Kurdish frustration spills over onto Istanbul streets

Police and Kurds clash over Turkey’s lack of response to events in Syria

Smoke rises after a US-led air strike in the Syrian town of Kobani yesterday
which is in danger of falling to Islamic State fighters. 
Photograph: Umit Bektas/Reuters

Smoke rises after a US-led air strike in the Syrian town of Kobani yesterday which is in danger of falling to Islamic State fighters. Photograph: Umit Bektas/Reuters


“We’ve been swamped by tear gas for the last two nights,” said shopkeeper Hussein Tas. “Around 100 police in two areas came here last night. This is making people here angrier.”

Residents of the predominantly Kurdish district of Sarigazi on Istanbul’s eastern outskirts have seen their streets turned into battle zones on each of the last two nights as police and local Kurds clash over the Turkish government’s lack of response to on-going events over the border in Syria.

Yesterday morning, the only remaining signs of the previous night’s violence were empty tear gas canisters and puddles of water which had been fired from TOMA anti-riot vehicles to disperse demonstrators.

“The young men here are extremely angry about what’s happening in [the Kurdish Syrian town of] Kobani. They are livid,” said Tas. Turkey’s government, run by the Islamist AK Party, is not helping at all, he said.

Many Turkish Kurds are furious at the authorities’ lack of response to what appears to be the imminent falling to Islamic State jihadists of Ayn al-Arab, or Kobani as it is known to Kurds, inside the Syrian border.

At least 18 people have been killed in protest-related violence across Turkey this week, with curfews in place in six provinces. Clashes between Islamist Kurds aligned with the Huda-Par/Turkish Hizbollah organisation, and nationalist Kurds have contributed to many of the deaths.

Tanks were deployed in the city centre of Diyarbakir, the largest Kurdish-inhabited city in Turkey, yesterday morning. A source in Mersin in southern Turkey said some protestors died after being struck by gas canisters fired by riot police while others were gunned down by Islamist Kurds.

Widening fault line

This week’s casualty count far exceeds that during last year’s Gezi Park protests, which saw millions of Turks take part in anti-government demonstrations.

In Istanbul on Tuesday night, banks were attacked and telephone line transformers were destroyed while small groups of youths directed fireworks at riot police who reacted with tear gas and water cannons.

Clashes between pro-Islamic State and secular Turks at university campuses in Istanbul have been occurring with increasing frequency in recent months, illustrating a widening fault line in Turkish society.

Many nationalist Kurds accuse the Turkish government of intentionally stalling from sending military support to beleaguered Kurds inside the Syrian border.

“The government is indifferent about the massacre in Kobani,” said Ertugrul Kurkcu, a Kurdish politician and deputy of the city of Mersin. “[Kurdish Islamist group] Hizbollah has been granted a lot of immunity. No one has been charged with killing protestors. We see the government as protecting this group,” he said.

On Tuesday, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he warned Western governments of the need to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in addition to establishing a no-fly zone and safety corridor inside Syria. Turkey has so far played no part in coalition air strikes on Islamic State positions in Syria and Iraq though Ankara maintains it is ready to deploy troops and other military ordnance.

Some see the government’s stalling on Kobani as pure political gamesmanship.

“The government is approaching Kobani in an opportunistic way. Instead of joining other governments, the Turkish government is trying to use its foreign policy position on Syria to overthrow Assad and to eradicate Kurdish groups,” said Kurkcu.

More clashes expected

In April last year, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) announced it would withdraw its forces to Iraq and begin talks to end a three-decade conflict between it and the Turkish government. This week’s violence could strain relations, say observers.

Ankara is fearful that Turkish Kurds attempting to cross into Syria to fight Islamic State jihadists in and around Kobani during the past 10 days could later form a hostile force on Turkey’s southern border.

On the streets of Sarigazi in Istanbul, murals of communist leader Ibrahim Kaypakkaya, murdered in 1973 while imprisoned by Turkish authorities, appear alongside graffiti in support of Turkish revolutionary and communist causes. This neighbourhood is very much secular, which perhaps explains the distain for the ruling AK Party.

Kurds make up around 20 per cent of Turkey’s population, with between two and three million living in Istanbul.