Stories from Kurdistan

Turkey’s Post-Coup Crackdown Hits Kurds

The following article was originally published in The Wall Street Journal on September 26, 2016.

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey—A post-coup crackdown in Turkey has expanded into the restive Kurdish minority’s heartland, exacerbating tensions after a rare show of solidarity by Kurdish lawmakers with the democratically elected government.

Turkey’s Education Ministry suspended 11,285 teachers this month for allegedly supporting Kurdish separatists. The government also removed by decree 24 elected mayors from pro-Kurdish parties accused of aiding the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says the moves are part of a campaign against Kurdish terror groups, billing it as the biggest operation yet against the PKK. But the fresh crackdown worries some in Turkey and its Western allies that the policies are stoking ethnic rivalries, rather than capitalizing on a brief sense of national unity to negotiate an end to the PKK’s three-decade uprising.

As F-16s attacked the national assembly during the July 15 coup attempt, Kurdish lawmakers stood there in solidarity with other lawmakers and joined an extraordinary parliament session to adopt a resolution in defense of democracy.

But even as Mr. Erdogan has warmed relations with two other opposition parties, he has ignored Kurdish overtures and the government has ruled out peace talks.

Prosecutors have pressed on with PKK-related terrorism charges against dozens of lawmakers from the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, or HDP, while Mr. Erdogan dropped some 1,500 charges against other opposition lawmakers for insulting the president.

“There is a systematic embargo against us,” said Figen Yuksekdag, co-chair of the HDP. “If the HDP is ostracized, that will raise the risk of a coup and civil war.”

The new moves come amid aggressive efforts against two other groups the government lists as terror organizations: Islamic State and the global network of U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who Ankara accuses of masterminding the failed putsch, allegations he denies.

Turkish officials didn’t respond to requests for comment. The government has repeatedly called on Kurdish politicians to unequivocally reject PKK violence. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim recently accused the HDP of acting in cahoots with the PKK.

The pro-Kurdish party rejects the accusation and says it has strongly condemned Kurdish militants’ attacks.

The PKK has been fighting for autonomy since 1984 in a conflict that has killed more than 40,000 people.

When he was prime minister, Mr. Erdogan used the HDP as interlocutors to help usher in a two-year cease-fire that broke down in 2015. Renewed violence since July 2015 has killed more than 2,000 people and displaced some 350,000 residents in the majority Kurdish southeast, where sweeping counterterrorism operations and PKK attacks occur daily.

Kurdish politicians and residents here in Diyarbakir, the de facto Kurdish capital, accuse the government of deliberately fanning tensions.

”If Erdogan so desired, the clashes would stop—he is the one who started this conflict that is destroying us,” said Faik Ozbek, a 39-year-old whose kebab restaurant was partially destroyed during a four-month siege of the city’s central Sur neighborhood.

Since the government quashed PKK efforts to control urban areas in the southeast, the fighting has spread to the countryside. But parts of Sur remain sealed off. Centuries-old bazaars once packed with tourists are empty; many businesses are closed for good.

Many people here say that Mr. Erdogan could end the conflict by re-engaging with PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who was convicted of treason and has been imprisoned on an island south of Istanbul since 1999.

This month, Turkish officials allowed Mr. Ocalan his first family visit in almost two years. Afterward, his brother released a message in his name calling for a resumption of peace talks.

The government hasn’t replied to the statement. Turkish officials have repeatedly said they would continue to fight the PKK until it is defeated.

In early September, during a high-profile Diyarbakir trip to woo Kurdish support for the government’s policies, Mr. Yildirim ruled out resuming the peace process but sought to quell mistrust with a sweeping economic development plan.

Turkey’s fight in Syria against Islamic State and attempts to curb Kurdish territorial gains there are also complicating its response. Turkey is afraid gains by Syrian Kurds affiliated with the PKK are emboldening the insurgency.

“It is impossible for either the Turkish state or the PKK to take a step without considering developments in Syria,” said Fuat Keyman, an international relations professor at Sabanci University in Istanbul who advised the government during peace talks.

Adding to the challenges, it remains unclear who the government would speak to even if it changed its mind. The HDP says it hasn’t had any official contact with the government or Mr. Erdogan’s office since summer 2015.

“Discrediting the HDP is perhaps killing our last chance for peace,” said Garo Paylan, an Armenian lawmaker from Istanbul with the HDP. “Of course we want the PKK to announce a cease-fire, even if it is unilateral, but for that to happen, the state needs to provide at least a small signal.”


Read the article above in The Wall Street Journal.

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