By Deniz Umutlu
Reports from the predominantly Kurdish regions of Cizre and Nusyabin suggests that the government’s warming relationship with Israel, while positive for Palestinians in Gaza, belies a failure to assist its own citizens.
A landmark diplomatic agreement was reached between Turkey and Israel last week, in which the two countries agreed to normalize their relations after a six-year period of hostility. While the deal is not yet set in stone, it presents an opportunity for the two states to rekindle a relationship that will benefit both considerably.
One of the key elements of the agreement for the Turkish side was that Israel agree to apologize for the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010, in which Israeli soldiers stormed a Turkish vessel attempting to bypass the Gaza blockade; 10 Turkish activists were killed in the incident. The Turkish government also demanded that the Israeli government pay $20 million in compensation to the Mavi Marmara victims’ families.
While diplomatic communication between Turkey and Israel had been ongoing despite the Mavi Marmara incident, the deal was hastened significantly by the discovery of gas in the Mediterranean. Özdem Sanberk, a former senior Turkish diplomat, told the Hürriyet Daily News that gas production is crucial for Israel’s plan to reduce its dependence on oil. “Turkey is the best route and market,” said Sanberk. This could in turn aid a Turkish-Israeli alliance in the ongoing efforts to end the war in Syria, he argued.
Turkish aid to Gaza
Another key element of the deal, which the Turkish media praised as a humanitarian triumph, was securing Turkish aid for the Palestinians in Gaza and the partial lifting of the Gaza blockade – aid will come via Israeli ports, and the naval blockade on the occupied areas will remain in force. Commenting on the deal, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım announced: “Next week Friday we will send our first vessel to the Ashdod Harbor containing ten tons of humanitarian aid to deliver to Gaza.”
The Prime Minister also revealed that the Turkish Housing Development administration (TOKİ) would finish the construction of its housing projects in Gaza. If it goes ahead, the deal will also include the construction of a joint Turkish-Palestinian 200-bed hospital, as well as the construction of a new power station and a desalination plant for drinking water, all much needed resources in the occupied Gaza strip.
Turkish efforts to secure aid for Palestinians in Gaza is an encouraging development and will undoubtedly improve the lives of thousands of Gazans in tangible ways. However, the great irony is that, while Turkey secures aid for the desperate situation in Gaza in another country, Turkey already has its own Gaza, if not multiple Gazas, in the Kurdish southeast.
After the ceasefire between the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and the AKP-dominated Turkish government ended in the summer of 2015, a long and drawn-out violent conflict ensued in Turkey’s southeastern provinces, as government forces attempted to root out the PKK that had set up camp in urban centers.
With the violent conflict erupting in cities and the establishment of government enforced month-long, round-the-clock curfews in many Eastern provinces, civilians were severely affected by the conflict.
The Human Rights Foundation of Turkey reported that at least 338 civilians have lost their lives since the beginning of the operations, and at least 1.5 million residents have been displaced or adversely affected by the curfews, in terms of violations of their right to life, property, and right to health.
An urban war
The urban centers which were most severely affected by the conflict include the Cizre district in the Şırnak province, the Yüksekova district of the Hakkari province, the Sur district of the Diyarbakır province, and the city of Nusaybin in the Mardin province, all of which have predominantly Kurdish populations.
Independent Turkey spoke with Faysal Sarıyıldız, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) parliament member elected from the town of Cizre, and Sara Kaya, the co-mayor of the city of Nusaybin to learn about the current state of Cizre and Nusaybin. Operations ended earlier this March in Cizre, but are reportedly still ongoing in Nusaybin.
“Around two thirds of Cizre has been leveled, homes are destroyed and not useful anymore. A big portion of the city does not have electricity right now, and most of the city’s infrastructure has been bombed. Many people are still unable to return to their homes” Sarıyıldız reported.
Kaya claimed that current conditions in Nusaybin are extremely harsh, drawing parallels between the situation there and in Gaza. “We are currently entering the 110th day of the round-the-clock curfew in Nusaybin,” she said last week. “Out of 120 thousand original residents, only 50 thousand have remained in the city. The district has been bombed by heavy artillery for months.”
“Corpses lie in the streets, and permission to collect the corpses hasn’t been given yet. Nine thousand homes, apartments, and places of business have been destroyed. With electricity and water cut, and with nearly every neighborhood bombed, the picture that emerges is even graver than Gaza.”
Clearing the rubble
During the peak of the conflict this winter, former Prime Minister Davutoğlu announced that the government was planning an extensive program of urban redevelopment after the cessation of the operations, perhaps to reassure spectators that there were plans to rebuild the demolished cities.
“After we have completed our objectives, then we will focus on normalizing the flow of life, reviving the economic life of the region,” Davutoğlu stated at the time.
Redevelopment plans are not yet on the table for Nusaybin, as operations are ongoing and may continue for some time. However, when asked about how the urban redevelopment program in Cizre was going since the end of operations in March, Sarıyıldız described a city that has remained virtually untouched since the operations ended. “People are still trying to remove the rubble, no construction has begun,” Sarıyıldız reported.
Sarıyıldız also related that the government has not provided any humanitarian aid to the citizens of Cizre displaced and left homeless in the aftermath of the security operations. “The government has even attempted to block aid from entering Cizre, sent from people in neighboring districts and provinces.”
Kaya reported similar conditions in Nusaybin: “For four months, humanitarian aid resources have not entered the city.”
In the absence of official support, the people of Cizre and other war-torn cities have been left to organize their own humanitarian aid programs. “We have been able to help out a number of families in very dire straits through our ‘Sibling Families Campaign’ program” stated Sarıyıldız, referring to a volunteer aid program in which families in great need are paired up with donors who are willing to temporarily help meet their basic needs, such as rent, food, and other costs.
However, Kaya related that even the grassroots efforts to provide aid for Nusaybin have been hindered. “Despite the fact that a number of civil groups and associations have collected aid for the city, security forces have not permitted the aid to enter the city. There is essentially an embargo placed on the city,” she said.
The politics of aid
In light of the situations in their own cities, Independent Turkey asked both representatives how they see the new rapprochement between Turkey and Israel. Sarıyıldız and Kaya maintain that the deal embodies a contradiction.
“Turkey securing aid for the Palestinians is certainly a positive development. However, the fact that Turkey is giving aid outside of the country while it has destroyed many of its own cities and and brought millions of its people face to face with destruction makes the deal with Israel seem insincere,” Sarıyıldız related.
Kaya agreed. “It’s very insincere for the government to oppose the embargo placed on Gaza while one of its own districts, in one of it’s own provinces, is currently under an embargo. If it was a genuine humanitarian concern, the government wouldn’t do this to its own people… Thousands of citizens have been left homeless. I don’t see how a government like this can be sincere in giving aid to Gaza.”
Independent Turkey asked both representatives what factors might explain the disparity in the Turkish government’s treatment of Gaza and the Turkish southeast.
Kaya and Sarıyıldız point to politics. “[Justice and Development Party] foreign policy has always been focused on mobilizing Sunni nationalism and religiosity in order to gain support from the Turkish public,” Sarıyıldız claimed, pointing to the shared Sunni religious identity of the majority of ethnic Turks and Muslim Palestinians.
Kaya also pointed to the potential political dynamics behind the aid deal. “A president who burns and destroys his own country while sending aid to Gaza reveals that he aims to politicize the civilians in Gaza and use them for political gain.”
Another element to consider is Turkey’s ambitions to secure its status as a leading regional player in the Middle East and in international politics at large. Turkey’s increased humanitarian aid programs in its “Old Ottoman stomping grounds” such as Somalia reveal that it aims to present itself as the global caretaker of Muslims in need, while simultaneously pursuing a revival of the power and authority Turkey held during the Ottoman Era.
Of course, in order for this foreign policy strategy to work, Turkey must pick its humanitarian campaigns cautiously. Securing aid to Gaza is undoubtedly a boon to Palestinians living under Israeli blockade in the occupied areas. It also positions Turkey as the protector-state of a persecuted Sunni Muslim population. This in turn taps into the narrative that foreign, Western forces are trying to stir up trouble in the Middle East, which shifts blame and accountability for internal instability entirely onto foreign powers. Turkey is not yet tarred with the same brush. Humanitarian campaigns in Somalia exemplify the same rationale.
However, the war-torn Kurdish southeast does not fit into Turkey’s humanitarian aid policy because in this case, Turkey happens to be one of the parties to the fighting, along with the PKK and other Kurdish armed groups. The Turkish government is thus responsible for much of the destruction, and for redevelopment once the fighting ceases. In its own territories, it cannot so easily present itself as a purely humanitarian actor or protector of Sunni Muslims.
The Kurdish population in Turkey is primarily Sunni, but the long history of fighting between the Turkish state and Kurdish separatist groups means that they are not the politically expedient kind of Sunni. And as the Kurdish conflict in Turkey’s East lingers on, offering aid to Kurdish civilians enduring horrible living conditions would not score the AKP any political points. On the contrary it would draw criticism from its voter base, which views the Kurds as separatist troublemakers.
Thus, with the political dynamics surrounding the deal taken into account, the Turkish government has opted to provide aid to war-torn Gaza while its own Kurdish southeast remains largely in ruins.