On the morning of June 7 this year, a car bomb exploded in front of Istanbul’s Vezneciler metro station. Used by tourists and thousands of university students daily, it was a ten-minute walk from my home. Perplexed Turks gathered at the tape strung around the site, watching as the husk of a police bus was towed away, the presumable target of a powerful blast that killed twelve. The closest I could get was the sixteenth-century Shehzade mosque, more than a hundred meters away from the blast, where workers nimbly collected shards of ancient stained-glass windows.
A friend of a friend, a young police officer assigned to the nearby Istanbul Municipality office, was among the dead. A few days later, there was barely room to breathe as thousands of men lined up for his funeral prayers at the Fatih Mosque. Newly restored, it has become the center of life for the pious in Istanbul’s most conservative area. At one corner of the mosque’s courtyard, a permanent funeral pavilion is erected where the state’s martyrs are displayed before burial.
“May Allah accept him as a martyr,” the imam prayed. “May Allah allow us to fight our nation’s enemies, from within and without.” Military brass in pressed uniforms mingled with bearded old men who recalled decades of secular coups their superiors had perpetrated.
The PKK—designated a terrorist organization by NATO, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union—has been fighting Turkey for Kurdish autonomy since 1984.
A hardline offshoot of the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) claimed responsibility for the bombing, calling it retaliation for a war in the southeast that has killed 2,300 and displaced 350,000. In that area of the country, car bombings and roadside IEDs kill police, soldiers, and civilians on almost a daily basis. The PKK—designated a terrorist organization by NATO, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union—has been fighting Turkey for Kurdish autonomy since 1984. Its last insurgency, which peaked in the 1990s, killed at least 35,000. The current one may turn out to be as bloody: the explosives used today in Turkey are far more potent and powerful, and the PKK has used them in places where it impossible to avoid killing civilians along with security forces.
But the conflict is not so simply described as a war between Kurds and Turkey, as it is often portrayed in Western coverage. Members of the thirty million–strong Kurdish demographic in the region—the largest stateless ethnic group in the world—can be found on all sides of an increasingly complex, multifaceted conflict that stretches across Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran.
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In the fall of 2014, I watched the impetus for the PKK’s current insurgency being born from hilltops in Suruc, just across the border from the Syrian town of Kobanî.
Turkish tanks sat idle as a force of largely Kurdish fighters battled ISIS militants below. Western warplanes dropped bombs to a chorus of cheers from Turkish Kurds beside me. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan cared more about stopping Bashar al-Assad than fighting ISIS, they told me—echoing the international headlines—so the West was the only ally they had.
Erdoğan cares more about stopping Bashar al-Assad than fighting ISIS.
In Kobanî, at least a hundred retired American and European soldiers linked up with foreign volunteer brigades that included Turkish Kurds who crossed the border to fight. They hoped to lend a hand in building a new Kurdish state in northeastern Syria, called Rojava, modeled on the leftist principles espoused by the PKK’s founder, Abdullah Ocalan, who has been in Turkish custody since 1999.
Rojava is the fruit of a vision put forth by Ocalan from a Turkish prison in 2005: an autonomous self-governed region stretching across Kurdish regions of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. In northern Syria, Ocalan’s followers formed the Democratic Union Party (PYD), outlawed under Assad’s rule, but finally able to emerge as a power on the ground because of the Syrian civil war, where the party’s armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), captured world attention by quickly taking land from ISIS starting in 2013.
But the YPG is not solely a Syrian phenomenon: according to the group’s own data, half of the casualties it suffered between 2013 and 2016 were Turkish nationals—Kurds from Turkey who crossed into Syria to join their campaign for autonomy. Naturally, Rojava has rattled the Turkish military as it tries to wrestle control of the southeast from the PKK in a region that borders the PYD’s autonomous territory in Syria.
In October 2015 the United States, in response to the objections of Turkish and Arab rebels it supports in Syria, supported an alternative to the YPG called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). But even the SDF ended up consisting of mostly PKK fighters. By July 2016, the YPG and SDF had gained control of most of the Turkey-Syria border; the only gap was a sixty-mile stretch between the Euphrates river and Azaz, a corridor controlled by ISIS.
Kurdish weddings have become an ISIS target. In August, a twelve-year-old suicide bomber blew himself up at a crowded Kurdish wedding in Gaziantep.
The ostensibly secular leftist Rojava project garnered homage and regular visits from Western diplomats and opened what it called “official representation” offices in Moscow, Stockholm, Berlin, Prague, and Paris. Anarchists in Brooklyn packed bags to set off for Rojava; Abu Bakr al Baghdadi was the new Francisco Franco. The attention the Rojava project got in the West, and the implicit assumption made in the narrative around it that it represented the will of all Kurds, has sparked resentment among those ethnic Kurds who do not support the YPG or PKK.
“The PKK is a secular terrorist organization, but being secular and being religiously extremist are perceived as two different things for the West,” says Mehmet Solmaz, a British-Turkish journalist who serves as the News Editor at Daily Sabah, one of the largest pro-government newspapers in the country. Solmaz, a Kurd who grew up in the United Kingdom, remembers being in Brussels this March, when Prime Minister Davutoglu attended frantic meetings to try to work out a deal that would have granted visa-free travel to Turkish nationals in exchange for accepting hundreds of thousands of refugees.
Outside the meeting, Kongra-Gel, a European group that Ankara accuses of being a front for the PKK, had erected a giant tent. “There were maybe 300 people waving the PKK flag,” Solmaz recalls. “They claim to fight for my rights as a Kurd. . . . they have not done anything to make me live in a peaceful Turkey up until now. On the other side ISIS is saying I fight for your religion. It’s the same thing for me, they are all terrorists.”
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On the night of August 20, 2016, a twelve-year-old suicide bomber blew himself up at a crowded Kurdish wedding in Gaziantep. Erdoğan appeared before cameras to say that the bomber was a suspected ISIS member, that there was no difference to him between the Islamist group and the PKK, and that “the place where terror comes from doesn’t make any difference for us.”
“Yesterday in Gaziantep, they targeted Kurds. It was a party member’s wedding,” said Selahettin Demirtas, the charismatic leader of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). “They seek to start a civil war.”
The idea of targeting Kurdish weddings was, in fact, known to be a priority for ISIS cells in the country since May 2016, when police in Gaziantep raided a safehouse used by the group. The man they were looking for was a Turkish national, Yunus Durmaz, who fought police for hours before blowing himself up. On his laptop, Turkish investigators found thousands of documents prosecutors are now using to build a case against other members of alleged Gaziantep cell.
Most of the estimated 700 Turkish nationals who have joined ISIS are Kurds, and their gravitation toward the extremist group has paralleled the rise in support among fellow Kurds for the secular PKK.
Durmaz was in direct contact with Ilhami Bali, believed to be the top ISIS operative assigned to Turkey, who lives in Raqqa, the self-styled Caliphate’s capital. Durmaz had prepared a list of targets including NATO buildings, foreign embassies, and nightclubs, but his main focus was the HDP, which he referred to as “PKK supporters.” The attacks were to be carried out starting in the summer of 2015, after Bali, incensed over Turkey’s crackdown on cross-border movement, authorized Durmaz to attack whatever targets he wanted to.
In two warehouses in Gaziantep, Durmaz and his followers created the bombs that would be used over the next year, part of an ISIS campaign that has killed more than 250 people at HDP election rallies, Kurdish weddings, and peace marches, including tourists visiting the iconic Blue Mosque or taking a culinary tour on bustling Istiklal Street. The deadliest attacks have been carried out by a single cell from the Kurdish city of Adyaman.
The vast majority of those killed have been ostensive supporters of the Kurdish movement. The reason for this is simple: most of the estimated 700 Turkish nationals who have joined ISIS are Kurds, and their gravitation toward the extremist group has paralleled the rise in support among fellow Kurds for the secular PKK.
“The Kurds,” as newspapers and Western leaders refer to them, have traditionally been some of the most conservative Muslims in the region. One of the largest Islamist movements in modern Turkey was founded by Said Nursî, a Kurdish scholar whose writings after the founding of the Turkish Republic are still read by millions in the country. And Saladin, the first sultan of Egypt who led the Muslim military campaign against the Crusaders states of the Levant, was a Kurd.
But today one faction of young Kurds in Turkey, dismayed at the slow pace of progress for Kurdish rights, has grown hostile to the Islamic culture they grew up with and gravitated toward the PKK, says Aaron Stein, a terrorism researcher at the Atlantic Council. Another faction of young Kurds, in response to the PKK’s apparent animosity toward their conservative Islamic lifestyle, has joined extremist movements including ISIS.
On reporting trips to the southeast of Turkey in 2014, I regularly came across young Kurdish men and women making their way to border cities such as Gaziantep and Sanliurfa, planning on crossing the border into Syria and “volunteering” for the Rojava project. I would later find several in Suruc, waiting at a Kurdish community center near the border for vans to take them across into Kobanî.
“Kobanî has had a serious radicalization effect both on ISIS operational planning for Turkey and, from what we know, on Kurds, who have joined both ISIS and the PKK,” says Stein. “Underneath all this is a strange sort of Kurdish subtext.”
The divisions uncovered by the battle for Kobanî are decades old. In the 1990s, the PKK met resistance not only from the Turkish state, but also from radical Islamist Kurds, who formed groups like the Huda Par. In October 2014, when it became clear Turkish tanks were not going to intervene in Kobanî, the HDP asked supporters in Kurdish-majority cities such as Diyarbakir to protest, issuing a statement asking “all our people, from seven to seventy, to go out on the streets, seize open spaces and take action.” The PKK’s youth wing, the Patriotic Democratic Youth Movement, said any Hüda-Par members should be “executed on sight.” Protesters in Diyarbakir found four men with beards distributing food, shot them, threw their bodies out of a building, and set them on fire. In four days of rioting, thirty people, including twenty-five civilians, were killed, almost all by supporters of the PKK.
At least three Kurdish men from the southeastern city of Adiyaman were radicalized by the Kobanî riots, says Stein, forming a cell that has proven to be the most dangerous in Turkey. Orhan Gonder and two brothers, Şeyh and Yunus Emre Alagöz, left for Syria after the riots. In June 2015, Gonder blew himself up at an HDP rally in Diyabakir, killing four. In July, Şeyh blew himself up at that community center in Suruc, killing 31. In October, Yunus blew himself up at a rally calling for peace with the PKK in Ankara, killing 103.
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Space for Kurds who reject both the PKK and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is shrinking in Turkey. When AKP party leaders showed up to express condolences at the funeral of the victims of the Gaziantep bombing, they were greeted by shouts of “Muderer Erdoğan!” At the burial, the victims’ families were pelted by stones thrown by Turkish nationalists. Since September, seven ethnically Kurdish members of AKP have been assassinated by the PKK in the country’s southeast.
The HDP, which once served as Ankara’s middleman as it brokered a ceasefire with the PKK that collapsed two years ago, has become the latest pro-Kurdish party to be dismantled in the nation’s history. Stripped of its role as a mediator, some HDP have given up hope of any political solution, opting to support Kurds who are typically members of the PKK. HDP parliamentarians have attended funerals for PKK suicide bombers, and the party’s mayors in the southeast are accused of allowing municipal funds and vehicles to be used for the burial of the killed fighters.
In May the AKP and a handful of Turkish nationalists voted to lift parliamentary immunity for lawmakers, a move meant to target the HDP. Of 59 HDP lawmakers, prosecutors have said 58 will be charged with crimes related to supporting the PKK. Under a state of emergency imposed since the failed July 15 coup, dozens of Kurdish-language newspapers and television channels—including the only Kurdish children’s programming channel—have been shuttered over alleged ties to the PKK.
In the aftermath of the Gaziantep bombing, Turkish forces, backing thousands of Syrian rebels, entered Syria on August 24. Within a few weeks, the forces had taken over a swatch of the Turkey-Syria border from Jarablus in the east to Azaz in the west, cutting off the remaining ISIS access points to Turkey. Ankara has said the operation is meant to create a safe zone and will not end until all “terrorist” groups are “cleansed” from the area, putting it on a warpath to fighting not only ISIS, but also Western-backed Kurdish forces, including the YPG and SDF. To its Western allies, the intervention in Syria is an obvious offensive against the Rojava project, but to many in Turkey, it is a belated yet justified effort to defend the country.
Across Turkey, meanwhile, the crackdown on any Kurdish voices critical of the counterinsurgency against the PKK or the intervention in Syria seems to harken back to the insurgency of the 1980s and 1990s, when even Kurdish music was banned. Yet Ankara sees no problem. “We have been suffering from terrorism for many years,” Prime Minister Benali Yildirim said in October. “In reality there is no Kurdish problem in Turkey. Kurds have a terror problem with the PKK.”