The Day Erdogan Turned on the Kurds

A couple react after being hit with tear gas during a demonstration on July 20, 2015, on Istiklal avenue in Istanbul, after a suicide bombing in the Turkish town of Suruc near the border with Syria killed at least 31.

Source YASIN AKGUL/AFP/Getty

Why you should care

Because this attack dashed hopes of ending 40 years of conflict.

In the early afternoon of July 20, 2015, Havva Custan joined hundreds of student activists from across Turkey in the border town of Suruç. The students huddled behind a young woman, who announced to reporters and media activists their intention to cross into Syria and rebuild the largely Kurdish city of Kobane, which had been devastated by ISIS militants earlier that year.

Custan was standing outside the huddle, snapping photos and tweeting about the occasion. That’s when the bomb went off. A 20-year-old Turkish student had detonated himself in an explosion that killed 33 people, including four of Custan’s friends.

“When it happened, I had no idea how big the explosion was,” says Custan, now 25. “I had no idea how many people died.”

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Mourners make victory signs during the funeral ceremony for victims of a suicide bomb attack in Suruç in Turkey’s Sanliurfa province in 2015.

Source BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty

Turkey blamed ISIS for the attack, but the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) — long branded a terrorist organization by the U.S., EU and Turkey — accused Ankara of colluding with ISIS to target Kurds in Syria and Turkey. To be sure, Turkey had allowed thousands of foreign fighters into Syria in a bid to help overthrow dictator Bashar Assad. Though Ankara didn’t support ISIS on the battlefield, it reportedly sent arms to other dubious Islamist militias and was slow to crack down on ISIS cells on its soil.

Seeking revenge for the Suruç bombing, the PKK killed a Turkish corporal hours after the tragedy. For two and a half years, the PKK and Turkey had been engaged in a peace process to end a four-decade-long armed conflict that was triggered by long-standing cultural and political repression of the Kurds. But it crumbled that day, as Turkey’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, retaliated by bombing PKK targets in Iraq. The war soon came to Turkey as Erdoğan bombed and laid siege to towns in the southeast, while a PKK offshoot launched deadly attacks in major cities, killing dozens of civilians.

During the peace process, Ankara had grown uneasy with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), another PKK offshoot. The group became a leading U.S. partner in the fight against ISIS and had carved out an autonomous zone in northeast Syria known to the Kurds as Rojava. Those developments made the PKK less inclined to strike a peace deal with Turkey, which would have required the group to lay down their weapons. And despite fears of a PKK haven on Turkey’s doorstep, Erdoğan was careful not to completely isolate the Kurds ahead of an election that transpired a month before the Suruç bombing.  

Turkey’s Kurds had long thrown their weight behind Erdoğan, who had delivered some concessions to the community, like allowing children to be given Kurdish names. But in the run-up to the election on June 7, 2015, Kurds were wary of Erdogan’s ambitious plan to change Turkey’s parliamentary system into a presidential one through a constitutional referendum. The latter was designed to give Erdoğan near-absolute power.

Motivated to stop him, most Kurds and many Turks voted for a socialist Kurdish party, helping it soar into Parliament for the first time in Turkey’s history with 13 percent of the national vote. That feat denied Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) a fourth consecutive majority government, blocking his plans to change the political system.  

After the vote, coalition talks between the parties went nowhere, setting up another election that November. This time, Erdoğan was determined to appeal to nationalist voters. He specifically coveted an alliance with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), who had always been against the peace process with the PKK.

Looking back, Erdogan gambled that a war with the Kurds would win MHP support. Emboldened by Rojava, the PKK welcomed a fight.

“Erdogan’s turn to MHP was a natural alliance of convenience to move forward with his presidential ambitions,” said Mustafa Gurbuz, an expert on Turkish and Kurdish politics and a non-resident fellow at the Arab Center Washington.

Erdogan’s gamble paid off: He reclaimed his parliamentary majority and fostered an alliance with MHP. That alliance helped him win a referendum in 2017 to become the first president with sweeping powers in the Turkish Republic.

But the ultra-nationalists had already been part of the equation since late 2015. By then, Erdoğan had escalated his campaign against the Kurds by arresting political opponents and peaceful activists.

On the first anniversary of the massacre in Suruç, survivors and friends of the deceased went back to the town to pay their respects. At 2 am, while the group slept, police broke down the door. Sila Kaymack recalls the police dragging the men into the bedroom and lining her and the other girls up across the living room wall. The boys were kicked repeatedly and beaten with clubs. Kaymack heard them screaming.

After the beating, all 12 people in the house were taken to the police station. Most were released after a few days. But the following year, in June 2017, Kaymack was arrested again and charged with being a member of a terrorist organization. She spent five months in pretrial detention and, after her release, eventually sought asylum in the Netherlands.

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A demonstrator is detained by Turkish police officers during a protest condemning the Suruç suicide bombing, in July 2015, in Ankara.

Source ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty

“In the eyes of the Turkish state, you are either with them or against them,” laments Kaymack. “And if you’re against them, then you’re a terrorist.”

Custan, who is Turkish, was also arrested for reporting on a protest as a journalist. She spent nine months in pretrial detention and stands accused of spreading propaganda for a terrorist organization.

Last weekend, Custan and Kaymack watched helplessly as Turkey launched its third war against the Kurds — the second in Syria — since the peace process collapsed four years ago. Turkish-backed Arab militias were filmed executing two Kurdish prisoners of war at point-blank range, while an unarmed Kurdish politician was violently murdered. What’s more, the offensive resulted in the escape of 750 people with suspected links to ISIS.

“The Turkish government has lost its ability to think logically,” says Kaymack, about the offensive.

Gurbuz explains that the onslaught was merely the result of Erdogan’s maneuver to MHP in November 2015. “Turkey’s Syria policy quickly shifted,” he said. “The main target became the Syrian Kurds, not the Assad regime.”

Last weekend, YPG struck a deal with Assad to avoid a massacre. The group allowed the Syrian regime to seize its territory in exchange for protection from Turkey. Arab and Kurdish anti-regime activists now fear reprisal from Assad’s forces.

Rojava was their last refuge.

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