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Surrounded By Troubled Neighbors, Turkey's Conflict At Home Escalates

Jan 9, 2016
Originally published on January 11, 2016 12:15 pm

Turkey seems to be surrounded by conflicts these days — in neighboring Syria and Iraq, and tensions are running high with Russia. The fight getting the least attention is the one taking place on Turkey's own soil.

Turkish security forces resumed operations against minority Kurdish fighters last summer after peace talks broke down. The fighting in the southeast has escalated, with Kurdish areas locked down under military curfews and deadly risks facing those who do venture out.

Medical workers have been among the recent victims, says Fadime Kavak with the Turkish Medical Chamber. The latest casualty was Abdul Aziz Yural, a nurse who was shot by a sniper while treating a neighbor in the town of Cizre.

Another nurse, Eyup Ergen, was killed by a sniper while trying to get home, she adds. In addition, "an ambulance driver, Seyhmuz Dursan, was killed, also by a sniper, while out on an emergency call."

Turkish officials deny that their forces target health care workers or civilians. With much of the conflict zone locked down, independent confirmation is extremely difficult.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who once backed peace talks with the militants of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, is now using some of his harshest rhetoric in years to describe the conflict. He recently dismissed Kurdish demands for greater rights and autonomy as nonissues.

"Turkey doesn't have a Kurdish problem," Ergodan said. "Turkey has a terrorism problem."

Thousands Displaced

For residents of the old city in Diyarbakir, the largest city in southeast Turkey, or towns such as Cizre or Silopi, the problem is daily life.

Thousands of people have been displaced, and those who remain are at risk. PKK neighborhoods are riddled with trenches, and young men are armed with AK-47s. The security forces use helicopters, armored vehicles and heavier weapons in pursuit of Erdogan's mandate to eliminate the PKK threat.

It's a promise Turkish leaders have been making for more than 30 years.

This spring, there was some hope that a new political force, the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party, would bring fresh momentum to the peace talks. But now party co-leader Selahattin Demirtas is under threat of prosecution for supporting autonomy for Kurdish towns, and Erdogan has referred to a possible need to close the party down.

The situation seems especially bleak now, says Nigar Goksel with the International Crisis Group, because both sides think time is on their side.

"They both argue that their hand is getting stronger and the other side is getting weaker by virtue of the escalation in southeast (Turkey)," she says.

Goksel also says the battle against the Islamic State next door in Syria is having an effect. The most effective ground force against the Islamic State has been the PYD, Syrian Kurds loosely tied to the PKK. As the PYD gains ground, Turks grow alarmed by what they see as an expansion of Kurdish authority.

Turkey wants the PYD branded as terrorists, something the U.S. has resisted.

Caught In The Crossfire

Caught in this depressing scenario, says Crisis Group researcher Berkay Mandiraci, are ordinary Kurds.

"The 2 1/2 year cease-fire really gave people hope," he says. "You can really see this, and people are expressing the wish to go back to those times. This is probably something which both sides can still build upon."

If and when talks resume, there may be a move to craft a peace process that also involves Syrian Kurds to some extent, say analysts Mandiraci and Goksel.

But they also know that the time for that kind of optimism is some ways down the road.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Turkey is often in the news for the conflicts that roil its borders, the fighting in Iraq and Syria. However, there's also fighting inside the country between the government and Kurdish militants who have declared autonomy in some majority Kurdish towns. Turkish forces are imposing curfews and launching sweeping military operations. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Istanbul.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Late last month, Abdul Aziz Yural raced from his house in the southeast town of Cizre to help a neighbor in distress. Yural was a nurse, so he didn't think twice about it, but while he was treating her he was cut down by a sniper's bullet. Fadime Kavak, with the Turkish medical chamber, says in parts of southeast Turkey these days, medical workers are targets.

FADIME KAVAK: (Through interpreter) The nurse Eyup Ergen was killed by a sniper while trying to get home. An ambulance driver, Seyhmuz Dursan, was killed, also by a sniper, while out on an emergency call.

KENYON: The chamber blames government troops for the deaths, but Turkish officials deny that their forces targeted health care workers or civilians. With much of the conflict zone under curfew, independent confirmation is difficult. Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who once backed peace talks with the militants, the fighting wing of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, is now using some of his harshest rhetoric in years. He recently dismissed Kurdish demands for greater rights in autonomy as nonissues.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (Through interpreter) Turkey doesn't have a Kurdish problem. Turkey has a terrorism problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

KENYON: For civilians, daily life is a problem, with thousands displaced and those who remain at risk. This online video from Cizre shows militant neighborhoods riddled with PKK trenches. Turkish security forces use helicopters, armored vehicles and heavier weapons to pursue Erdogan's mandate to completely root out the PKK fighters. It's a promise Turkish leaders have been making for more than 30 years.

This spring, Turks had some hope that an emerging political group would bring momentum to the push for successful peace talks. But now, the leader of that pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party, Selahattin Demirtas, is threatened with prosecution for supporting autonomy for Kurdish towns. And there are calls to close the party down. The situation seems especially bleak now, says Nigar Goksel with the International Crisis Group because both sides think time is on their side.

NIGAR GOKSEL: They both argue that their hand is getting stronger and the other side is getting weaker by virtue of the escalation in the southeast. This also is connected to developments in Syria.

KENYON: There are also Kurds in northern Syria, including fighters loosely tied to the PKK who are battling the Islamic State and gaining ground. Turkey wants those fighters branded as terrorists, but Kurds in Turkey are proud to see Kurdish battlefield success against ISIS winning international praise. Caught in this depressing scenario, says Crisis Group researcher Berkay Mandiraci, are ordinary Kurds.

BERKAY MANDIRACI: The two and a half year cease-fire really gave people hope. You can really see this and people are expressing the wish to go back to those times. This is probably also something which, you know, both sides can still build upon.

KENYON: But even has he says it, Mandiraci knows that now is not the time for optimism. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.