Turkey: A Baffling 24 Hours In Istanbul

It’s now easier to get news from Mars than Hakkari

August 9, 2012

I confess freely that I’m finding it difficult to make sense of recent events in Turkey, and I submit that anyone offering a confident analysis is exaggerating either his access or his analytic acumen. There is obviously a great deal happening; but the people who understand it aren’t talking, and the people who are talking don’t understand it.

Here is what we do know: This morning, there was a terrorist attack in Izmir that claimed the life of a Turkish soldier and injured eleven more. A remotely-controlled land mine exploded as a military bus was passing on a road in the Aegean town of Foça. The attack is believed to be the work of the PKK, and has many of the PKK’s signature hallmarks. To judge from reports on Twitter, Izmir citizens were–predictably–appalled, enraged and terrified.

The location of the attack was significant. Izmir is in Western Turkey, and while PKK attacks are not unknown here, they are not common. Civilians were targeted by bombs in Ku?adas? and Çe?me in 2005, and in Güngören, in Istanbul 2008–although the authorship of the latter bombing is unclear. In 2010, a bomb targeting police forces exploded in Istanbul’s Taksim Square (it is impossible to set off a bomb in Taksim Square without endangering civilian lives, so in no way can this be considered a purely military target, and given that Turkey’s army is a conscript army, I am not sure this distinction is in any case meaningful.) Last year saw a deadly bombing in Çankaya, Ankara, and a bizarre, but mercifully thwarted, attack on an Izmit ferry. But the PKK assumed responsibility for neither–the former was assumed to be the work of a PKK splinter group, the latter, a lunatic.

So why Izmir, and why now? It is hard to believe that Istanbul is better protected than Izmir; Istanbul would have been the more spectacular target were the aim to show, “We can hit you anywhere.” Some speculate that it is because Izmir swings to the right on the issue of negotiations with the PKK to a much greater degree than those in Istanbul. Izmir is also an opposition CHP stronghold–but whether this is significant I don’t know.

Meanwhile, there is something close to a news blackout about the battle of ?emdinli, in the Southeast. Some reports are trickling out, and while I don’t know what to make of them, I am certain the news isn’t good:

As intense fighting between government forces and militants of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) continue unabated in the southeastern province of Hakkari, Bianet reporter Nilay Vardar has travelled to the heart of the conflict zone to relate the developments there which mainstream media has given only superficial coverage to. …

The moment we stepped into downtown ?emdinli, everyone began pointing toward the plumes of smoke rising from Mt. Goman and Mt. Efkar as if to say “Look, they do not believe us.”

Everyone was anxious to tell me their stories because there were virtually no journalists from the mainstream media in town. ?dris Emen from the daily Radikal had been there for three days, not to mention the local reporters who could not get their voices heard.

They kept asking why no journalists had come, and thus everyone was in a hurry to get their stories across just as a journalist had arrived from Istanbul.

Locals were so inured to clashes in the area for 35 years that the sounds of constant artillery fire and low flying helicopter gunships were no strangers to them. The only difference was that this was the first time around that a battle had lasted for so long.

Yesterday, the same reporter, Nilay Vardir, observed that

[t]he clashes are raging over an area 600 square kilometers wide, including Mt. Goman and Mt. Efkar across the district center.

Over 500 villagers were forced to evacuate their homes in the days that followed the eruption of the conflict.

The PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) has run “identity checks” on many village roads, and even on the road to Yüksekova. The “identity cheks,” which are cited as the main reason that ignited the conflict, are a means for the PKK to assert its presence, according to what I have heard.

“Hit and run” turns to “hit and stay?”

BDP (Peace and Democracy Party) [My note: the party is something like Sein Fein to the PKK’s IRA] Deputy Esad Canan who accompanied us in our car during our trip from Yüksekova to ?emdinli said the PKK had revised its tactic from “hit and run” to “hit and stay,” allowing it to establish “area control” in ?emdinli.

Canan also said the officials’ muted response to the issue was due to the state’s loss of control in the area.

“We [were not allowed to] enter through the borders of our district with the mayor, and this shows the state is hiding something,” he said in regards to their aborted attempt to enter a neighborhood in downtown ?emdinli.

The clashes are raging over an area 600 square kilometers wide, including Mt. Goman and Mt. Efkar across the district center.

Over 500 villagers were forced to evacuate their homes in the days that followed the eruption of the conflict.

The ongoing clashes are the most protracted ever, he also added.

“We are just like back in the 1990s. There is a de facto ‘OHAL’ (state of emergency),” Canan said.

Deputy Canan also elucidated on the reasons as to why the conflict had broken out now and why in ?emdinli in particular:

“?emdinli is where the PKK launched its first raid in 1984 in tandem with Eruh; it bears symbolic significance. Secondly, it [represents] a reaction against the state’s claim to have finished the PKK off and Prime Minister Erdo?an’s rhetoric of intervention against the formation of a Kurdish [entity] in Syria,” Canan said.

“The PKK is telling the state to pay attention to ?emdinli rather than picking on Syria,” former Hakkari Deputy Hamit Geylani also explained, as he kept us company at an “iftar” meal where we dined together with all the other reporters in the district.

No explanations, merely allegations

The question of exactly how many troops and PKK members lost their lives in the conflict is still shrouded in mystery. Reports indicate that 10 soldiers died until now, including in the attack in downtown Hakkari. There is talk of bodybags being picked up from hospitals.

Further claims are also abound that the troops who died were mercenaries and that the Turkish Armed Forces had mistakenly killed 17 soldiers. All this is nothing but hearsay, however, as authorities have barred all access into the region.

The PKK announced that it had lost four guerillas. Families keep arriving in ?emdinli to pick their funerals up, but officials deny them access into the area for reasons of security.

As freelance journalist Frederike Geerdink noted on August 3,

‘A new tactic’, says Murat Karayilan, commander of the Kurdish armed movement, the PKK, via a Kurdish news agency. No, says the Turkish army, it’s a big anti PKK operation. Fact is that in the South-east of Turkey an unusually long battle is being fought between the army and the PKK. The fighting has been going on now for eleven days.

Usually [such] confrontations are short: the PKK attacks an army post or police station or explodes a mine, after which they quickly go back into hiding. The army, in its turn, bombs PKK camps in the mountains on the Turkish-Iraqi border. Battles that last for days, like now in the ?emdinli region, are unusual.

Whether the PKK, like Karayilan says, has really changed tactics, must nevertheless be doubted, says analyst Gareth Jenkins. He works in Istanbul for the American Institute for Central Asia and the Caucasus. Jenkins: ‘The PKK can’t really hold territory; they don’t have the military means for that’.

But that it is a one-sided, long lasting attack on the PKK, like the army says, isn’t very convincing either: the military’s power is so much greater that such an operation shouldn’t have to last eleven days.

The fighting started when eleven days ago the PKK put up roadblocks in the area, stopped cars and checked people’s identities. That triggered the army action. Jenkins: ‘I think the PKK changed tactics already about a year ago. Then Kurdish groups declared so-called ‘democratic autonomy’, and ever since the PKK wants to show they ultimately call the shots in the area.’

The recent PKK bombing of the Iraqi-Turkish pipeline, on July 30, suggests another dimension of the conflict: The explosion not only interrupted Iraqi oil transfers, but suggested that the PKK remains willing to target Turkey’s strategic assets, integrally tied to its energy infrastructure.

Yesterday, the Turkish interior minister, ?dris Naim ?ahin, claimed that half of the PKK terrorists killed in the southeast were carrying Iranian, Iraqi, Armenian and Israeli identification. The day before, the same minister claimed that there was “no difference” between a terrorist who employed mortars and bullets in Geçimli and one who “writes articles in Ankara”–a comment that suggests the dismal effect this conflict, if unabated, will have on prospects for democratization and freedom of expression in Turkey. Prime Minister Erdogan today agreed, suggesting that those responsible for the escalation of violence were–of course–the press. “”Know that every sentence you write about [the terrorists],” he said,”is the element of propaganda they are looking for but can not find. And know that we keep track of that.” What precisely this means is unclear, but it is surely connected to the lack of reporting we’re receiving from the Southeast. It is no small irony that it is now possible for those of us living in Istanbul to receive more news from Mars than from Hakkari.

While obviously it is absurd to suggest that the PKK is comprised of Armenians and Israelis, the idea that Assad is providing assistance to them isn’t–on the face on it–at all implausible. It seems to me unlikely that Iran is actively assisting them; they’ve got enough problems of their own with the PJAK that I can’t imagine they’d want to stir up that hornet’s nest–but who knows. Now, I stress that I am speculating here, but it does seem obvious that were I Assad, I’d want the Turkish military and the Turkish intelligence services completely tied down with its own domestic uprising; and I’d hope to foment as much public backlash in Turkey against the AKP’s foreign meddling as possible.

That said, from various credible reports it sounds as if Assad’s forces are so confused at this point that they’re hard-pressed to find their own backsides with both hands. I have heard from journalists I trust that Assad’s forces are bombing and strafing at random while missing obvious targets such as the FSA headquarters. This does not sound to me like a regime in a position to pull off a complicated act of internal subversion in Turkey. But again, I stress, I am speculating, based on very limited real knowledge–as is almost everyone with an opinion about this region.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s rapprochement with Iran is all but officially over. This morning, Iran announced that it had suspended arrangements for visa-free travel for Turkish citizens. (As one Turkish journalist remarked on Twitter, “Break up is official: Iran suspends visa privileges for Turks. Will officials exchange letters and gifts?” “Americans,” I replied, “feel like the previous girlfriend who tried to warn Turkey, but everyone dismissed her as ‘just bitter.'” This got a few laughs, but I suspect it also captures the truth just a bit too well for comfort.)

Two days ago, on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s website, Iranian Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Seyed Hassan Firouzabadi warned Turkey that “it will be its turn” if it continued to “help advance the warmongering policies of the United States in Syria.” It would not, Firouzabadi said, be “an appropriate precedent, that neighboring countries of Syria contribute to the belligerent purposes of the Great Satan, the United States. If these countries have accepted such a precedent, they must be aware that after Syria, it will be the turn of Turkey and other countries.”

Foreign Minister Davuto?lu was clearly not best pleased by these comments. “There are disagreements between Turkey and Iran over the Syrian crisis for which the Syrian regime bears the whole responsibility,” he replied. “It is our right to expect Iran to assume a constructive attitude in the face of the blood of Muslims spilled in Syria in the holy month of Ramadan. Blaming Turkey or other countries would produce no positive result … and I have made perfectly clear to Salehi that Iranian officials should seriously filter their statements before making them.”

Rumors here are circulating that Davuto?lu is in bad odor in Ankara, his foreign policy vision having failed to deliver upon so much as a single one of its rosy promises. It is not clear how seriously these rumors should be taken: I for one cannot remember the resignation of a high-level Turkish politician over anything short of a leaked sex tape; political failure appears no obstacle to political advancement in Turkey. That said, immediately following his warning to Salehi, Davuto?lu departed with unusual haste to Myanmar to address the plight of the long-suffering Rohingya Muslims. Given that Davuto?lu’s immediate neighborhood–and at least seven districts of his homeland–are in flames, this does seem an odd place for him to be. It isn’t unusual in Turkey for attention to be diverted from domestic discontents by some spectacular display of humanitarian interest in a far-away, long suffering Muslim people (the last time, it was Somalia), but this is particularly bizarre. So who knows what machinations are playing out in Ankara.

Watch this space.

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