One of Turkey's leading politicians says the war in Syria will continue unless unrest between Kurdish separatists and Turkey is first resolved. The co-chair of the Kurdish-rooted Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtas says an "ethnic civil war" could break out in Turkey as divisions between Kurds and Turks grow.
"The war in Syria is tied to the conflict here because the Turkish government sees Kurds in Turkey and in Syria as one," he tells The Irish Times. "It is impossible to have peace in Syria without peace in southeast Turkey."
Ankara opposes the gains made in northern Syria by Kurdish militias – one of the most successful forces fighting the Islamic State terrorist group there– as it fears Kurds in Turkey may be encouraged to seek the same autonomy being carved out by their brethren across the border.
A two-year-old ceasefire between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PPK) collapsed last summer when Kurdish separatists blamed authorities for failing to protect Kurdish and other activists killed in a suicide attack in Suruc last July, and began assassinating police and security officers in the southeast.
De facto capital Since then, armed Kurdish youths have dug trenches and barricaded themselves in towns including Cizre, Nusaybin and Sirnak, and in Diyarbakir, the de facto capital for Turkey's Kurds.
In urban clashes for the past 10 months, hundreds of civilians have died and thousands more have since been made homeless. This week, the violence found its way to Istanbul where Kurdish militants have been blamed for a car bomb that killed 11 people on Tuesday.
“This war is driving Turkish and Kurdish society apart,” says Demirtas.
Demirtas and the HDP he co-chairs entered parliament last November on a manifesto to represent Kurds, minorities, leftists, environmentalists and women’s rights.
Last year Demirtas, seen as an important voice in opposition to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s march to unfettered control over Turkish politics, orchestrated a campaign that saw a Kurdish-focused party overcome the 10 per cent parliamentary threshold for the first time last June and take away the majority enjoyed for more than a decade by the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party. The AK Party’s majority was restored, however, after a snap election in November.
Since last summer’s electoral success, Demirtas has survived an assassination attempt, and the political party he leads has seen dozens of its supporters killed by suicide bombers. Erdogan has accused him of treason.
Now, 46 HDP parliamentarians face possible prosecution for allegedly belonging to an armed terrorist group, a charge they deny.
The HDP’s alleged ties to militant separatists – one HDP deputy offered her condolences in person to the family of a suicide bomber responsible for scores of deaths in Ankara in February – has resulted in increasing claims the party is a cover for terrorists.
Last year, Erdogan says the HDP had "inorganic" links to the PKK, which the European Union and Washington regard as a terrorist organisation.
“She was wrong; she is our youngest member of parliament and our youngest member; she visited the family because she knew them – they had voted for her and she wanted to support them,” Demirtas said.
He says that for the sake of peace, he would be willing to meet and shake hands with Erdogan. “I am in politics because of peace so if sitting down face to face with Erdogan would lead to peace, then sure.”
Demirtas criticises European leaders and says more should be done to end the violence in southeast Turkey. “But the only ones to speak up are the opposition parties in Europe – the governments of Europe need a good deal with Erdogan because of the refugee crisis; that’s a huge mistake,” he said.
Weighing heaviest on him now is the worsening humanitarian situation unfolding in southeast Turkey. “More than 500,000 Kurds have left their homes because of the clashes and thousands of people have no shelter, no place to live, only tents,” he said.
Absent today are the wry smiles and quick wit that attracted more than five million voters to him during two parliamentary election cycles last year. “There are more than 10 residential areas now completely destroyed; they need humanitarian aid urgently.”