moved into the cities - that Turkey is now beginning to pay the price for the evacuation of the countryside during the 1990s," he said.
"The Turkish state always makes a fuss when it kills some PKK militants," a source close to the PKK told ISN Security Watch.
"Of course, it is not good when we lose people we have trained. But we have no problem recruiting. In fact, each time the Turkish planes attack us in northern Iraq, we get more young people wanting to join us."
The emergence of a politicized and deeply alienated younger generation of Kurds in southeastern Turkey has been accompanied by a rise in ethnic tensions between Turks and Kurds in the west of the country.
Clashes between Turkish nationalists and Kurdish migrants - which were almost unheard of during the first PKK insurgency - are becoming more frequent, particularly among young, impoverished males.
As the repercussions of the global economic downturn begin to bite, there is a real danger of an escalation in ethnic clashes between Turkish and Kurdish youths.
The social projects announced by the Turkish government last week are unlikely to change the way young Kurds regard the Turkish state; and the PKK has already demonstrated that it understands how combustible a combination of social alienation and poverty can be.
Gareth Jenkins is a writer and analyst based in Istanbul and specializing in civil-military relations, political Islam and security issues. He is the author of Political Islam in Turkey: Running West, Heading East? (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).
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