Turkey, the government and the Kurds. Turning enemies into profits

The historic ceasefire reached in 2013 between Recep Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) collapsed last July when a deadly bombing hit the southern town of Suruç. More than 30 people died in the attack, which the Turkish government blamed on Daesh. On the other hand, the PKK accused the government of complicity with Daesh and subsequently of being responsible for the bloodshed.

On July 24-25, 2015, Turkey’s Armed Forces (TSK) undertook Operation Martyr Yalçın aimed at PKK and Daesh positions in northern Iraq (KRG) and northern Syria (Rojava). Soon afterwards the conflict spread into Turkey’s South East region. In Kurdish majority cities like Diyarbakir and Cizre, PKK-affiliated militants built trenches and barricades, as the army came in with tanks and heavy artillery.

The severe military crackdown has been described as collective punishment against the Kurdish population and has led some observers to draw parallels with scenes from Syria. The Human Rights Foundation of Turkey estimated that 162 civilians have been killed in the regions under government-imposed curfew since last August. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’Ad al Hussein, expressed his concern about the actions of the Turkish army defining them a threat to civilians’ fundamental rights. The intention of Erdogan is to continue the military operations until the region will be “completely cleansed and a peaceful atmosphere established.”

Curfews and urban war

According to a recent report released by the International Crisis Group (ICG), Turkish security forces have imposed 59 curfews in 18 south-eastern towns and districts between August 2015 and mid-March 2016 to ensure full government control over areas where Kurdish politicians had declared autonomy. By mid-March, military operations had ended in the south-eastern districts of Silopi, Cizre, İdil and Diyarbakır’s historic Sur district, which is among the worst affected areas. More recently, Silvan District Governorship declared curfew in accordance with the article 32/Ç of the Provincial Administration Law No. 5442 as of March 25, 2016, “in order to catch members of the Separatist Terrorist Organization, provide peace, security and public order.”

In coordination with security forces, provincial chiefs use their discretion in declaring curfews, a practice that leads to legal arbitrariness and ambiguity. It is not defined, for instance, which institutions should be activated in a curfew and what measures should be taken to protect civilians before, during and after. While most urban curfews have been short and accompanied by limited fighting, some turned into actual battlegrounds. According to government sources, 355,000 civilians have left their homes due to spiraling violence in their neighborhoods. Since July 2015, a Crisis Group open-source casualty database has confirmed the deaths of at least 254 civilians, plus 163 men and women who cannot be identified as militants or civilians from press reports or social media postings. In Cizre, a town of 120,000 between Turkey’s borders with Syria and Iraq, People’s Democratic Party (HDP) officials have released the names of 169 residents allegedly killed during a more than 3 month curfew and say the overwhelming majority are civilians. On March 28, 2016, Turkish President Erdogan, addressing commanders-in-chief and military officers at the Turkish War College in Istanbul, announced that 5,359 Kurdish militants had been killed in security operations since last July; around 335 security officials and 285 civilians had died in the same period.

The Union of Italian Penal Chambers (UIPC), whose delegation visited Diyarbakir and met with local lawyer, in last January released a report about the situation in the South East. In an interview, the lawyer Nicola Canestrini spoke of “genocide” and “systematic attempt to erase the cultural heritage of the Kurdish people from those areas.” As the report tells, every time the Turkish military managed to fully control one of the buildings, bulldozers razed them to the ground to be sure that citizens would not come back. This is the same context in which the Human Rights Attorney and President of Diyarbakir Bar Association Tahir Elçi has been killed last November, while he was holding a press conference in Cizre, denouncing the intentional damages caused to historical buildings by the army.

Urban change in time of war and the “disaster capitalism theory”

The independent scholar Can Erimtan is the author of an interesting analysis which links the war in the South-East to the massive construction projects pursued by Ankara, applying the Disaster Capitalism paradigm to this issue. According to this thesis the conflict between Kurds and Turkish Government has to be read also as a business opportunity through which AKP neoliberal program could be carried out, pacifying a restive region and making profits out of it.

This theory would appear to be supported by a series of political actions. In 2010 the AKP nation-wide Urban Change program, implemented by the Housing Development Administration (TOKİ) led to the demolition of 330 of 850 constructions in Alipaşa and Lalebey neighborhoods of Sur district. In 2013, though, the construction works were stopped by local opposition forces, mainly HDP run municipalities. Yet during this period, Sur district as a whole was declared a security-risk area under the Law No. 6306, also known as Disaster Law, which means that TOKI can independently decide to start construction works there.

Now, after a two-year break, TOKİ is back in business. In February 2015, the Ministry of Environment and Urbanization issued a report entitled “Urban Change and Diyarbakır,” which proposes the realization of “a comprehensive change” in order to accomplish “conservation,” “regeneration,” and “renewal” in the area, at the price of 4 billion TL. According to the Ministry, 6.694 buildings were damaged and 27 demolished in 8 months of conflict. As reported on Hurriet Daily News on February 1, 2016, Davutoglu pledged to “rebuild Diyarbakir as Spain’s Toledo.” Moreover, upon request of the same Ministry in accordance with article 27 of the Expropriation Law No. 2942 – which applies only in state of emergencies such as war and disasters- the Cabinet decided the urgent expropriation of two neighborhoods of Yenişehir and 16 others in Sur district under curfew which had already been declared a risk area. Herdem Doğrul from Diyarbakır Branch of the Chamber of Architects has noted that almost the entire district of Sur has been expropriated and is now in the hands of the state. Also, the mediation method proposed by the Turkish State in order to compensate people is enshrined within the framework of the Counterterrorism Law. Most probably this will prevent them to pursue legal action against the State at the European Court of Human Rights, which could award them with much higher compensations. The trial though could take years and these people need money now.

On February 5, 2016, Prime Minister Davutoglu released a 10-point action plan, calling for reconstruction and rebuilding of demolished south-eastern districts as well as compensation payments. The Kurdish political movement reacted negatively with HDP Co-Chair Selahattin Demirtaş stating that “Since they were not able to win them in elections, they are trying to take over municipalities with a coup […] Similar plans had been tried by previous governments but failed to produce a lasting solution to Turkey’s Kurdish issue.”


The AKP was the first political organization in Turkey to recognize the existence of a Kurdish issue, and the first one to start a negotiation process in 2009, known as the ‘Kurdish overture.’ However, since the collapse of the peace process, Turkey’s government approach has turned back to the 90s, when the Turkish military burned down 4,000 Kurdish villages displacing their inhabitants. The ongoing fighting has created a similar emergency context, causing also internal migration flows in the tens of thousands. The state of emergency is the key which can open the South Eastern doors for public companies and let the money flow again towards State coffers. At the same time, building mass residencies and offering new employment opportunities could be the start of a new relationship based on economic dependency between impoverished Kurdish citizens and the Turkish state. This pacifying strategy will hardly be successful, as history has showed, but in the short term it could serve AKP objectives of defeating their historic enemy and making profits in the process.

Nerina Schiavo
Master’s degree in International Relations (Sapienza University of Rome)


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