GAZIANTEP, Turkey — It is like old times. Kurdish protestors clashing with Turkish riot police in towns across southeastern Turkey and ultranationalists taking to the streets, too, flashing the symbol of the Grey Wolves, a violent far-right group that was responsible for more than 700 murders in the vicious political violence that engulfed the country in the 1970s.
But the events provoking this madness are absolutely current. Just across the border in Syria, the city of Kobani, once home to more than 50,000 people – most of them Kurds – is about to fall to the forces of the so-called Islamic State, better known as ISIS or ISIL. Kurdish militias – men and women – have held off the savage jihadists for weeks now despite being outnumbered and outgunned. In the last few days U.S. airstrikes have slowed the ISIS advances, but not enough. ISIS has taken more than half the town, including major government buildings.
All the while the Turkish government, with its tanks, its air force, and its 300,000 soldiers on active duty has done nothing but watch from a mile or two away across the border. Nothing but watch, that is, and prevent Kurdish reinforcements from crossing the frontier to help defend Kobani.
Now the flames spreading from this fight are fanning out fast across Turkey, threatening to wreck a faltering two-year-long peace process between the Turkish government and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to end formally 30-years of insurgency.
Turkish inaction over Kobani and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s refusal to intervene militarily is stirring Kurdish claims that Turkey’s leader is complicit with the jihadists—or at least standing back to let them snatch the town from the YPG, a Syrian offshoot of the PKK.
For three nights now Kurdish protestors, riot police and Turkish ultranationalists have battled each other in dozens of towns across the southeast as well as in Istanbul and the capital Ankara. More than 30 have died so far in the violence and more than 1000 people have been arrested, according to Turkish Interior Minister Efkan Ala. And for the first time in years soldiers are on the streets of the Kurdish towns of Diyarbakır, Mardin, Van and Batman, where curfews have been imposed.
The lockdowns have not stopped the protests. Armed with Molotov cocktails, furious Kurds have been firebombing schools, government buildings and political party offices.
In Diyarbakır, a PKK stronghold, protestors defied orders to remain indoors. “Some people stay at home and just make noise in protest,” a resident reported via email. “But others are going out. The city is crazy. Helicopters are hovering overhead the whole time. There are no cars or taxis but there are tanks.” Then she added: “There is a beautiful moon and the smoke of tear gas.”
Residents also reported black smoke billowing from tires set alight by protestors on the outskirts of the city, where shanty settlements are home to hundreds of Kurdish villagers displaced in the 1990s by the Turkish army’s scorched-earth campaign against the PKK.
The protests are clearly not spontaneous and are meant as warning to Erdogan that all hell will break loose when or if Kobani, the third largest Kurdish town in Syria, falls. Just before the protests started to kick-off PKK activists who had been camped out in Turkish villages neighboring Kobani to express their solidarity with the Kurdish defenders battling the jihadists disappeared. Presumably they returned to their hometowns to organize the urban protests.
Turkey’s state-run Anadolu headlined its story on this week’s violence sweeping the southeast: “A series of deaths are the result of Pro-Kurdish protests around the country.” But the violence and provocation isn’t all coming from one side.
Ominously, Turkish ultranationalists have been emboldened. In Gaziantep, where there is a small Kurdish population, Thursday night the streets were filled with the sounds of urban battle. Near the city’s main university an ultranationalist mob waved machetes and clubs and brandished shotguns and other firearms. Within minutes a gun battle between ultranationalists and Kurds over the fate of Kobani developed, leaving at least four dead and more than 20 injured.
And in Diyarbakır Kurdish Hizbullah, a militant Islamist group that in the 1990s battled the PKK, made a re-appearance. For the past few years Kurdish Hizbullah has been seeking to become a political actor, forming a party called Huda-Par (Free Cause), but members of the party shot at Kurdish protestors on Wednesday night, reportedly killing two.
The involvement of Huda-Par and the Grey Wolves in the violence rocking the southeast augurs badly. Both shadowy ultranationalist groups have strong ties with the Turkish intelligence services. In 1992 Turkish journalist Halit Güngen was murdered after exposing the links between Kurdish Hizbullah and Turkish intelligence, which included military training. Several other journalists exploring the ties in the 1990s between Turkey’s “deep state” and ultranationalists suffered similar fates.
Kurdish leaders now accuse Turkish intelligence, which has never been happy with the peace process, of egging on the ultranationalists in a bid to sabotage for good a deal between Ankara and the PKK. Diyarbakir’s mayor, Gultan Kisanak, argues that ultranationalist attacks are the “government’s Plan B” – a bid to discipline the PKK and to make clear that Kurdish protests and threats will be met by the tactics employed by the Turkish military and spooks in the 1990s.
But there are also Kurdish elements opposed to the peace process eager to stir the pot. Twitter accounts associated with the youth wing of the PKK have been urging supporters to attack Huda-Par and several of their members have been killed in the violence in recent days. At least five Islamists were killed, according to Seyhmus Tanrikulu, a Huda-Par leader.
The party’s offices have also been attacked. And the PKK activists are suspected of being behind a gun attack in the eastern city of Bingol that led to the deaths of six people, including two policemen.
Turkish officials see the pro-Kurdish protests as a bid by the PKK to blackmail them into intervening in Kobani – something Erodgan is refusing to bow to, and something the country’s generals are unlikely to accept.