Kurdish militants, who’ve been at war with the Turkish state for the past 30 years, tried out a new tactic this summer. As they cut the main road from the Iran and Iraq borders to the southeast Turkish market town of Semdinli, they declared that it wouldn’t be the familiar “hit and run” operation. This time it was “hit and stay.”
Hoping to set a trap for the Turkish army garrison here, rebel fighters from the Kurdistan Workers Party placed 50-caliber heavy machine guns and rocket launchers on high ground to ambush the motorized units the army was certain to send. But the army avoided the main road and destroyed the heavy weapons from the air. It lofted drones to spot the guerrillas, then pounded them with long-range artillery.
Twenty days into the operation, the Turkish high command announced Sundaythat it was over. It claimed that 115 guerrillas had been killed, and that only six Turkish soldiers and two village guardsmen had died.
The rebel campaign obviously hadn’t worked as planned. Even so, it did have an impact: By distracting the Turkish government, it served the interests of two of Turkey’s neighbors, Syria and its close ally, Iran, both of which are eager to counter Ankara’s open advocacy of ousting Syrian President Bashar Assad.
In a regional realignment that’s been under way since the Syrian uprising started in March 2011, Iran and Syria appear to be providing support and sanctuary to the Kurdistan Workers Party and egging on its struggle against Turkey. Kurds live in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, and the Kurdistan Workers Party’s headquarters have been in northern Iraq. Now, however, as Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government draws closer to Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers Party is finding allies elsewhere.
Iran is one example. Charging that Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are responsible for the bloodshed in Syria, Maj. Gen. Hassan Firouzabadi, the Iranian chief of staff, warned last week that after Syria, “Turkey and other states will be next in line.”
Turkey denounced the “baseless accusations and unworthy threats made against our country.” Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, went on to urge Iranians to protest their government policy: “I ask the Iranians. Is there a place in your religion for defending a regime that kills its people, or not? If Syrians are fleeing their country, shouldn’t Iran be brought to account?”
Meanwhile, Kurdistan Workers Party ties with Syria have improved dramatically, as Assad, searching for troops to fight the opponents of his regime, handed over control of nearly all the country’s Kurdish-dominated region to a Kurdistan Workers Party affiliate. Syria also provides a base for Bahoz Erdal, whom Turkish officials say is commanding Kurdistan Workers Party fighters on other fronts in Turkey.
Thus, a group that Turkey and the United States label terrorist appears to be moving into power right on Turkey’s border. It could prove a major problem for Turkey, whose 80 million population includes more than 14 million Kurds – more than half of all the Kurds who live in the Middle East.
Semdinli, a town of 19,000 situated in a picturesque, narrow valley, is a case study of that problem. The Kurdistan Workers Party launched its first violent assault against Turkish security personnel here on Aug. 15, 1984, and has been back often. The latest intervention began July 23, when guerrillas set up a checkpoint on the other side of Mount Goman, on the main road to the Iran and Iraq borders.
“I heard about it towards evening,” said Ibrahim, 43, a dairy farmer who traveled here when his 5-year-old son took ill. It was the start of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, and neighbors were traveling to Semdinli to stock up on supplies. Guerrillas who were manning the checkpoint turned them back, and told them to stop using Turkish documents and instead use only papers issued by the Kurdistan Workers Party.
They declared that this would be a “frontal battle” with Turkish authorities. “People warned them that the Turkish army would drive them out of the valley, but they said, ‘No, we’re here to stay,’ ” recalled Ibrahim, who asked not to be identified further for fear of retaliation.
As he sat at an outdoor cafe near Semdinli’s modest hospital, an enormous boom from just hundreds of yards away rattled the windows. It was an army howitzer firing from the garrison at the Kurdistan Workers Party, possibly in Ibrahim’s village on the other side of the mountain. This is the Turkish army’s approach to counterinsurgency: sending in drones to spot suspected insurgents and using the imagery to aim a cannon that’s said to have a range of 25 miles.
Ibrahim smiled, for today he was at the outgoing end of the bombardment.
Many times, he recounted, “a relative in Semdinli would call us when it was fired, and then a minute or two later, it would hit.” The shells crashed mostly in fields, once near a house, but they made it impossible to sleep at night, work his crops or tend his cattle. “Night and day, it was more shells than I could count,” he recalled.
The confrontation was costly for the area’s residents. Ibrahim’s settlement – McClatchy isn’t naming it for his safety – and five others had emptied, and he had no idea of the fate of his property. “Everything I’ve got – my crops, my house, my cattle – it’s in the village,” he said. “We are living 10 people in a house. Nobody is earning a wage. There is no work. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Business in Semdinli plummeted, because most of the district’s population of 62,000 had no way of getting to town. A waiter at a cafe said people would leave the town if they could. “When people hear the sound of guns, they just leave,” the 30-year-old waiter. “I have a son who’s 1 month old. If something happens, what am I going to do?
Still, Semdinli appeared to be booming, with dozens of high-rise buildings under construction. Officials say the major investors are smugglers, who make a good profit out of importing diesel fuel and cigarettes from Iran and electronics from Iraq, all of which highly taxed in Turkey. Semdinli, which sits astride the main smuggling route from northern Iraq and Iran, has no other industry.
The town’s mayor, a lawyer named Sedat Toere, is an unabashed supporter of the Kurdistan Workers Party, known as the PKK. “There is a majority consensus among the population that the PKK are fighting for the rights of the Kurds, and they do represent the Kurds.” If the group were to capture the town, “this would not be much opposed by the people, because the security forces on duty in the town are foreigners to the people here,” he said. He calls Turkish rule “80 years of assimilation policies.”
Mesut Genctuerk, the government-appointed district governor, dismissed Toere’s assertions. He put the popularity of the Kurdistan Workers Party at a maximum of 10 to 20 percent.
There’s no doubt life could be much better here if it weren’t for the guerrilla war, said Muharrem Tekin, of the local chamber of artisans and businesses.
A four-lane highway that’s a year or two from completion will cut the trip to Van, the nearest airport and railhead, to two hours. There’s a high-quality coal deposit in Derecik, just 25 miles from Semdinli. The local honey is “as good as anything from the Black Sea,” and there’s a quarry just outside the town that has world-quality marble. It even has a unique local flower, known as the upside-down tulip.
If the borders with Iran and Iraq, now closed for reasons of security, could be opened, industry might move here.
“This is a place of great natural beauty. It could be the pearl of the East,” Tekin said. For now, the town’s reputation, as a major center of Kurdistan Workers Party activity, scares off investors. But if the war ends, “we have many things to offer.”
McClatchy special correspondent Joel Thomas contributed to this report.