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I know the neighborhood of today’s bombing in Istanbul, Sultanhamet, as well as my own face. Not far from the photos you saw in Tom’s post, I found my cat, the Smudge, as a tiny kitten — orphaned, starving, and dying of flea anemia. When I sat beside her, and she weakly crawled into my lap and began to purr.
I took her home, and here she is now beside me, a living connection to the many days, over so many years, that I walked through Sultanhamet — to show the famous sites to visiting friends, to stroll and talk for hours with the Turkish friends I’ve left behind and so badly miss, to shop in the covered market and the spice bazaar, to go, occasionally, for a morning run on the grounds of the Topkapı palace.
There were many terrorist attacks in Turkey when I lived there. This wasn’t the first. It won’t be the last. But I don’t think I could bear it, my heart would break, if Turkey were to suffer what Syria has. When an attack takes place on a site frequented by tourists, it makes international news. But the recrudescence of the civil war in the Southeast is the story that has the potential to tear Turkey apart, and this barely makes the news in the West at all.
Turkish government forces have launched a massive operation to dislodge the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, from cities across the Southeast. The PKK in turn has established checkpoints and no-go areas in cities, executed young policemen, and ambushed military vehicles. The military says hundreds of PKK militants have been killed. An unknown but surely large number of civilians have been killed. It is no longer unimaginable to envision carnage in Turkey on the scale of the Syrian war.
When that war began, I warned that it wouldn’t be confined:
It’s not a secret that Syria is imploding. But the key thing to grasp is that it won’t stop there: There is a real possibility that this regime will take its neighbors down with it. I’m not sure that the West — which from what I can tell is now completely preoccupied with itself and its economic problems — is sufficiently grasping this.
If you’ve been stunned by the Syrian war’s power of centrifugal devastation and destabilization, you ain’t seen nothing yet. If the chaos spreads further into to Turkey, there will be no buffer between Europe and the war zone. Were it not for the Syrian crisis and the growing prospect of all-out Sunni-Shia regional conflict, the war in Southeast Turkey would be on the front page of every newspaper. But no one has the emotional or intellectual ability to cope with yet another geopolitical emergency. Few in the US are even aware it’s happening.
Silopi was shelled last Saturday afternoon, but there was no sign of a government breakthrough. The authorities claim that 261 terrorists have been “rendered ineffective” in Cizre, Silopi, and Sur. We don’t know their names. Nor do we know the names of the 3,100 PKK terrorists Erdoğan claims to have killed since last summer.
Casualties among soldiers and police average two or three a day.
The main towns of southeastern Turkey have reportedly been turned into battlefields. I’ve been to Sur. When last I was there, it was peaceful and the residents optimistic. Reports of devastation to its cultural heritage — to Armenian churches recently and lovingly restored with donations from Armenian-Americans, to ancient mosques — are devastating. Sur is a treasure that belongs to all the world. The photos that have emerged of the destruction to its architectural heritage are sickening.
The government seems to have triggered a popular insurgency of the kind that the US faced in Fallujah. Fighters hide in crowded, concrete apartment buildings, posing a terrible risk to Turkey’s conscript military and its police. It seems no measures have been taken to protect civilians and children.
A friend sent me the picture above. It’s a Turkish satirical magazine’s depiction of the New Year in the Southeast. It reports 44 children killed.
There have been clashes between Kurds and Turkish ultra-nationalists in Turkish universities. In Malatya, 61 students were arrested. The fighting began with protests to mark the fourth anniversary of the still-unsolved Roboski Massacre, which killed 34 Kurdish villagers on the Turkish-Iraqi border. These clashes suggest that tensions between Kurds and other communities are spreading rapidly beyond the southeast. The Mediterranean port of Mersin has seen continual disturbances.
A local politician from the statist-leftist Republican People’s Party burst into tears in Ankara when recounting what he’d seen in Silopi. The party leadership has warned that these operations may lead to a irremediable breach between Turks and Kurds.
Only the Left in Europe has spoken out. The right seems to have promised to overlook everything in exchange for Erdoğan’s promise to stanch the flow of refugees. It is a policy as short-sighted as it is immoral.
One European Parliament representative, Gabi Zimmer, has explicitly blamed Erdoğan:
In the wake of the dirty deals agreed with the Turkish government on refugee policy, the European Union and its member states have passively accepted Erdoğan’s war against the Kurdish people. They have deliberately turned a blind eye to the ruthless violations of basic human rights. Kurdish men, women and children are paying for Erdoğan’s tyrannical self-interest with their lives on a daily basis.
Zimmer notes, correctly, that Erdoğan has delegitimized the Kurdish-oriented HDP ever since it passed the 10 percent election threshold needed to enter Parliament in June last year. “The allegation that the demand by the Kurds for self-determination is a betrayal,” she said, “is absurd, and the investigation into the co-chairman of the HDP, Demirtaş, and his colleagues must be stopped immediately. Their rights as elected representatives must be respected.”
Good luck with that. All anyone else in Europe cares about now is keeping more refugees out.
I have no advice. I’m powerless. I’m not in a position to persuade American and European policymakers that now is the time to exert every bit of diplomatic pressure they have to pull both sides back from the brink. All I can do is say that this is terribly dangerous; that the disorder spreading from this region can’t ultimately be contained by any fence or wall. There is almost no international coverage of Turkey’s southeast, and no condemnation. Even Amnesty International is ignoring it.
Friends in Turkey are deeply depressed by the lack of international concern. Those familiar with European history note the parallels with the authoritarian regimes of the inter-war years, and shudder.
I see news daily — largely ignored by the media outside Turkey — of political murders, curfews, growing despair. The mayor of Adana, one of Turkey’s largest cities and a former zone of Armenian inward migration, has reportedly publicly warned the PKK that “Your end will be like the Armenians.”
Here is a video, subtitled in English, of a gathering in Diyarbakır of citizens pleading for peace. Perhaps seeing and hearing these people will make them seem as real to you as they do to me.