War Against the Kurds Renewed

Against the Current, No. 184, September/October 2016

Sarah Parker and Phil Hearse

IN LATE JUNE 2015 a NATO meeting held at Turkey’s request gave the green light to a bombing campaign against “terrorists” across the southern borders in Syria and Iraq. The “terrorists” meant not only the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria but also the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) in its Iraqi mountain redoubt of Qandil.

For show, Erdogan’s airforce carried out a few symbolic raids against ISIS, but in reality the aerial offensive was against the Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq.

Turkey is unable to carry out bombing raids against Kurdish forces in Northern Syria because the airspace is effectively controlled either by the Russians or the Americans. But in addition to attacking the Kurds in south east Turkey and northern Iraq, they are strongly supporting Islamist forces fighting the Kurds in Syria and have shelled them across the border.

The hypocrisy of this situation is staggering. The United States and others have praised the Kurdish fighters as the most effective force in the battle against ISIS in Syria, but these fighters are the victims of Turkish attacks sanctioned by NATO.

From early September 2015 many thousands of troops were deployed to attack Kurdish towns and cities in southeastern Turkey, particularly Cizre, the Sur area of Diyarbakir, the de facto “capital” of Turkish Kurdistan, Sirnex, Silopi, Gever and Nusaybin. The aim of this was to crush the attempt by municipalities to declare self-rule and to crush those militants defending self-rule.

Starting in September 2015 supporters of the pro-PKK Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H) dug ditches and put up barricades to defend the self-governing areas, but they were met with a massive military assault, using tanks, artillery, mortars and heavy machine guns against residential areas. More than 1000 Kurds have been killed and up to 500,000 displaced by the government’s brutal assault.

According to Jesse Rosenfeld, one of only two Western journalists to get access to the besieged area:

“This is not Syria, nor is it Iraq. It is Turkey, America’s NATO partner, now in the throes of a rapidly expanding war against its Kurdish population in the country’s southeast… Now, on the streets of the de facto Kurdish capital of Diyarbakir, the example the YPG [People’s Protection Units] has set of liberating Kurdish territory by force in Syria is increasingly popular. Turkey’s siege and bombardment of the district of Sur, lasting more than 90 days, has become a driving force in this changing attitude. Reports of civilians trapped by the fighting and stories of women fighters killed in action being stripped naked and left in the streets to rot for weeks have incensed the population. The few dozen guerrillas still fighting to hold off Turkish security forces have become a symbol of inspiration to many Kurds.” (http://www.thenation.com/article/turkey-is-fighting-a-dirty-war-against-itsown-kurdish-population/)

In late May 2016 Kurds around the world mobilized to try to prevent a civilian massacre in Nusaybin. Following the announcement by the Civil Defense Units (YPS), the Kurdish militia fighting Turkish state forces in the besieged town, that they had withdrawn from the embattled district after 72 days of heroic resistance, state forces continued shelling civilian neighborhoods in the area.

Turkish television on 26 May showed 40 Kurdish civilians in the besieged district taken into custody by the Turkish army and claimed they were “terrorists” surrendering. Given the many massacres committed by Turkish state forces, these captives were in great peril.

In the state’s “dirty war” against the Kurds in the 1990s, hundreds of Kurdish villages were destroyed by the military. Hundreds of thousands flooded into the cities to escape the repression. The new confrontations with the regime’s police and soldiers are in many of those cities. The sons and daughters of those forced to flee are now leading the resistance. In the face of overwhelming odds, the fighting died down in the spring of 2016 but intense fighting continued in Nusaybin until May 20 when the YPG fighters withdrew.

The brutal actions of the Turkish armed forces in the south east of the country have attracted criticism from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. He said he had received reports of unarmed civilians — including women and children — being deliberately shot by snipers, or by gunfire from tanks and other military vehicles.

“There also appears to have been massive, and seemingly highly disproportionate, destruction of property and key communal infrastructure — including buildings hit by mortar or shellfire, and damage inflicted on the contents of individual apartments and houses taken over by security forces,” he said. “There are also allegations of arbitrary arrests, and of torture and other forms of ill-treatment, as well as reports that in some situations ambulances and medical staff were prevented from reaching the wounded.”

“Most disturbing of all,” the High Com­missioner said, “are the reports quoting witnesses and relatives in Cizre which suggest that more than 100 people were burned to death as they sheltered in three different basements that had been surrounded by security forces.”

Betrayal at Kobani

In the conflict in Syria, Turkey has played a pernicious role. In September 2014 ISIS launched an attack on the north Syrian Kurdish city of Kobani, center of the Kobani canton. The population of dozens of towns and villages in the area was assaulted by ISIS, killing many and forcing hundreds of thousands to flee across the border into Turkey.

Kobani was surrounded on three sides by ISIS and the fourth side faced the Turkish border. The Turkish army along the border prevented aid and Kurdish reinforcements going across to KobanI, although some Kurdish fighters managed to get into the city to join the YPG fighters.

The Turkish state has no desire to see Kurdish fighters being successful in the fight against ISIS.
There is considerable evidence that the AKP [the party of president Erdogan — ed.] regime has bought oil from ISIS and facilitated the flow of arms and fighters across its border to reinforce ISIS, including during the siege of Kobani. In October 2014 protests erupted in various cities in Turkey regarding the lack of support for the Syrian Kurds from the Turkish government.

Protesters were met with teargas and water cannon, and initially 12 people were killed. Thirty-one people were killed in subsequent rioting. Erdogan said that he was not ready to launch operations against ISIS in Syria unless it was also against the Bashar al-Assad government.

In January 2015 the Kurdish resistance was able to launch a major offensive aimed at retaking Kobani, and this was backed up by units of the Free Syrian army and by air strikes against ISIS launched by American planes. By the end of March 2015 Kobani had been largely cleared of ISIS fighters by the YPG, which also began to reconquer the outlying villages in the canton.

In June 2015 ISIS retaliated with car bomb attacks and a four-day massacre of Syrian Kurds in Kobani and in the nearby village of Barkh Butan at the same time, killing a total of some 223 people.

The resistance to ISIS in Kobani was heroic and it cost the YPG hundreds of dead. Among those who did not celebrate were Erdogan and his government, petrified by the prospect of a self-governing Kurdish enclave in northern Syria that would act as a bastion of support for the Kurds in Turkey itself.

It is just this prospect that will open up if Kurdish forces are able to link up the three cantons in northern Syria which have a majority Kurdish population.

The Syrian Kurdish PYD (Democratic Union Party, close to the PKK) and its military wing the YPG have kept their pledge to defend their area if attacked. They are currently still defending the three majority Kurdish and mixed self-declared autonomous cantons of Afrin in the west (under heavy attack by Al Nusra and Ahrar Al Sham forces backed of course by Turkey), Kobani and Jazira (Qamishlo and Hasakah), and the isolated but mainly Kurdish area of Sheikh Maqsud in Aleppo, and trying to cut ISIS’s supply lines from Turkey going east via Raqqa and Shengal to Mosul.

The AKP is trying to consolidate and extend power by attacking on several fronts simultaneously. These include:

• Striking of Kurdish guerrilla forces in northern Iraq and Syria.

• Savage military assault on rebel Kurdish towns and cities in southeast Turkey.

• A wide-ranging attack on civil rights throughout Turkey, especially the imprisonment of dozens of journalists, the closing down of opposition in the press and broadcast media, particularly savage attacks on the HDP (a democratic opposition party), making it very difficult for the party to function, and the harassment and prosecution of academics who in January 2016 signed the statement or refusal to participate in the massacres in the southeastern cities and calling for peace.

September-October 2016, ATC 184