New Kurds on the Block

The Rise of Turkey's Militant Youth

Turkish soldiers take position as they clash with Turkish Kurdish protesters near the Turkish-Syrian border, October 4, 2014. Murad Sezer / Reuters

For years now, the Turks have anxiously watched the chaos engulfing Syria and Iraq. But now the country is facing its own potential civil war. In late July, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) made the ill-advised decision to discontinue two-and-half years of peace negotiations with the Kurdish militants and launch a military campaign against them. Since then, the Kurdish regions, one quarter of Turkey’s territory, have become active conflict zones, with the military and police facing regular attacks from Kurdish rocket-propelled grenades and improvised explosive devices.

Over 120 Turkish security personnel have died in clashes with militants affiliated with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) since the ceasefire agreement fell apart two months ago. Starting in August, after hundreds of Turkish aerial assaults on PKK guerrilla positions in neighboring Iraq, the military and police attempted to place Turkey’s southeast Kurdish region under lockdown. Over a dozen Kurdish-majority towns and districts responded by declaring themselves “autonomous.” Turkish security forces have found themselves facing unprecedented resistance from new PKK-affiliated urban youth militias. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AKP caretaker government, meanwhile, appear to have been caught unprepared by the dynamics of the conflict that they have unleashed.


Ankara most likely assumed that it could bring the Kurdish population into submission through the use of overwhelming force—aerial bombing combined with the deployment of commando units—much like the so-called dirty war in the 1990s that succeeded in degrading the PKK’s capacity to conduct guerrilla warfare in the Kurdish countryside. Back then, to target the PKK and subdue the Kurdish populace, the Turkish government forcibly evacuated rural communities and razed their villages. But that was yesterday’s war, and it won’t work with today’s Kurdish movement, which is overwhelmingly urban, politically sophisticated, and broad based.

Turkish security forces use tear gas to disperse Turkish Kurds near the Turkish-Syrian border, September 26, 2014. Murad Sezer / Reuters

Another key difference is that, whereas the PKK was

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