On the evening of June 7, Ahmet Yildiz celebrated. The leftist, pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which he supported, had succeeded in breaching Turkey’s unusually high 10 percent election threshold—a remnant of the Constitution drawn up by the military junta after the coup in 1980—and entered Parliament with 80 MPs, granting Turkey’s large Kurdish minority an unprecedented political voice.
“The streets of Cizre were full of people who were happy,” Yildiz (a pseudonym, to protect his identity) recalled. “We felt that a new time had come for us, that we were closer to peace than ever before.” But three months later, the streets of his neighborhood in Cizre, in the Kurdish region of eastern Turkey, are almost deserted. Residents have hung up sheets and blankets to protect themselves against sniper fire, and most roads into the district have been blocked by trenches and barricades. In early September, Turkish security forces launched a massive security operation against the YDG-H, the urban wing of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), leaving at least 21 residents dead, including children and a 75-year-old man. While the governor of Sirnak province claimed that only PKK militants had been killed, local human rights groups said that most of those killed were civilians.
In Cizre, trust in the Turkish government is gone. “Our victory feels poisoned,” Yildiz said. “I was full of hope after [the HDP’s] success in the elections, but now I don’t have much hope left. This government does not want peace, and all [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan cares about is how to stay in power.”
Many others in the predominantly Kurdish southeast agree. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) suffered its biggest setback when voters denied the party an absolute majority for the first time since it came to power in 2002, therefore also snubbing Erdogan’s plan to turn what had been a largely ceremonial post into an executive presidency. The AKP’s loss of a majority government was not least due to the HDP’s success after the newly established leftist grouping had managed to convince thousands of conservative Kurds, all of them previously AKP voters, to cast ballots in their favor instead.
The latest clashes were arguably triggered by the suicide bombing in July that killed 33 Kurdish and Turkish activists in Suruç, a small town on the Turkish-Syrian border. The Turkish government blamed the Islamic State, or ISIS, for the attack, but many Kurds in Turkey pointed angry fingers at the ruling AKP, long perceived as actively supporting ISIS against the armed Kurdish opposition in Syria. Then, following the murder of two Turkish policemen by Kurdish militants, the government in Ankara launched airstrikes on PKK positions in northern Iraq and Turkey. In response, the PKK resumed attacks on security forces in earnest. Hundreds of Kurds suspected of links to the militant group were detained in nationwide sweeps.