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Kurdish Human Rights Project: This is the legacy website of the Kurdish Human Rights Project, containing reports and news pertaining to human rights issues in the Kurdish Regions for 20 years.

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KHRP Public Statement: Turkish-Iraqi Border Tensions - the Bigger Picture

The portrayal of the current crisis on the Turkish-Iraqi border by the media and the Turkish government leaves the major issues informing the conflict in south-east Turkey unaddressed.

The reported clashes between Turkish security forces and the PKK in the past week do not comprise an escalation in conflict there, merely an escalation in the rhetoric surrounding such conflict. Clashes have taken place continually in the past number of years, and are caused by an insistence on militarism and violence on both sides. The idea that the PKK is the sole instigator of unrest and violence in the region is mistaken. South-east Turkey is heavily militarised, with many regions remaining in a de-facto state of emergency years after martial law was officially lifted. Basic human rights continue to be violated on a daily basis and there exists an ongoing feeling of mistrust towards the state by many amongst the population. This situation does not lend itself to stability, reconciliation or an end to violence. Both the PKK and the Turkish Security forces are responsible for ongoing militarism in the region and for endangering stability and the lives of those living there.

The prospect of a Turkish incursion into Iraq, which has been greeted with such alarm in the media in recent days, is not a new one. Ever since the 1990s Turkey has carried out dozens of incursions into Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) territory, with little success. Turkish bombardment of Kurdistan, Iraq has also been ongoing; this week’s bombardment is by no means a first.

The discourse surrounding the recent crisis has been misleading. The pressure for an incursion is not simply about self defence and ‘fighting terror’. Undermining Kurdish autonomy has long been on the list of priorities of the Turkish military, and it takes precedence to the resolution of conflict with the PKK on home soil. The Turkish military’s Chief of Staff General Büyükanit has made his hostility to the KRG clear on several occasions, in particular on the issue of Kirkuk. Most recently he posted a statement several weeks ago on the military’s website branding development in Kurdistan, Iraq the biggest threat to Turkey’s future security.

This hostility to the KRG is shared equally with Iran and Syria, and on the question of Kurdistan, Iraq the three countries make unlikely allies. Turkey has acted for years in concert with its neighbours to undermine the stability of the KRG while denying the rights of their own Kurdish populations. As Kurdish Human Rights Project has reported, Iran has been engaging in fierce bombardment of towns and villages across the Iraqi border, claiming to target the encampments of Kurdish armed groups. Such bombardments by Iran have been particularly intense in the past six months, causing thousands to flee from their villages into the mountains. Despite the enormous international pressure on Iran on the nuclear question, the international community has failed to reprimand the country for its repeated violation of Iraqi sovereignty despite the appeals of both the Iraqi and Kurdish Regional Governments.  Vocal Syrian support of Turkey’s recent parliamentary vote authorising incursions further speaks to this coordinated strategy between the three states.

An end to PKK violence will not be achieved through cross-border incursions. Talk of such incursions simply inflames extremist nationalist feelings and encourages a mob mentality in Turkey while serving to alienate 20 million of Turkey’s own citizens, the majority of whom simply seek equality and the free expression of their cultural and linguistic identities. Only today it was reported that mobs of nationalists trashed offices belonging to the Democratic Society Party (DTP) in six cities across Turkey, while in the western city of Bursa stores belonging to ethnic Kurds were attacked and looted.

Threats of incursions also bow to undue military influence in a conflict for which militarism on both sides has been proven to be a failure. Any threat posed by the PKK emanates from within Turkey’s borders, where the vast majority of PKK members and supporters are based. Just this summer, Prime Minister Erdoğan publicly questioned the wisdom of incursions noting that it made no strategic sense to cross the border when a larger percentage of the PKK membership was inside Turkey's borders. An end to clashes in south-east Turkey requires dialogue and a willingness to reject violence and militarism in the region, not exportation of the same violence.

A full cross-border operation would result in a humanitarian disaster. Kurdistan, Iraq is one of Iraq’s few stable regions and has served as shelter to hundreds of thousands fleeing violence in the south. An incursion would entail the risk of another mass exodus, further adding to Iraq’s crippling internal displacement problem. An incursion would also entail the killing of civilians in the KRG and Turkey, irrevocably damaging the relationship between the Kurds of Iraq and their Turkish neighbour. Already, the current clashes in the security zone on the Turkish side of the border have led to the deaths of dozens of soldiers and PKK members. Civilians have been caught in the middle, such as the farmers killed and injured by soldiers’ gun fire while collecting honey in Tunceli province on 27th September.

Turkey’s claim to act within its right to self-defence cannot override its obligations to international law and human rights norms. Turkey has failed consistently to fulfil these obligations both on home soil and across the Iraqi border over the past decades. As a candidate for accession to the European Union it must embrace the values of peaceful resolution of conflict. It must reject the military solution and instead engage in meaningful reform coupled with dialogue in order to remove the root causes of conflict in its Kurdish regions. 

Kerim Yildiz, Executive Director