War with the Kurds—Or Urban Transformation?

by Robert Olson

The title of Mahmut Bozarslan’s recent article in Al- Monitor, is “How Turkey Seeks to Kill Two Birds with One Stone in Diyarbakir.” It describes the policies Turkey is pursuing in southeast Turkey to pacify the populace after Ankara’s devastating military assault that commenced in December 2015.

Many locals in Diyarbakir, the center of this predominantly Kurdish part of Turkey, believe that the state’s attack was more about transforming the urban landscape rather than defeating the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). By the end of March, the government issued decrees for the expropriation of 7,000 properties in the district of Sur, the heart of Diyarbakir that is also a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Mehmet Kaya, head of the Tigris Research Center, speculated that something besides security was occurring:

The fact that almost all of Sur is being expropriated without any explanation and consultations [with locals] has inevitably fuel concern, showing that fears are not groundless. Although the curfew was lifted and all sorts of security y measures were put into place, [the authorities] continue to speak of security concerns. This leads people to stay away from Sur, and businesses, in turn, become incapable of paying their rents.

Kaya argued that government occupation of historical sites and buildings and forced displacement of 500,000 Kurds in the southeast seemed to be part of a plan to settle Syrian refuges in largely Kurdish-populated areas.

State of Expropriation

Kaya’s concerns were well founded. On March 31, the Diyarbakir Metropolitan Municipality published a Cultural and Damage Assessments Report or Sur. The report stated that on March 21, 2016 the Council of Ministers in Ankara decided to expropriate 6,292 of 7,714 parcels available in the historic center (surici) within the walls, relying on a law mandating the expropriation of 82 percent of all parcels available in Sur. The remaining 18 percent of parcels either belong to Housing Development Administration of Turkey (TOKI), or are already owned by the State Treasury.

The expropriations appear to be part of the government’s “action plan” to rebuild the southeast. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu announced in Mardin in February a $9 billion reconstruction plan: “We are going to treat all the wounds,” he said. “We who have welcomed two and a half million Syrians are perfectly capable of offering all of our help to our fellow citizens.”

Davutoglu returned to Diyarbakir on April 1 while the expropriations were taking place. He emphasized that security measures were being put into place. “They thought we would be scared,” he said, using a favorite expression of President Erdogan. “But we are not scared, we will not waver, and we will go to the end.”

PKK Reaction

Prior to Davutoglu’s April 1 visit, Duran Kalkan, a principal leader of the PKK, announced on February 25 that the PKK’s war against the state and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) would continue unabated and the PKK would spread war into the cities of western Turkey. Kalkan admitted that the PKK had underestimated the AKP’s plan to fight the PKK/KCK “to the end.”

On April 5, Kalkan charged that Turkey was training and arming Syrian refugees in a camp in Maras, a city in the southeast. He said that arms would be given to the refugees to fight Kurds and Alevis. Twenty percent of Turkey’s population are Alevis while 15 percent are Kurds. He charged that the state had extensive relations with the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and that some members in Turkey were fighting against the PKK. Kalkan noted that Davutoglu’s April 1 visit was not just to establish greater security but to continue expropriating buildings, businesses, and land.

Mustafa Karasu, another top PKK commander, reiterated Kalkan’s views:

Let the AKP say whatever they want. They have now commenced a war against the Kurds. The alliances they have made are against the Kurds. This war will continue until the Kurds are defeated. Until then chaos will reign. Since the state and the AKP will not accept the political program proffered, the war will grow more violent. No one should wait for a political solution from the AKP. They have no such policy or mentality. At this time there is no one for us to talk to. Only by fighting will we find someone.

Murat Kara Yilan, another principal commander of the PKK/KCK, expressed views similar to Kalkan and Karasu. He stressed the significances of the on-going expropriation of property in Diyarbakir:

This is part is part of the state’s policy of ethnic cleansing and this is impossible to accept. The [state] saw this as an opportunity in the cities that were resisting. They bombedand destroyed on a level unseen in the world. They confiscated property. The Kurdish people should not accept this. We do not accept it. As a movement of people, we do not accept it. In addition, they are bringing in migrants from Syria and other places to settle in Kurdistan.

First let me say this: We are not opposed to Syrian migrants. Moreover, they did come to Turkey. It is necessary that Turkey control them. They must look after them and they should treat them as they treat their own citizens. They must treat them right and provide them with opportunities and working conditions. Of course, it was the AKP’s policies of cooperating with ISIS, al-Nusra, and Arar al-Sham that made them abandon their homes compelling them to flee their country. It is of course necessary to control these people. But it is simply impossible for Kurds to submit to ethnic cleansing.

Photo: Effects of destruction in Diyarbakir

Robert Olson

Robert Olson is Professor of Middle East history and politics at the University of Kentucky (Emeritus). He is the author of ten books of various aspects of Middle East history and politics. His major books are: The Siege of Mosul and Ottoman- Persian Relations: 1718-1743; The Emergence of Kurdish Nationalism and the Sheikh Said Rebellion: 1880-1925; Turkey's Relations with Iran, 1979-2004;The Kurdish Question and Turkish-Iranian Relations:From World I to 2000; Blood, Beliefs and Ballots: The Management of Kurdish Nationalism in Turkey, 2007-2000; The Kurdish Nationalist Movements in Turkey: 1980-2011; The Goat and the Butcher: Nationalism and State Formation in Kurdistan-Iraq since the Iraqi War War. He is the author of 75 referred research articles and 60 edited research articles. He was distinguished Professor of the University of Kentucky in 2000. He is married and lives in Lexington, Kentucky.