Considering the dozens of Turkish air strikes in Qandil, the whining sound made by the drone overhead was a little unsettling when I visited this September. In my mind I can picture the drone operator sitting in a dark trailer somewhere back in Turkey, zooming in on the top of my head with the camera lens on the drone and contemplating whether he should scramble fighter jets to drop a 500 pound bomb on me. “We need to go back,” my PKK escort, Zagros, says. “It is not safe right now.” He is worried about the drone acting as forward reconnaissance to scout out targets for Turkish aircraft, just as I am. We are done for the day, and heading back to a place to bed down for the night. Tomorrow would be another day, hopefully with less drone activity.
The history behind the air strikes is as long as it is complicated, dating back to the hostilities between the PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party) and the Turkish government in the 1980s. It could be traced even further back to previous ethnic tensions between the Kurds and the Turks. The latest round of violence, in the form of air strikes against PKK and civilian targets in Kurdistan, most likely has its origins in the last round of elections in Turkey, which for the first time brought the Kurds into the political process via the Kurdish HDP (People’s Democratic Party) by electing MPs to the Turkish parliament. HDP need 10 percent of the vote to meet the minimum threshold to be represented in the government, and managed to secure 13 percent of the votes, gaining 81 seats in the parliament during the general elections on June 7th, 2015.
Suffice to say that this did not sit well with the Islamist-leaning Erdogan-led government, or the ultra-right wing Ataturk nationalists. On July 17th, Erdogan rejected the 10-point Dolmabahce agreement between the HDP and Turkey’s deputy prime minister, a de facto ceasefire between Turkey and the PKK that had also been endorsed by Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK’s leader and figurehead who has been held in a Turkish prison since 1999.
“The goal is to keep HDP behind the 10 percent threshold and change the system from a parliamentary system to a presidential system. Since the elections, they have only allowed the parliament to function for 20 hours, for swearing in and to make a decision to allow the Turkish military to go abroad to Iraq. Is this democracy?” Zagros asked me in a later interview.
On July 20th, at least one bomb ripped through a Kurdish gathering in Suruc, which is located about 10 kilometers away from Kobani, Syria. Here, the Kurdish YPG and YPJ fighters had been fighting a fierce battle against ISIS, the jihadis long suspected of receiving logistical support from the Turkish MIT intelligence service. The Suruc bombing killed 33 Kurds and aggravated an already tense ceasefire brokered between the PKK and the Turkish government.
ISIS claimed responsibility for the Suruc attack, but doubt has continued to linger as to the actor responsible for the bombing. While in Qandil, I asked my PKK escort about the attack, and he replied that the “deep state was behind that attack…shadow powers.” The deep state is a reference to a collusion between intelligence services and organized crime. We see the deep state present in places like Pakistan, but the deep state also alludes to shadowy connections elsewhere, such as the Cold War-era “Gladio” construct in Europe. Turkey itself has a long history of of such collusions, including the Gray Wolves.
“The decision to attack the Kurds was taken in the 30th of October of 2013 in the national security assembly,” Zagros explained. “After the Kobani events…they came to such a conclusion that the Kurdish freedom movement is getting more and more powerful so [they] have to attack the Kurds.” Regarding Suruc, Zagros said that the Turkish government “reformulated their plans” after the elections, “and this time they attacked the PKK under the disguise of ISIS. They did a massacre in Suruc.”
In August, Erdogan called for snap elections, unsatisfied with the HDP upsetting his chances at securing a super majority for his party, a majority which would have allowed him to change the Turkish constitution. At the time, Erdogan remarked, “I won’t waste time. As president, I know the scope of my authority and I am in a position where I need to use my powers all the way.” While the snap elections were scheduled for November 1st, Erdogan continued to ratchet up tensions between Turkey’s political factions. Whether the Suruc bombing was in fact launched by shadowy figures in the Turkish government or not, it played right into Erdogan’s hand. The bombing torpedoed the ceasefire agreement, acting as a provocation to reignite open conflict between the Kurds and the Turks.
And it did. The PKK retaliated by killing Turkish soldiers, a reaction that Erdogan must have anticipated. As clashes between the PKK and Turkish forces intensified, Erdogan ordered air strikes against the PKK stronghold of Qandil in Kurdistan. In late July, the bombs started dropping on Qandil. The Turkish military claimed that hundreds of PKK guerrillas were killed, while Zagros said the real number was closer to 20.
Climbing through the rubble of an airstrike that hit the village of Zargali, in the Qandil Valley, was unsettling. I was left feeling like I was walking over someone’s grave. The village had been blasted apart, with cinder blocks strewn across the valley like giant Lego blocks. Observing household items, toys, and the cardboard box of a Playstation console game system, it was clear that this was a civilian target, not a PKK fortification. Among the victims was a grandmother with several sons who were currently serving in the Peshmerga. Zagros informed me that eight civilians were killed during the air strikes that night. The first round of bombings came at four in the morning. Then, using a tactic the CIA is often accused of using in Pakistan, a second bombing came hours later when other civilians had gathered to recover the dead and wounded.
The air strikes began before my arrival in September and continued well after and into November. While I was there, the press was also reporting that hundreds of Turkish special forces troops had crossed into Kurdistan and were making a blitzkrieg toward Qandil. Zagros brushed off any such claims, telling me that Turkish forces had not even crossed the border into Kurdistan. The press was simply reporting the Turkish government’s press releases about a military incursion at face value, a propaganda win if nothing else. Indeed, I saw no indication of Turkish troops inside Kurdistan at that time nor have I since.
With air strikes ongoing, tensions continued to rise in Turkey as the nation inched closer to the November 1st elections. On October 10th, a Kurdish rally was held in Turkey’s capital city of Ankara, demanding an end to the violence between the PKK and the Turks. The Kurdish HDP party was heavily represented at the rally. Two suicide bombers detonated in the middle of the crowd, killing 102 demonstrators. The co-chair of the HDP party stated, “This attack is not targeting our state and national unity, it is perpetrated by the state against the people. We are witnessing a massacre here.” The Ankara bombing was the deadliest act of terrorism in the history of Turkey, a sickening historical first the likes of which France has also experienced in the last week.
Conspiracy theory is a popular hobby in this part of the world, and on the surface it is easy to attribute the bombing to the Erdogan government as an excuse to crack down on political rallies ahead of the election. However, it could also be that that right-wing nationalist party (MHP) and the Islamist party (AKP) do not have full control over all of their own members. The PKK itself does not have control over all of the young Kurdish activists-turned-fighters who often clash with police or take up arms against them. The most likely culprit appears to be ISIS, as one of the bombers was an alleged ISIS recruiter, but whether they had a hidden facilitator behind the scenes remains unknown. “Erdogan is using the Sunni version of political Islam for his own power,” Zagros said.
Erdogan, for his part, blamed the bombing on a colorful cast of characters from the Syrian intelligence services, to ISIS, to the PKK itself. The air strikes, the bombings, and the cancelled elections all happened at a key moment in the political history of Turkey when the president sought to consolidate power, install himself as president for life, and potentially make sweeping changes to the constitution. The Kurds upset his chances of attaining these goals, but also made for the perfect enemy to drive up nationalistic sentiments, scare the public, and ultimately drive the HDP out of parliament.
“Does Erdogan need a war?” I asked Zagros as we drove in a pickup truck toward the site of an airstrike.
He nodded an affirmative. “He needs a war.”
Many were holding their breath by the time the November 1st elections came around. The AKP Islamist party retook the majority of the seats in parliament. HDP barely made the 10 percent threshold to remain in parliament and secured 59 seats. Interestingly, the leader of another minority political party, the Rights and Freedoms Party (HAK-PAR), was killed in a car crash just a few days prior to the election. In the end, it was a massive victory for Erdogan and the AKP, who managed to win 49.5 percent of the votes.
I reached out to Zagros to get an update on the situation regarding the air strikes and Kurdish rights back in Turkey. He wrote back,
“Turkish fighter jets are still bombing the mountains of Kurdistan, in North and South Kurdistan. The Turkish military is even launching artillery attacks on the Kurdish positions in Rojava. Up until now, many villagers have been killed, their gardens and livestock harmed. Erdogan has declared that they will continue their attacks until they hunt the last man in the PKK. They use many modern and sophisticated techniques in these attacks. They have started using the new smart GPS-guided bombs they had purchased from an American company before the elections.”
Although Zagros said that he cannot speak on behalf of the HDP in Turkey, he said about the current situation, “The Kurdish Freedom Movement will continue to defend the Kurdish people against the attacks of Erdogan and the AKP, especially the people and the youth who are resisting in the cities and have set up their own local democracies. The Freedom Movement will support their democratic self-administration.” His thoughts about the war against ISIS were even more interesting. “The Kurdish Freedom Movement will continue to fight against the so-called IS [Islamic State] for we see IS and AKP as two sides of a coin. They have complementary roles and both of them serve one aim. That aim matches Erdogan’s Neo-Ottoman ambitions and his dreams of being new sultan in Turkey. We will defend the peoples of the region against the threats of AKP and IS.”
Meanwhile, the march toward peace appears to be more difficult than winning the armed conflict in this region. The PKK wants Turkey to accept a bilateral ceasefire while extended negotiations are conducted. “The massacre in Ankara coincided with the declaration of non-action by our movement,” Zagros wrote. “They perpetrated the massacre in order to prevent the positive effects of the unilateral non-action on the election process.” The PKK also wants their leader, Abdullah Ocalan, to be able to freely address the Kurdish and Turkish people, and wants a “third eye” to monitor the ceasefire. This could be the United Nations, America, or some regional political confab, but the PKK is not willing to take the Turkish government at their word without some checks and balances in place.