CIZRE, Turkey — The town of Cizre is surrounded by the mighty Tigris river, which wraps around it to the north, the east and the south. From the Iron Age to the Assyrians to the Romans to the Persians, many of the world’s great ancient civilisations have left their marks here. According to Islamic belief, it was on the slopes of Mount Judi that Noah’s ark came to its final rest.
Today, the people of Cizre are trying to recover from months of heavy clashes between Turkish security forces and the PKK. Cizre, a district of the Sirnak province, had been one of the main flashpoints in the PKK’s urban armed campaign against the Turkish state that has lasted from late 2015 to early 2016. The PKK is viewed as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US and the EU.
More than 50 Turkish security personnel lost their lives in this district during the clashes. Hundreds of PKK members were also killed. Tens of thousands of people were also displaced from Cizre to other locations in Turkey. In the neighbourhoods of Cudi and Nur, where most of the clashes happened, 2,000 houses were demolished following the clashes.
Turkey’s peace process had began in early 2013 and ended in mid-2015, following the June 7 elections. During this period, however, the PKK entrenched its urban positions, including boobytrapping many of the demolished houses with bombs and other explosive materials during Turkey’s peace process. Most of these neighbourhoods have been almost entirely razed by bulldozers. The Turkish government has announced they will build modern neighbourhoods with new apartment blocks.
A sign of wider territorial ambitions?
Cizre in Turkish, or Cizire in Kurdish, is based on Jazeera, meaning “island” in Arabic. The Tigris is one of the two great rivers around which the ancient Mesopotamian city was built. The town is a highly strategic location, bordering both Syria and Iraq. The PKK’s Syrian wing, the PYD, has also taken the name of Jazira for one of its “cantons” in northern Syria, since 2013 (“cantons” are a concept used by the PYD to define autonomous administrative territories in northern Syria). By naming their largest canton Jazira, it appears possible that the armed group has some kind of wider political agenda relating to Turkey’s Cizre.
The PYD cantons are part of the broader umbrella “KCK” structure, which Ocalan created from prison as a way to reorganise all branches of PKK under a new central structure. The PKK claims that the KCK is simply a practical structure aiming to form autonomous cantons that are part of a system of “democratic confederalism” — all within the borders of the existing Middle Eastern nation-states, according to Ocalan’s argument.
The PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan was imprisoned by Turkish security forces in 1999. In 2005, while in prison, the PKK leader came up the concept of democratic confederalism as an alternative to an independent Kurdish state. Now the PKK leadership, based in northern Iraq’s Qandil mountains, claim they do not seek to form a separate state from Turkey.
But in the past, the PKK has called for a united independent Kurdistan encompassing Turkey’s southeastern and eastern regions, northern Syria, northern Iraq, and northwestern Iran. After the Assad regime withdrew from northern Syria, in a strategic move during the conflict, the PYD, the PKK’s Syrian leadership, has claimed most of the northern Syrian territories, calling them collectively “Rojava,” meaning “Western Kurdistan”. In January 2014, they declared publicly that their goal was achieving democratic confederalism, in accordance with Ocalan’s KCK structure.
As a result, one of the key questions about Rojava’s Jazira canton is which territory the name actually refers to. The Jazira canton is administratively located in Syria’s Hasakah governorate, which was known as the Al Jazira governorate in the past, so the PYD leadership might simply be referring to the governorate by its old name, which is also “Jazira.”
Yet they have not clarified their use of the name of the “canton,” preferring to leave it deliberately vague. Neither has the Turkish state sought any clarification regarding the use of the name Jazira — it regards the group as illegitimate and does not hold any official dialogue with it, as a matter of policy.
Several people in Cizre, who do not want to be identified, think that the name of canton is indeed a reference to Turkey’s Cizre. If that is true, it risks making the PKK’s violent history with Turkey even more complicated.
Turkey’s peace process, known as the “Resolution Process,” has been significantly undermined during heavy clashes in mid-2014 between Daesh and the YPG, which is the militant wing of the PYD, in the northern Syrian town of Kobane. The town of Kobane is in the PYD’s Kobane canton, and lies on the Turkish-Syrian border.
In late 2014, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) — which was inspired by the ideas of the PKK leader Ocalan and which is the predecessor of current Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) — called for widespread protests against the Turkish state in the southeastern and eastern regions of Turkey, accusing Turkey of encouraging Daesh attacks against Kobane.
Turkey views Daesh as a terrorist organisation, however, and has flatly rejected the BDP and PKK claims. Turkey even allowed YPG militants from Syria to be treated in Turkish hospitals and allowed a peshmerga force under the command of northern Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government to travel to Kobane through Turkish territory to reinforce the YPG in its fight against Daesh during the clashes.
The protests triggered a bloody fight between the Free Cause Party (Huda-Par) supporters and the YDG-H, a PKK affiliate in Turkey. The YDG-H is blamed for the attacks and deaths of more than 40 people in some of Turkey’s mostly Kurdish-populated southeastern and eastern provinces, and some suburbs of its metropolis. The Huda-Par is a conservative movement, operating mostly in Turkey's southeastern and eastern regions.
A blow for peace
The series of incidents were a huge blow to the peace process, which was overseen by the governing Justice and Development Party (AK Party). The Turkish authorities viewed them as an indication of the BDP’s lack of good faith towards the peace process.
Cemil Bayik, one of the top leaders of the PKK, announced in late 2014 that the group had withdrawn its armed units back to Turkey after the Kobane incident, accusing the Turkish government of supporting Daesh against the PKK. This broke with a pledge the PKK had made during the peace process: to withdraw its armed units from Turkish territory, as Ocalan had announced in the March 2013 Nowroz celebrations.
It is widely reported, and acknowledged by the PKK leadership itself, that the group has not completely withdrawn from Turkey. On the other hand, Turkey accused the PKK of escalating the Kobane conflict, and of unnecessarily expanding the conflict onto Turkish soil.
The Turkish government also accused the PKK leadership, along with the PYD, of complicating the peace process by trying to make northern Syria part of the process. Following the collapse of the talks, many experts argued that one of the main factors leading to the failure was the issue of PYD cantons on the Turkish-Syrian border. Indeed, during this period, the PKK’s youth group, the YDG-H, was digging ditches, building barricades and arming its militants in Turkey’s southeastern provinces, including Cizre.
In Cizre, many people believe that Turkey’s peace process never had an impact.The establishment of the YDG-H goes back to early 2013, when the peace process had just been launched. The first sign of their presence was reported in Cizre, where they first attempted to block roads and began digging ditches in late 2014.
“Some aimed to spoil the process. They did not want a healing process in place. In both sides [in PKK and deep state circles], some power centres made efforts for this process not to be successful,” said a high-ranking district official, who is originally from Cizre and did not want to be identified.
“An extensive team from Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen Association (TUSİAD), which included its president and representatives from [Turkey’s richest] Sabanci and Koc families, arrived in Cizre [during the peace process] on June 25, 2013 when the YDG-H declared its foundation [with a provocative ceremony],” he pointed out. TUSİAD is the Turkey’s most powerful business group.
“This was an extraordinary event which was clearly planned in advance,” he added. YDG-H’s founding declaration led to unease in Turkish political circles about peace process, and later came to be seen as one of the first signs of the PKK’s insincerity toward the peace process and disarmament.
With the collapse of the peace process in July 2015, heavy clashes exploded between PKK groups and security forces in the urban areas of those regions. Cizre and Silopi, in the province of Sirnak and the central district of Sirnak, were the most affected urban centres during the clashes, which continued until early 2016.
According to the Turkish government, the timing of the YDG-H’s establishment and its fierce fighting against security forces after the collapse of the peace talks in the summer of 2015 shows that the PKK played out a double game during the peace process.
Following the end of urban clashes with removal of all the ditches and barricades, in mid-2016, Turkey also launched a cross-border operation, the Euphrates Shield, which has claimed part of northern Syria territories between PYD-held Afrin and Kobane, preventing the group to join all of its cantons. The operation has also secured a considerable part of Turkey’s Syria border by defeating Daesh forces in the crucial Syrian border districts including the strategic town Al Bab.
After all, Cizre is now fully controlled by Turkish security forces and people unanimously think that PKK was on the losing side of the armed conflict.
By rejecting a full disarmament programme offered by the Turkish government and urged by their imprisoned leader Ocalan, and instead, being heavily armed in the urban centres of Turkey's southeastern and eastern provinces, the group not only triggered political tension which brought the end of the peace process, but also risked civilian lives in mostly-Kurdish populated areas during the clashes, according to some residents of Cizre.
But they also think that the Turkish state needed to do more during the peace process to keep hopes alive and to secure a creative atmosphere in which Turkey’s western and eastern communities could exchange more ideas to address the Kurdish issue. They unanimously also think that when the first barricades were built and the ditches dug by PKK’s youth wing, the YDG-H, in Cizre and other locations, the Turkish state should not have tolerated those actions, even for the sake of keeping the peace process alive.
“[During the peace process], if we had one-tenth of the security measures we currently have, these difficulties would not get bigger and expand to the levels [we had experienced at the time],” the same official said.
Now the people of Cizre also unanimously hope for a new peace process which will bring ultimate stability, trust, and prosperity to their lives as a whole like the ones they enjoyed during most of the Ottoman times.
“The Kurdish question is Turkey’s bleeding wound. It is clear that the Kurdish issue could not be resolved by military means. The blood of tens of thousands of people is the ultimate testimony to this fact,” wrote Selahattin Yilmaz, the mufti of Cizre, the district’s highest official religious authority, in early 2016, when most of the clashes had ended.
“A security policy by itself would be a temporary resolution not a permanent one.”