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

New Kurds on the Block

The Rise of Turkey's Militant Youth

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.

YESTERDAY’S WAR

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.

Another key difference is that, whereas the PKK was relatively isolated within Turkey in the 1990s, today, there is a de facto autonomous Kurdish region across the border in Syria that is run by the PKK-affiliated Democratic Union Party (PYD). The PYD’s three autonomous cantons, known among the Kurds as Rojavaye Kurdistane (“Western Kurdistan”), or more commonly as Rojava (the West), have heightened Turkish Kurds’ desire for autonomy, particularly after the PYD’s January victory against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) in the autonomous canton of Kobani. With the help of U.S. air cover, PYD and PKK fighters, assisted by Kurdish volunteers from Turkey, broke ISIS’ siege of the city.

And yet a week before the United States came to its aid, the PYD had been struggling to beat back ISIS. At that time, President Erdogan expressed delight in the impending collapse of the Kurdish stronghold and exultantly declared, “Kobani is on the verge of falling.” Erdogan’s remarks sparked four days of violent riots in 35 cities across Turkey and the government put most of southeastern Turkey under curfew. Following the victory at Kobani, however, millions of conservative Kurds embraced the cause for an autonomous Rojava and switched their allegiance from Erdogan’s ruling AKP to the Kurdish-oriented People’s Democratic Party (HDP) in Turkey’s June 7 parliamentary elections. The swell in Kurdish support enabled the HDP to cross the 10 percent electoral threshold and become the first Kurdish-led party in parliament. The AKP thus lost its majority hold.

After Kobani, additional victories against ISIS in northern Syria enabled the PYD to geographically link two of its three cantons, raising the prospect that Rojava would soon become a contiguous, autonomous Kurdish entity stretching along almost the entirety of Turkey’s southern border. With this development, Erdogan took more drastic measures and attempted to seek the assistance of the international community. “I am appealing to the whole world,” he said in a speech one month before Turkey launched its anti-PKK, military campaign. “We will never allow the establishment of a [Kurdish] state in Syria’s north and our south. We will continue our fight in this regard no matter what it costs.”

Supporters of the Pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) cheer during a gathering to celebrate their party's victory during the parliamentary election, in Diyarbakir, Turkey, June 8, 2015.

While the costs of government’s war against the PKK are indeed proving to be high, Erdogan is also in a battle for his own political survival. He has blocked the formation of a coalition government and has instead forced snap elections, to be held on November 1, in an attempt to reinstate a single-party AKP-government. Having lost Kurdish support, about 5.5 percent of the AKP’s electoral base, Erdogan hopes to win votes from the AKP’s right-of-center political rival, the Nationalist Movement Party, by capitalizing on the current anti-PKK sentiment among non-Kurdish Turks.

THE MAD MAX GENERATION

The embattled southern city of Cizre has become the symbolic epicenter of the conflict. There, more than 5,000 security personnel with armored vehicles battled armed Kurdish youth militias ensconced in homemade trenches. Although Turkish forces regained control of the city after nine days of what was tantamount to martial law, most residents blame Ankara for the damage and civilian deaths they attribute to the military’s indiscriminate tactics.

Cizre is illustrative of the fallout for the AKP from antagonizing the Kurds. In that city, the HDP had received 85 percent of the vote, but Erdogan has effectively nullified the results and blocked the Kurds from gaining some semblance of autonomy through parliamentary politics. The Kurdish citizens of Cizre and their compatriots across Turkey are consequently more willing to resort to violence to make themselves heard.

Even though in March, the PKK’s imprisoned leader Abdullah Ocalan called for the Kurds to abandon the armed struggle, Turkey’s military campaign has triggered a new mindset within the Kurdish movement. On September 10, the Executive Council of the Union of Communities of Kurdistan, the pan-Kurdish political organization dominated by the PKK and its affiliated parties and organizations, issued a call for “total resistance” against the state’s security forces operating in Turkey’s Kurdish regions. Headed by the PKK’s acting political leader Cemil Bayik, the Executive Council wrote in a statement, “The people of Cizre should be supported in the same way the resistance in Kobani was supported. It is time to rise up and stand by the people of Bakure (“Northern”) [Turkish] Kurdistan.”

Before his death in 2012, the respected elder statesman of Kurdish politics, Serafettin Elci, famously warned the Turkish establishment that the times were changing. “We are the last generation you are going to negotiate with,” he declared. “After us, you will confront an angry youth that has grown up in war.” The prophetic admonition from the late philosopher and lawyer, who himself served an eight-month term in Diyarbakir military prison, has come true.

As the statement indicates, localized Kurdish youth militias are increasingly driving the course of events. Loosely formed within the past few years under the banner of the PKK’s Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H), these militias are composed of Kurdish youth, aged 15–25, who grew up during the dirty war and came of age witnessing the success of asymmetrical urban warfare conducted by jihadist organizations in Iraq and Syria. Similar to jihadist youth across the border, the Kurdish YDG-H have their own culture of extreme self-sacrifice and are fueled by a narrative that vilifies the Turkish state, and its torture of Kurds, and lionizes the most extreme PKK fighters. 

Analysts writing in the Turkish media, such as Metin Gurcan, have dubbed these new Kurdish youth fighters the “Mad Max” generation: social media-savvy militants prone to radicalization because of the personal meaning and excitement they find in armed clashes against the Turkish state.

AN ENDLESS ENDGAME

Before his death in 2012, the respected elder statesman of Kurdish politics, Serafettin Elci, famously warned the Turkish establishment that the times were changing. “We are the last generation you are going to negotiate with,” he declared. “After us, you will confront an angry youth that has grown up in war.” The prophetic admonition from the late philosopher and lawyer, who himself served an eight-month term in Diyarbakir military prison, has come true.

Although the so-called Mad Max generation remains to be fully understood, it is clear that the traditional PKK chain-of-command will not be able to exercise complete control over these urban Kurdish rebels. With Ocalan, and Bayik, and the rest of the PKK’s top leadership all in their sixties, the window for arriving at a peaceful political settlement may be closing.

A Kurdish man waves a scarf painted with traditional Kurdish colors during a rally in Turkey, November 11, 2007.

Meanwhile, because the AKP government needs to achieve some sort of progress in its fight against the PKK before the November 1 elections, the state is likely to escalate the conflict. There have already been hundreds of attacks by violent mobs on the offices of the HDP and on ordinary Kurds across Turkey. These clashes will likely enlarge the ranks of the Kurdish youth militias who pride themselves on their self-designated role as protectors of the Kurds. In other words, the AKP’s anti-Kurdish campaign will essentially help the youth militias recruit from the Kurdish neighborhoods of Turkey’s major urban centers.

The prospect for urban street violence before the elections is also increased by the dangerous game of one-upmanship between thefar-right “Idealist Hearths,” a youth movement tied to the Nationalist Movement Party, and the more radical elements within the AKP’s own youth movement.

Today the Kurdish issue is a qualitatively more intractable than it was in the 1990s. The Turkish state will not easily defeat thousands of urban militants who possess broad popular support. Nor will Ankara quickly recover from the social and economic damage caused by its effort to do so. There is no end to the war unless there is a resumption of peace negotiations with the PKK and the acceptance of a Kurdish rights movement within Turkey’s parliamentary system. If Ankara chooses to escalate its campaign against the Kurdish urban youth militias, it may find itself facing a debilitating forever war, permanently at odds with most of its Kurdish population and regretting the missed opportunity for a permanent solution.

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