Human rights violations in south-east Turkey: failed peace talks followed by increasing violence

“Kurds are scared to go into their homes and Turks are scared to go out of their homes”. This is the state of public order in Turkey in the wake of the failed peace talks.  

Cemal Özkahraman
6 May 2016

Cizre after 'the successful conclusion of Turkish military operations', March 2016. Emrah Gurel /Press Association. All rights reserved.The Kurdish south-east region of Turkey has turned into a war zone, costing many civilian lives and serious political instability. This is all the consequence of the failure of the 2013 peace talks between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which was intended to end 30 years of conflict. To have achieved this would have necessitated a fundamental change in the traditional mind-set of the Turkish state in its approach towards the Kurds, an attitude which had evolved over a hundred years. However, evidence indicates that the current conflict in the south-east is firmly rooted in its historico-political context.

Shortly after World War I, the first president of the Turkish republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, promised autonomy for the Kurds, declaring that they would be free to choose their own rulers.[1] However Turkey has never permitted anything of the sort. Turkish state policy-makers aim was to establish a modern country based on “an identity that was explicitly Turkish”.[2] In the aftermath of World War I, state policy-makers “insisted that ‘anyone who is a citizen of the Turkish Republic’ was a Turk”.[3] After signing the Lausanne Treaty (1923), the Turkish state established the policy of denial “that the Kurds have a separate ethnic identity … they are not Kurds but ‘mountain Turks’”.[4] As Yeğen puts it, particularly “from the mid-1920s until the end of the 1980s, the Turkish state ‘assumed’ that there was no Kurdish element on Turkish territory” at all.[5]

Reaction to this policy came in the form of several Kurdish uprisings, the latest one manifested in the Partiya Karkerén Kurdistan (Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK)), which quickly “developed [a] broad organizational structure and displayed an enormous capacity to mobilize Kurds both within and without Turkey”.[6]

While Turkish policy-makers have been very concerned by the Kurds’ demands, believing that such a development threatened the country’s republican formation,[7] they came to the conclusion that in order for Turkey to be competitive in the ‘globalized world order’ and take its place in the EU (in line with Atatürk’s wish to see Turkey become part of European civilization), it must create a lasting peace in the south-east. This led to a determined decision by the Turkish state in 2013 to enter into peace negotiations with the PKK.

Peace talks between PKK and the Turkish state

The 2013 peace talks were not the only attempt to bring peace to the south-east. The first peace talks took place when Turgut Özal was prime minister in the 1990s. However, these were mainly based on Özal’s own initiative and strong personal desire to make peace with the PKK, and Turkish state policy more broadly was quite sceptical at the time about the possibility of doing so. After his death, hope for the peace negotiations was sabotaged, and both the PKK and the Turkish army chose to escalate the war in the region, resulting in more carnage for its inhabitants.

After the failure of the secret peace talks in 2012, which took place in Oslo, the former Turkish prime minister, now president, Recep T. Erdogan, and the PKK leader, Abdullah Öcalan, publicly revealed that new talks were taking place between the state and the PKK. It was claimed that these involved negotiations with “the ultimate aim of ending the hostilities on both sides and disarming the PKK in return for reforms improving the rights of Turkey’s Kurds”.[8] The architects of this process were Öcalan, who had been imprisoned in an isolated cell on Imrali Island since 1999, and Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency chief, Hakan Fidan, one of Erdogan’s most trusted colleagues.

The first announcement regarding negotiations with Öcalan came from Erdogan, followed by Öcalan’s historic ‘peace talks’ announcement during Newroz (Kurdish New Year) celebrations in the Kurdish unofficial capital city, Diyarbakir on 21 March 2013, transmitted through the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy (BDP) party’s MPs, Pervin Buldan and Sirri Sureyya Önder: 

We have now reached a point where guns must go silent and ideas and politics must speak. We will unite in the face of those who try to split us. From now on, a new period begins when politics, not guns, will come to the fore. It is now time for armed elements to withdraw outside the country.[9]

Cheered by over one million Kurdish people, this political victory[10] was accepted by the senior PKK leader, Murat Karayilan, situated on Mount Qandil, the PKK’s main base. On 25 March 2013, the PKK hosted over 100 journalists worldwide, declaring that they would follow Öcalan’s order to speed up the peace process, and would begin to withdraw their militants from Turkish Kurdistan into their base on Mount Qandil on 8 May 2013. On that date the PKK’s first group of militants arrived at Qandil from its Turkish bases, and the rest followed.

Although opposition parties such as the Nationalist Movement Party (Milliyetci Haraket Partisi (MHP)) were totally hostile to talks with the PKK, believing that this would split the country apart, the Turkish government and many of the Turkish and Kurdish public saw Öcalan’s announcement at Newroz and the withdrawal of the PKK as welcome: “‘The war is over’, assorted screeds declared”.[11] Erdogan announced that “he would be willing ‘to imbibe hemlock’ if need be” in order to promote the peace process.[12]

For the first time in its history, Turkey seemed serious regarding making peace with its Kurds, realising that this was a chance to become a bridge between Middle Eastern and western countries, creating a new opportunity to regain its historical importance in the Middle East and play its role in the world.

The rise of the Syrian Kurds and shift in Turkish policy

When Syria became embroiled in the Arab revolt, the Syrian Kurds (who have strong relations with the Kurds in Turkey, having been politicized by the PKK, with a large number having joined the organization) began to obtain leverage from the political turmoil there. The outbreak of civil war in Syria, with a variety of groups having risen against the Syrian regime, opened up the possibility of autonomy for the Syrian Kurds, led by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), considered (by the Turkish state) to be part of the PKK in Syria and an existential threat to Turkish national security.

In particular, whilst the political upheaval in Syria provided an opportunity for radical Islamist groups such as the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS or DAESH), it was also momentous for the Kurds in Syria who were aiming to become autonomous. In early 2014 they announced that they had created three quasi-federal autonomous cantons in the Kurdish area, known as ‘Rojava’ (meaning west Kurdistan), consisting of ’Afrin, ’Ain al-’Arab (in Kurdish, Kobanè) and Cizîrè.[13]  Whilst the rise of ISIS has been lethal for the Kurds, it has also created an opportunity for them to gain international support and become a regional actor, supported by western countries in particular. These countries supported groups of Kurds against ISIS not only because ISIS was becoming a threat to western countries themselves, but also because ISIS arose as the result of the political vacuum in Iraqi politics, which these countries were supposed to be dealing with.

However, in mid-September 2014, when 70% of Kobanè fell into ISIS hands, refugees from Kobanè who had crossed the border to Suruç could only watch the black smoke over their houses.[14] Turkey, which could have helped the Kurds in Kobanè, thereby improving relations with the Kurds in Turkey, and most importantly having a positive impact on the ongoing peace talks, instead chose its traditional approach, not wanting to see another Kurdish region next to its border.

On 7 October 2014, when the siege was still underway, President Erdogan declared that Kobanè would soon fall to ISIS, considerably alienating Turkey’s Kurds.[15] The PKK leadership, in peace talks with Turkey at the time, responded by saying that if Kobanè fell it would be because Turkey was backing ISIS, and would therefore signal the end of the peace process and the recommencement of war.[16]

However the Kurdish victory in Kobanè, achieved with the support of the international coalition led by the US, challenged the existing political map of the Middle East,[17] and changed the perception and paradigm of regional geopolitics in favour of the Kurds, to the alarm of the Turkish authorities, who openly stated their concerns. So, while Turkey was in the process of addressing its Kurdish question by looking for some form of long-term agreement with the PKK, the development of Kurdish autonomy in Syria and the possibility of Kurdish unification in the Middle East made the peace talks with the PKK a liability in the eyes of Turkish state policy-makers.

The rise of Kurdish autonomy alongside the Turkish border has pushed Turkey back to its traditional approach of solving the Kurdish question by war. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has stated that the PYD, like the PKK, is a threat to Turkish internal security, and that Turkey would not accept any political development that threatens its national interest. He said:  “Turkey will do whatever is necessary”.[18] All of which spelt the end of hope for a perpetual peace in the Kurdish region of Turkey, and the beginning of a new form of war; whereas it used to be mainly in the mountains, now this ugly war is right in the heart of Kurdish cities and towns.

Brutality of the Turkish state in the south-east region

The brutality of the Turkish state, this time in the heart of the Kurdish cities and towns in south-east Turkey, has exceeded expectations severely impacting on thousands, who have been killed, displaced, bombed or burned out of their homes. Some parts of the region have been under a state-imposed curfew for months, backed up by heavy weaponry and security forces on the ground.

Violations by the Turkish state began in August 2015, in Varto town, when the local community announced their democratic demands for self-rule. The Turkish state blockaded the town under the name of ‘curfew’, which was then extended to other Kurdish cities and towns in the region. According to a report by the Union of South-Eastern Anatolian Region Municipalities (GABB),[19] curfews have to date been announced in 20 towns and seven cities, lasting for months, with the most badly affected considered to be Cizre, Silopi and Sur.

While the two curfews in Silopi in July 2015 lasted for days and cost the lives of 39 civilians, the curfew in the Sur district of Diyarbakir is larger. The number of civilians who have lost their lives there since July 2015 is unclear. What we do know is that during that period six curfews have been announced in Sur, and this has turned the town into a war zone. According to the Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (CHP)), 22,000 of the town’s total population of 24,000 have left. That is 22,000 people with no home, most of them living in terrible conditions.[20] Moreover large parts of historical Sur have been deeply affected by the fighting between the Turkish armed forces and the PKK, and many historical sites have been turned to dust. The town had recently been nominated for inclusion in UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

Cizre has been one of the most severely impacted by the Turkish curfew, which went on for over two months. According to a report conducted by the Democratic Regions Party (Demokratik Bölgeler Partisi (DBP)) in the Kurdish region, 300 people have been killed in Cizre, and 80% of the town has been destroyed beyond repair. The report also addressed the fact that around 500 building have been damaged as a result of heavy arms such as tanks and bombs.[21]

The cruellest aspect that was reported was that all the people of Cizre were treated as a potential enemy by the Turkish security forces. In particular, they destroyed local houses and insulted human dignity by writing inhumane slogans on the underwear of local women and on the walls of the buildings.[22] The biggest atrocity involved over 100 people who were trapped in three basements. In full view of the world, they waited to be rescued, but instead these civilians were bombed and burned to death. The first of these atrocities concerned a basement in Bostanci Street, where 26 people, including 15 wounded, waited to be rescued for 19 days, but were executed by the security forces.[23] According to another allegation, 20 people were stranded in the third basement, and subsequent evidence has shown that they were burned to death.[24]

Russia Today (RT) launched an investigation into the alleged massacre in Cizre, which included video footage revealing the aftermath of the attacks in February 2016. RT travelled to Cizre to get first-hand accounts from witnesses, and showed the site of the alleged mass killing by the Turkish armed forces. Harrowing accounts of an alleged massacre of hundreds of civilians in Cizre have been shown by RT’s William Whiteman, who travelled to the town when the brutal military curfew was partly lifted, though the town, like many cities and towns in the south-east, continues to be under de facto martial law. According to the report, the Turkish army slaughtered hundreds of civilians trapped in the basements, and around 150 people were burned to death in those basements. Despite the fact that they called for help from the government several times via their mobile phones, these calls were ignored, and this has now been publicly revealed by the witnesses who survived the bombings and were able to show the world the places where these mass killings by the Turkish armed forces took place.

According to the RT report, the victims of Cizre were mainly civilians. Local women told RT that the Turkish state “claim they are fighting ‘terrorists’ – but where are the terrorists?”. Commenting on the violence, Kani Xulam, director of the American Kurdish Information Network (AKIN), accused the Turkish government of war crimes. “What the government of Turkey has done in Cizre is a war crime. They have attacked civilians who have not taken part in the fighting”, Xulam told RT“In a country that is aspiring to join the European Union and calls itself a member of NATO, you don’t target a whole town”, the expert said, adding that the ‘laws of war’ demand that a distinction should be made between civilians and belligerents.[25]

Bloody response from the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK)

While the Turkish state were violating the south-east in the name of cracking down on the Kurdish militants, the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK), who are considered linked to the PKK but act independently and choose their targets in the big cities of the west of Turkey, carried out a suicide attack in February 2016 in the heart of the capital, Ankara. The suicide attack took place in an area where military headquarters, including the Chief of Staff, and the Army, Navy and Air Force commanders, are located, and which is also not far from government buildings and Turkey's parliament. The Kurdish military group specifically chose a moving vehicle full of military and civilian personnel working in the facilities.[26]

Responsibility for the February suicide attack on a military convoy, which killed 28 people and wounded 61, was claimed by the TAK as being a response to Turkish state operations in the south-east, and the group claimed that more attacks would follow.[27] The Kurdish militant group has also warned foreign tourists not to visit Turkey, as it would also carry out attacks on tourist resorts:

Tourism ... is a major target we aim to destroy. We warn foreign and native tourists not to go to the touristic areas in Turkey. We are not responsible for who will die in the attacks targeting those areas.[28]

On 13 March, another suicide car bomb exploded in the heart of Ankara’s busiest district, Kizilkay. Although the TAK stated that their planned target was Turkish security forces, the car bomb killed 37 civilians and injured 125. The TAK again claimed that this attack was an act of revenge in response to the Turkish state’s attack on Cizre, and they stated that their attacks would continue.[29]

The failure of the peace talks has led to a situation not only in the south-east but throughout the entire country in which people have begun to feel insecure both in their houses and out on the street, because of Turkish army curfews and bombing, and the attacks by the TAK on the other side of the country. As Sirri Sureyya Önder put it in his 2016 Newroz speech in Diyarbakir, “Kurds are scared to go into their homes and Turks are scared to go out of their homes”.[30] This is the state of public order in Turkey in the wake of the failed peace talks.  

To conclude, with the Turkish state committed to aggression and human rights violations in the south-east, and with the extreme response from the PKK, the question arises whether the opportunity for a perpetual peace will ever arise in the region.

Ultimately this depends on how far the current Turkish government will be willing to make peace with its Kurds, not seeing them and the Kurds in neighbouring countries as a potential threat, but being willing to fulfil its historical responsibility and once again strive to establish a long-lasting peace, at least with its Kurds. This would be in Turkey’s long-term interest not only as a responsible actor in the Middle East but also in a globalized world.


[1] Kiliç, H. A. “Democratization, human rights and ethnic policies in Turkey”, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 18:1, 91-110 (1998).

[2] McDowall, D. “The Kurdish Question: a historical review”, in Kreyenbroek, P. G. and Sperl, S. (eds), The Kurds: a contemporary overview, London: Routledge (1992).

[3] Özcan, A. K. “Turkey’s Kurds: a theoretical analysis of the PKK and Abdullah Öcalan”, London: Routledge (2006). 

[4] Short, M. and McDermott, A. (eds) “The Kurds”, London: Minority Rights Group (1975). 

[5] Yeğen, M. “The Kurdish question in Turkish state discourse”, Journal of Contemporary History, 34:4, 555-68 (1999).

[6] Hirschler, K. “Defining the Nation: Kurdish Historiography in Turkey in the 1990s”, Middle Eastern Studies, 37: 3, 145-66 (2001).

[7] Kiliç, H. A. “Democratization, human rights and ethnic policies in Turkey”, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 18:1, 91-110 (1998); Bozdaglioglu, Y.  “Turkish Foreign Policy and Turkish Identity: a constructivist approach”, New York: Routledge (2003).

[8] Nykanen, J. “Identity, narrative and frames: assessing Turkey’s Kurdish initiatives”, Insight Turkey, 15:2, 85-102 (2013).

[9] Ensaroglu, Y. “Turkey’s Kurdish Question and the peace process”, Insight Turkey, 15:2 (2013).

[10] From my personal notes when I participated in the Newroz celebration, March 2013, Diyarbakir.

[11] Economist, “Turkey and the PKK, the war may be over, will a Kurdish leader’s peace offering stick?” (30 March 2013).

[12]  Economist, “Turkey and the PKK, the war may be over, will a Kurdish leader’s peace offering stick?” (30 March 2013).

[13] Lawson, Fred H. “Syria’s mutating civil war and its impact on Turkey, Iraq and Iran”, International Affairs, 90:6 (November 2014).

[14]Battle for Kobane: key events”, BBC News, (25 June 2015).

[15] “Erdoğan says Obama told him that Kobani would fall”, www.todayszaman.com (12 August 2015).

[16] Kobani’de YPG ‘kent savasina hazirlaniyor,-BBC Turkçe,(3 October 2014). 

[17] Gunter, Michael M. “Iraq, Syria, ISIS and the Kurds: geostrategic concerns for the U.S. and Turkey”, Middle East Policy, XXII:1 (Spring 2015).

[18] Özcan, Ali, Nihat, PYD unsurları da PKK gibi Türkiye için tehdittir, milliyet.com.tr (28 September 2015).


[20] CHP demands aid be sent immediately to clash-hit Cizre ... (7 March 2016).


[22] DBP, Cizre Raporu'nu açıkladı - İMC TV,13 March 2016. 

[23] ANF | Cizre katliamında son bilanço/anfturkce.net/kurdistan/cizre-katliaminda-son-bilanco (12 February 2016).

[24] Cizre'de üçüncü bodrum kat iddiası: Öğrenciler ve cenazeler ...t24.com.tr/.../cizrede-ucuncu-bodrum-kat-iddiasi-ogre... (11 February 2016).

[25] Burned to death, beheaded’: Cizre Kurds accuse Erdogan’s forces of civilian massacre (RT EXCLUSIVE), (accessed March 2016).

[26] http://www.milliyet.com.tr, Ankara’nın kalbine bomba: 28 ölü 61 yaralı (18 February 2016).

[27] http://www.theguardian.com, Kurdish militant group Tak claims responsibility for Ankara car bomb (19 February 2016).

[28] Al Jazeera. http://www.aljazeera.com, Ankara bombing: Kurdish group claims responsibility (19 February 2016).

[29] http://www.bbc.com/turkce, Ankara saldırısını TAK üstlendi, 17 Mart 2016; Guardian. Ankara bombing: Kurdish militants claim responsibility (17 March 2016).

[30] Sırrı Süreyya Önder: Çatışmasızlığın sağlanması bir haftada ...www.radikal.com.tr › Politika (accessed 22 March 2016).


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