Managing Turkey’s PKK Conflict: The Case of Nusaybin

Executive Summary

Nusaybin, a political stronghold of the Kurdish movement bordering Syria, is among Turkey’s urban south-eastern districts that saw unprecedented levels of violence in 2016. Particularly in the wake of the failed July coup attempt and in the run-up to the 2017 presidential system referendum, emergency rule conditions resulted in the arrest and/or removal from office of elected representatives of the legal Kurdish political movement. While conflict fatigue can be observed in this town where 30,000 lost their homes, so can a distinct sense that a political solution is not in sight. Ankara’s effort to meet residents’ basic needs and compensate their material losses is notable, but managing the conflict’s social/political fallout and addressing grievances of Kurdish movement supporters will be crucial if that marginalised constituency is not to be left more susceptible to mobilisation by the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and drawn toward violence.

Since violence resumed in July 2015, the 33-year conflict with the PKK, which Turkey, the U.S. and European Union (EU) consider a terrorist organisation, has devastated neighbourhoods and livelihoods across urban districts of the majority-Kurdish south east. In twenty-one months, at least 2,748 died, around 100,000 lost their homes, and up to 400,000 were temporarily displaced. Turkish security forces conducted hundreds of operations in urban and rural areas of the south east, while the PKK – after a period of intense clashes in urban centres and attacks with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) also in western cities of Turkey – returned to fighting in rural areas in June 2016. With the rise to dominance of nationalist cadres and hardline policies in Ankara, the state’s approach is to weaken the PKK as much as possible; marginalise the main legal Kurdish political entity, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP); win over locals via better services and infrastructure,; and nurture other Kurdish political actors that might serve as an alternative to the HDP.

Residents in the conflict-torn south east are fed contradictory narratives as to why the escalation reached such levels. Government affiliates retroactively blame cadres linked to what they call the Fethullahist Terrorist Organisation (FETÖ) – also blamed for the 15 July 2016 coup attempt – for the PKK mobilisation in south-eastern urban districts during the peace process (2013-2015). Conversely, hardline Kurdish movement representatives assert that elements in Ankara favouring nationalist policies, and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself, orchestrated the escalation to justify the crackdown on the legal Kurdish political movement. Residents are bitter toward the state but also blame the PKK for being ready to sacrifice its social base in Turkey to pursue the unrealistic ambition of carving out autonomous neighbourhoods with trenches and barricades.

State initiatives to rebuild Nusaybin’s neighbourhoods and compensate residents for material losses have taken time to develop, and transparency is lagging. The government is making diligent efforts to compensate for the true value of destroyed property, but administrative gaffes and delays exacerbate longstanding mistrust of state authorities. Clearing explosives from neighbourhoods where fighting occurred, the authorities say, required flattening buildings that were still standing, but it fuelled speculation that the destruction was intended to allow new construction that would facilitate security measures against renewed urban warfare. Despite genuine progress, the physical reconstruction of houses will not be sufficient to restore trust between the state and the local population or to rejuvenate fully the town’s social dynamism any time soon. The government needs to meet expectations regarding revitalising small businesses, which may require allowing controlled border trade, and adequately address the psycho-social needs of people traumatised by the conflict.

More broadly, the central authorities’ removal of elected representatives and purge of locally-trusted municipality personnel have consolidated a sense among Kurdish movement supporters that their political orientation and culture is not recognised. That, plus the stifling of public debate, ban on mass protests in some areas and strong security force presence also has strengthened the perception that there is no outlet for democratic politics. For some, it has left armed struggle as a legitimate response.

In the wake of the 16 April referendum, in which 79 per cent of Nusaybin residents voted “no”, the government extended for three months the emergency rule that has been in place since the failed coup. This is hardly the best way to suggest a shift toward the inclusive, pluralistic policies required to win hearts and minds. At a minimum, state officials should engage with local residents by hiring staff that is more attuned to the social fabric, and proactively try to address the trust deficit.

Ideally, President Erdoğan – having now secured an executive presidency – would focus on healing social divides, including with respect to the ideological diversity among Turkey’s Kurds. With no elections scheduled for two years, he may be less intent on mobilising nationalist constituencies. That would be the right choice. The alternative – impeding channels for the legitimate representation of the Kurdish movement and ignoring longstanding political demands and grievances – would ensure that adversity festers and segments of the population radicalise. By the same token, if the government continues to broadly apply anti-terror legislation so as to criminalise the mere fact of contradicting official accounts, there will be no hope for the resumption of more constructive, peaceful public debate on resolving Turkey’s PKK conflict.

That is the key. With the coming of spring, mutual escalation of that confrontation is likely; the Syrian war, in which Ankara and Kurdish affiliates of the PKK are at odds, further magnifies the danger. The only way to durable peace remains new talks between Turkey and the PKK,

accompanied – on a separate track – by an effort to satisfy Turkey’s Kurdish population on core issues such as mother-tongue education, de-centralisation, a lower electoral threshold, reform of anti-terror laws and an ethnically neutral constitution.


During the 2.5-year PKK-Turkish state ceasefire and peace process (March 2013-April 2015), the Kurdish organisation deepened its presence in urban districts of the south east. Urban warfare followed the ceasefire’s collapse in July 2015. From August 2015, a number of regional mayors from the Democratic Regions’ Party (DBP), an HDP sister party, announced their autonomy from Ankara. PKK militants set up barricades and dug trenches to keep state security forces out. The government imposed curfews, closing residential neighbourhoods of some 40 south-eastern districts for periods ranging from hours to months.

In the most serious cases, residents were asked to evacuate their homes during months of security operations aimed at clearing out PKK, notably in Diyarbakır’s Sur district and Şırnak’s centre, Cizre and Silopi districts, as well as Mardin’s Nusaybin and Hakkari’s Yüksekova districts, where entire neighbourhoods were demolished. International organisations and local human rights NGOs have reported extensively on alleged human rights abuses. Crisis Group’s open-source casualty infographic indicates the conflict’s death toll between the breakdown of the ceasefire and 25 April 2017 has been at least 2,721.

Crisis Group last reported on the conflict in the region in March 2016, when it examined the human cost in Diyarbakır’s Sur district. Operations had ended in many districts, but the most intense period was just beginning in the town of Nusaybin, where a 134-day curfew ran from 14 March to 25 July 2016. Since then, operations have taken place only in rural areas of the town, reflecting the general shift of the fighting away from urban centres back to the traditional arena of the 33-year conflict. When Crisis Group visited Nusaybin in February 2017, there was relative calm in the town but also a strong security presence, and security operations were ongoing in rural areas and villages of the district.

The south east’s atmosphere has been deeply impacted by larger domestic political developments. Over the last year, Turkey has experienced an unprecedented consolidation of presidential power, particularly in the aftermath of the 15 July 2016 coup attempt attributed to the network Ankara has labelled “FETÖ” (Fethullahist Terrorist Organisation). The emergency rule that the government declared in the coup’s aftermath paved the way for sweeping purges and arrests of those suspected of links to either FETÖ and/or the PKK, both alleged to be used by foreign powers that want to destabilise Turkey. The post-coup climate and emergency rule enabled a massive purge in state institutions, along with intense pressure and restrictions on media, academia and civil society, while impunity for security forces increased with legislative changes.

In an effort to convert the government system from parliamentary to presidential, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), in conjunction with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), proposed eighteen constitutional changes that were approved by 51.4 per cent of those who participated in the 16 April 2017 referendum. The referendum campaign both fed off and played into marginalisation of the Kurdish movement. The political leadership framed a “no” vote as support for terrorists, while high-ranking PKK figures expressed opposition to the constitutional changes. Thirteen HDP parliamentarians and 84 DBP mayors spent the campaign and voted in prison. Local Kurdish movement representatives not arrested were under immense pressure. Nevertheless, 61 per cent of voters in the twelve provinces that in November 2015 supported the HDP voted against the changes. The “no” vote in the main urban conflict districts of Cizre, Sur, Nusaybin, Yüksekova and Silopi was 75.3 per cent, among the highest in the country.

The Turkey/PKK conflict also has considerably aggravated Turkey’s relations with the U.S. and European Union (EU) in the past year. Ankara blames Washington for providing support to the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG)/Democratic Union Party (PYD). It accuses the EU and its member states – with which relations are also strained over what Ankara considers unfair obstacles in the accession process and failure to keep its end of the refugee deal, while Brussels objects to what it sees as Ankara’s dangerous disregard for liberal principles and EU values – of leniency toward the PKK and aiding PKK-linked individuals in their countries and pushing for changes in Turkish anti-terror laws that could embolden terrorists. The EU visa liberalisation process, about which EU member states are highly sensitive given the refugee/migration crisis, has stalled primarily due to Ankara’s reluctance to reform those anti-terror laws, the broad interpretation of which potentially qualifies more Turkish citizens for asylum in the EU.

While Ankara’s public line is that a military solution to the PKK conflict is within reach, officials privately acknowledge that the insurgency’s eradication is unrealistic. Rather, the strategy appears to be to weaken the PKK as much as operationally possible, curb its affiliate’s aspirations in Syria, paralyse and discredit the HDP and dilute its influence by nurturing alternative Kurdish actors.

A year after examining the human cost of the conflict in Sur, Crisis Group looks in this report at Nusaybin, on the Syrian border, an area deeply impacted by the recent cycle of violent escalation between the PKK and the Turkish state. The report assesses the extent to which Turkey’s strategy is yielding desired results as opposed to unintended consequences, as well as how the conflict’s human cost and its social and political fallout might be better managed.

II.Nusaybin: Conflict Dynamics and Narratives

A.The Surge of Violence

Nusaybin, in Mardin province at the border with Syria and with a population of around 120,000, predominately Kurdish, many of whom have relatives in the Syrian town of Qamishli, is a political stronghold of the Kurdish movement. The town is strategically important for Ankara due to its close proximity to Qamishli, which is predominately PYD-controlled. The HDP won 90.4 and 89.4 per cent of the vote in Nusaybin in the June and November 2015 parliamentary elections respectively. Political consolidation paralleled a surge in Kurdish nationalism in the town, where the PKK had begun during the peace process (2013-2015) to mobilise youths. After the June vote, members of the PKK’s youth wing, YDG-H (Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement), became more active in the town and the main actors in the ensuing fighting.

Nusaybin saw unprecedented violence in 2016, with a death toll of at least 184, of whom 24 were civilians. Six of the town centre’s fifteen neighbourhoods were fully destroyed; some 6,000 buildings were demolished or heavily damaged; around 30,000 people lost their homes. While officially the town lost 10 per cent of its residents in 2016, a local source estimated the decrease at around 35 per cent.

With the help of PKK militants, some of the town’s youths dug trenches and set up barricades in the Fırat, Abdulkadir Paşa, Yenişehir and Dicle neighbourhoods (see map in Appendix B below). Because state security forces first focused on operations in Sur and Cizre, PKK militants temporarily were able to control parts of Nusaybin, which they and some civilians perceived as “liberated”. When small, intermittent security operations began in October 2015, the number of trenches and barricades was estimated by local sources at around 150. By March 2016, just before large military operations began, that figure had increased to 450-500, a majority of which were barricades erected with cobblestones removed from roads.

PKK propaganda in the town stimulated “self-defence” sentiment by playing up allegations that security forces had burned civilians in basements in Cizre. Between 1 October 2015 and 25 July 2016, security forces imposed seven curfews, the last of which was declared on 14 March and lasted 134 days. During this intensive phase of clashes, the curfew was only lifted at brief intervals to allow civilians to escape. A middle-aged man who lost his home explained:

Some armed militants came to our house and asked me to arm myself and resist with them. I didn’t want to join and left my home together with my wife and kids. When we returned after the curfew was lifted in our neighbourhood for a short while, our house had been burnt down completely.

This sense of being squeezed between the state and the PKK was particularly felt by women. Some mothers said they had begged their sons to leave the region, do seasonal work or join relatives in other provinces so they would not be taken by PKK militants. Women said they were tormented by guilt for having left fighting sons and daughters behind in Nusaybin. “I should have died with my three sons” a mother said, in tears. Others related stories of grandmothers who during the curfews and clashes continued to knit socks “to send to their boys in the mountains”. Some fretted their teenagers had been indoctrinated or forcibly recruited by the PKK and they had nowhere to turn for help.

While many Nusaybin residents felt caught between powerful forces, some were motivated and emboldened to support the PKK youths. Others were pressured to take part in active fighting and give logistical help. Yet others left town once a curfew was announced, because they knew the security forces would interpret their presence as support for the PKK, so they might become targets. Curfews continued to be imposed in rural areas of Nusaybin throughout late winter/early spring.

Destructed areas in Nusaybin. February 2017 International Crisis Group / Yılmaz Akıncı

B.Who Is at Fault? Conflict Narratives

While the conflict essentially is being fought between the PKK and the state, its binary nature is blurred by the conviction of government representatives that Gülenist (FETÖ) infiltration and deception also is involved. According to the official discourse, FETÖ-linked cadres have nestled in the state for years, pursuing their own agenda, for instance allowing the PKK to build itself up militarily in some south-east districts during the peace process. Hard-line Kurdish factions close to the PKK, on the other hand, allege that state agents infiltrated the insurgency and orchestrated the escalation in order eventually to discredit the legal Kurdish movement and provide grounds for criminalising its representatives. Amid rampant speculation, retrospective re-interpretations of how escalation was prepared and advanced feed into parallel conflict narratives.

Government officials generally acknowledge they tolerated PKK activity during the 2.5-year peace process so as not to disrupt the talks and on the assumption the mobilisation would dissipate voluntarily once a deal was reached. But, as noted, some also now say FETÖ played a role in the PKK mobilisation, alleging that FETÖ-linked governors, police chiefs and military commanders acted in ways that put the government in a difficult situation, including purposely underreporting the gravity of the security problem in the south east. Police suspected of FETÖ ties were disproportionately represented in the south east: in the wake of the December 2013 corruption allegations against the government, which officials equated with a “judicial coup”, the authorities dispatched those with suspected ties to the Gülenist movement to the area – a decision in line with the traditional practice of sending untrustworthy bureaucrats to the east to live in relatively poor conditions. The paradoxical result, according to Ankara-based state officials, was to put “risky” cadres in positions from where they could undermine the political leadership.

Some local AKP politicians are convinced that “contacts” between FETÖ-linked police and soldiers stationed in the south east started in 2011. Osman Doğru, the former AKP district head of Nusaybin, said:

FETÖ-linked law enforcement personnel turned a blind eye to the entrenchment of PKK in the town. They did not inform their superiors [in Ankara]. The governor would even inform PKK of the whistle-blowers [within PKK, who gave information to the police and the military] so that PKK could punish them. The police allowed PKK to threaten people to vote for HDP in the 7 June elections. It is no coincidence that the former governor, various commanders/generals, police chiefs and chiefs of intelligence units were later arrested for being linked to FETÖ.

After the failed coup, such convictions spread more widely in Ankara. Of the four Mardin governors from 2011 to 2016, two have been arrested, and one suspended on FETÖ-related charges. The fourth, Ömer Faruk Koçak, who served between February 2015 and May 2016, is now governor in the western Aydın province and vocal in asserting a FETÖ role in the failure to prevent PKK mobilisation in Nusaybin.

Koçak told the press a month after the coup attempt that FETÖ-linked military commanders had caused the district’s high death toll. Three of those in charge of Nusaybin operations were arrested. He said he warned these generals that the PKK had dug tunnels in the neighbourhoods to move fighters and weapons, but they did not act, allegedly because they wanted to produce chaos, including by not responding to his requests for military help when clashes became too intense for the police, leading to a six-month delay in producing a sufficient security response. He also said they tried to get him to authorise attacks on civilian areas and house demolitions and intentionally drove up casualties by sending troops to streets where they would be killed.

In contrast, Kurdish movement representatives vehemently deny FETÖ responsibility for the conflict getting out of hand. Those within or close to the HDP do not deny the existence of a Gülen network but say it was always nationalistic and thus had done the most harm to their movement, so collaboration was out of the question. “Even if Gülen … affiliates were adversarial toward the AKP or used their media outlets for negative AKP coverage in the run up to the June elections, this cannot be construed as collaboration per se with the Kurdish movement”, one argued. Some critics of the AKP from traditional nationalist circles, such as those within or close to the MHP and the military, also point out that – far from the government being kept uninformed by alleged Gülenists nestled in the state apparatus – much information was being sent to the AKP and state institutions about PKK activity, and the state was aware of PKK mobilisation during the peace process.

A very different narrative of infiltration is propagated among the Kurdish movement by critics who argue that the state orchestrated the escalation in the south east. They say the state started to plot from the time the AKP lost its parliamentary majority in the June elections to create grounds for dealing severe blows to districts considered PKK hotbeds and eliminate the political threat the HDP posed to AKP majority rule. Ankara allegedly was determined to nip Kurdish aspirations in the bud because of its concern over the rise to prominence of the YPG/PYD in Syria and in light of the AKP decision to seek nationalist votes for its project of establishing an executive presidential system. Under this view, the government allowed PKK-linked militants to mobilise for an urban fight so as to have an excuse to crack down on them. “Why else would the state watch for 45 days as trenches and barricades were being built by the neighbourhood youth in Nusaybin”, a DBP member asked, “and allow the people to think that PKK was going to win this battle”?

Kurdish movement representatives say the state calculated that holding off as the PKK mobilised would embolden the insurgents to pursue self-rule initiatives that could then justify a crackdown; criminalisation of HDP politicians; and destruction of neighbourhoods that would subsequently enable a security-oriented reconstruction – wide streets, large police stations – that would make it impossible for the PKK to prevent future state access to districts.

Conflict narratives involving infiltration and betrayal abound in Nusaybin, where a sense that “agents” are everywhere is prevalent. This is compounded by official pressure to express only the government narrative in public; alternative views are seen as unpatriotic or charged as criminal acts “supporting terrorist interests” or other offences against state authorities. In the absence of a free and open debate and with critical voices curtailed, it may take years to learn the real reasons for state and PKK strategies. Until then, speculation/conspiracy theories will compound the feelings of many that they are victims of games by big players that destroyed their livelihoods.

III.Crackdown on the Kurdish Movement

Ankara has systematically sought to silence, discredit and marginalise the HDP and its DBP sister party, particularly after the June 2015 parliamentary election in which HDP received 13 per cent of the national vote and the AKP lost its absolute majority. Most unprecedented has been removal of elected DBP mayors and the transfer of their responsibilities to governors or district governors already in office under a September 2016 amendment of the law on municipalities that allows trustees to be appointed to substitute for elected mayors or municipal council members “who have engaged in or supported terrorism”.

The removal of Kurdish movement representatives was followed by widespread purges of municipal staff on charges of PKK affiliation after the declaration of emergency rule in July 2016. So far, 136 DBP co-mayors have been removed, 84 of whom have been arrested, while the interior ministry has appointed 83 trustees to run relevant municipalities. The government justified the municipal upheavals as necessary to establish public order and security as well as provide better service. But the removal of elected figures and staff with local familiarity has had concrete negative impacts, particularly on use of the Kurdish language and access to services related to women’s needs.

Nationally, HDP parliamentarians and locally HDP branch officers have been victims of a crackdown, coinciding with the 16 April referendum campaign. The state also has sought to empower alternative Kurdish actors in an effort to drive a wedge between Kurdish movement representatives and their supporters. That there have not been large street protests against the crackdown has led to state/AKP assumptions that support for the movement is diminishing, but Crisis Group field research suggests that a critical mass in the region disapproves of the current state policies and continues to back the Kurdish movement.

A.Dismissals from Municipalities and Relative Public Silence

In the last local elections (2014), the DBP won at the provincial level. Ahmet Türk, one of the Kurdish movement’s most moderate and inclusive figures, became mayor of Mardin metropolitan municipality. The DBP also won seven of Mardin’s nine districts, the AKP two. Today, however, the metropolitan municipality and the seven district municipalities are run by state-appointed trustees. Türk was arrested in November 2016, charged with “providing money to PKK and being a member of the PKK”. He was released on 3 February 2017. Sara Aydın and Cengiz Kök, co-mayors of Nusaybin, where DBP won 78.8 per cent of the vote, are in prison, charged with supporting the PKK.

After the appointment of trustees, many municipality employees were suspended for alleged connections to the PKK/Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK). A 22 November 2016 executive decree dismissed 413 employees of municipalities across Mardin on the same charges. Nusaybin municipality lost half its personnel that day. The UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) has underlined concern that “the collective nature of the dismissals and suspensions pose the questions of legality of the grounds for dismissals and the arbitrariness of the precautionary nature of announced dismissals [as well as], the absence of a legal remedy …”. Ahmet Türk told Crisis Group:

Informants supposedly gave information that money was being funnelled to the PKK from my municipality. But we always carried out all our tenders openly and transparently. We have been inspected regularly. There was no irregularity. They also said money was cut from workers’ salaries to send to the PKK. To-tally groundless. They alleged we had hired people close to the PKK, but every family in the region has a member close to the PKK, so, if they want to try to find links, they always can.… An explosion was carried out by PKK that involved our municipality disinfestation truck. I had reported that this truck had been confiscated hours before. They accused me anyway.

HDP local officials assert charges are based on unidentified informants because inspections of activities and accounts found no wrongdoing. An ex-employee said she was purged on informant information, “but we believe it was totally arbitrary. Saying there was a secret informant is just a way to proceed without evidence”.

While the HDP is the Kurdish movement’s main legal political actor, the DBP operates at the local administration/municipality level on its behalf and is known to be more hardline, arguably with closer PKK links. Various moderate HDP figures hold that PKK sympathisers in the DBP municipalities across the region acted with the insurgency by declaring autonomy and igniting “self-defence”-oriented violence, using municipal personnel to aid militants with material and logistical support. This in turn, they argue, gave the state the excuse to remove elected representatives.

The many staff who have not only lost jobs but been dismissed from professions cannot find other work, so have trouble sustaining themselves and sending their children to school. As one explained, the process of appealing dismissal has been in flux, necessitating multiple renewed applications, most recently with the announcement of a central commission in January that is not yet operational. Given how slow judicial processes are – particularly after the post-coup purges of prosecutors and judges and the unwillingness of lawyers to take up terrorism-charge cases – there is little confidence in legal remedies. And court cases, of course, require money. Locals sympathetic to the HDP view all this as “punishment” geared to them. A dismissed municipal employee said:

I think this is all an effort to create obstacles, stall processes, gain time, so that we cannot apply to the ECHR [European Court of Human Rights] for a long time. It is also an effort to frustrate and create fatigue among us. In this region we already de facto lived under emergency rule, now it is the emergency rule of the emergency rule.