Complicity through silence

NATO, Turkey and the inaction of the international community

This article, written by Benjamin Hiller, with additional research from Michael Cruickshank, co-founder of conflict-news, was several weeks in the making (mainly due to the verification process of social media content). After pitching the article to 20+ international newspapers and magazines – with no real feedback – we decided to publish the findings here. 


Plain cloth police in Nusaybin/Turkey in 2011 © Benjamin Hiller

June 24th, 2011: In the small town of Nusaybin, Turkey, which has roughly 85,000 inhabitants and is nestled directly along the Turkish-Syrian border, temperatures can reach 37 Degrees Celsius over the day. Still in the early evening hours several hundred Kurdish activists gathered to stage a protest march in support of the then active Kurdish party BDP (Peace and Democratic Party) and against the rising crackdown targeting Kurdish activists and politicians. In the wake of the “Arab Spring” Kurds in Turkey hoped that they could archive their long stated goal of federal reforms and full recognition of their minority status. During the summer months, throughout Eastern Turkey, Kurds staged protests and civil disobedience actions like blocking streets and sit-ins. The Turkish state answered with its usual arsenal of tactics: Mass arrests and breaking up protests marches with heavy-handed police force. In Nusaybin everything seemed to go smoothly as the protest march arrived in the city’s central district. But soon a standoff between Turkish riot police and the Kurdish activists started. When youngsters started throwing stones towards the police they reacted with shots in the air, tear gas grenades and the use of water canons. Several people got arrested that night and one 41-year-old protester fell into coma after a tear gas canister hit his head. But most feared by the locals were the plain clothed police forces filtering through the streets, wielding AK47 rifles and filming everybody in the area. During this time the seeds for the upcoming storm were already planted: Kurdish politicians interviewed stated that they could not control the youth anymore. One local district mayor from Diyarbakir said that he always believed in peaceful means of change. But for that he was imprisoned, tortured and later harassed on a daily basis. His children grew up seeing that he is powerless as a politician and saw the PKK as the only option for “resistance”.

Fast forward to 2016: Nusaybin lies in rubble. After heavy fighting between the Pro-PKK youth groups YPS and YPS-JIN (born out of the YDG-H – Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement) and the Turkish Army, the city resembles more a city across the border in Syria than one inside the state lines of a NATO member. Five years after the author was able to visit Nusaybin the last time, a video emerges in June on Twitter: In the video, filmed from different angles, supposedly by Turkish soldiers as well as Kurdish activists, so called Mine Clearing Line Charges, likely the domestically produced MKE TAMKAR, are fired into the remains of a once bustling city quarter, destroying the last remnants of civilian houses.

This begs the question: How could the conflict escalate so quickly? A starting point for finding an answer is our new perception on “terrorism” and the fight against perceived terror threats – all around the globe, including in Turkey.

Terrorism or insurgency?

The “War on Terror” was born out of the shock and horrors of 9/11 and the ensuing paranoia and thirst for revenge. But like a similar call to arms, the “War on Drugs” from the Nixon and Reagan area, it took quickly an own life: Military interventions were embraced by conservative hawks as well as liberal interventionists. Strongmen around the world portrayed brutal crackdowns on opposition movements as a justified fight against terrorism. Democratic values were sacrificed in the name of combating “cyber terrorism” or “ecological terrorism”. And this led in turn to even more violent uprisings and conflicts, like the renewed escalation between the Kurdish PKK and the Turkish state.

A core question needs to be answered here: Is the declaration by the Turkish state that they are fighting a “War on Terror” against the PKK correct? Or can the insurgency by the various Kurdish armed groups be seen as covered by the customary IHL (Customary international humanitarian law), especially the article 43(1) of the Additional Protocol I in regards to Armed Forces (1)?

For NATO, the situation in Turkey seems to be a clear-cut case. A NATO official interviewed by the author stated: “All nations have the right to defend themselves.  Turkey is at the forefront of a very volatile region, and has suffered horrendous terrorist attacks at the hands of terrorist groups. Of course, self-defense should be proportionate. We hope a political solution can be found to the challenges in south-eastern Turkey.”

In stark contrast to this NATO position stands the UN that has the PKK – in opposition to the views of Turkey, the EU and the USA – not designated as a terrorist group. It seems like the interpretation of what makes a “terrorist” a “terrorist” is mainly decided by political opinions rather than actual facts.

As the conflict in Turkey is mainly seen as a non-international conflict between the state and “armed fighters”, the categorization of this conflict gets even more complicated. A civil war can be ruled out at this stage, as the PKK does not hold, consistently and over long periods of time, cities and swaths of the countryside. But terrorism does not seem to apply either because there is a large backing for the PKK by the local Kurdish population and they mostly target military installations and similar “legal military targets”. There are of course acts committed by the PKK that could be considered terrorist acts like assassinating local AK Party members or car bombs which harm civilians near the military target, but in the overall conflict it seems this is not the main aim of the PKK. The radical splinter group called the TAK (Kurdistan Freedom Falcons) though can be considered a terrorist group as they mainly use terroristic means (suicide bombers, car bombs and the like) to instill fear and target overwhelmingly civilians or areas prone to civilian casualties.

In reverse, it could be argued that the Turkish Army itself uses tactics that could be, by definition, “the systematic use of terror, especially as means of coercion” (Merriam Webster), e.g. terrorism. But, as the word “terrorism” is such an undefined term, and “state terrorism” is often used for propaganda purposes, it should be referred to the acts perpetrated by the various Turkish armed forces as “state violence”.

To sum it up the current conflict between the PKK and the Turkish state can be seen as an insurgency where the state applies scorched earth tactics and ethnic displacement on a large scale, while the PKK and groups like the YPS/YPS-JIN respond with attacks on military targets as well as attempts to control areas inside cities to push out the Turkish state.

But how do these scorched earth tactics shape the conflict? And what are the consequences for the civilians trapped between the different warring factions?


Screen-grab from a PKK video showing fighters before an attack in the countryside of Turkey

An escalation of force

Turkey has signed the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) in 1954,though it has violated this agreement multiple times as the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) have shown (2).

In 2015 the conflict between the PKK and the Turkish state escalated on a scale not seen since the 1990s. When the YPS/YPS-JIN took up arms in various Kurdish dominated cities in Eastern Turkey the fighting became more brutal with each month. The ruling AK party decided to take off all “breaks” in their response and allowed the various armed forces to wage a war of retaliation inside densely populated cities, with horrific consequences.

For instance in a recent video, which went viral on social media towards the end of October 2016, Turkish soldiers can be seen in a remote mountain location. They have captured two female PKK fighters who seem to plead for their lives. Nonplussed, the Turkish soldiers open fire on the captured fighters; one falls off the cliff after getting hit by several bullets, the other collapses and dies on the ground (3).

In the video the soldiers use modified German G3 rifles; the license to produce their own variations of this gun was given to Turkey in 1967. It is hard to pinpoint the location and date of the video as social media sites like Twitter delete the embedded EXIF data however it is likely that the video was taken between August and October 2016 in the area of the Yuksekova mountains. It was uploaded for the first time on a private Facebook profile on October 29th, 2016 and the uploader claimed that he got the video from a friend who is a member of the Jandarma Özel Harekat (JÖH – The Gendarmerie Special Operations). The profile was quickly deactivated but not before the video went viral. Shooting unarmed and captured combatants is forbidden by Article III of the Geneva Conventions, which Turkey has signed in 1954 (4).

On the 20th of January 2016, the Turkish Army showed how little respect they have for civilians. In the city of Cizre, also directly on the border with Syria, there was another hotbed of fighting between the YPS/YPS-JIN and the Turkish army. On that Wednesday, while the second military curfew was still in place, a video emerged showing civilians, carrying white flags and pushing a cart carrying the bodies of killed civilians. While they attempted to cross a major street, a Turkish military vehicle can be seen in the distance – seconds later, the soldiers in it open fire on the group with a machine gun . Ten civilians were wounded and the ambulances trying to rescue them were stopped for several minutes by the Turkish Army. Even the UN decried this violence perpetrated by the Turkish Army and hoped that an investigation into the incident would be launched. Despite this, nothing changed in the aftermath off this shooting. Cizre is yet another Turkish city which now lies in rubble after heavy fighting where the Turkish Army even used artillery to bombard the city and M60 tanks to fire into civilian quarters (5).

This list could go on and on forever, with the supposed burning of civilians in a building in Cizre (the Turkish Army claims that all the victims were PKK members), the shooting and assassination of supposed PKK members by Turkish Special Forces in numerous Eastern Turkish cities and the use of massive force to destroy any kind of Kurdish resistance. The PKK answered with a similar escalation of violence, including the use of VBIEDs (Vehicle Born IEDs) against police and military installations as well as the targeted assassination of AKP politicians in Diyarbakir who they claim were directly involved in organizing violence against Kurds.


Alongside this military brutality the Turkish state used mass arrests, especially targeting the elected Pro-Kurdish politicians in the region, to oppress any Kurdish opposition towards the AK Party and Erdogan. In the Hakkari province the arrests have lead to a unique situation (as of Mid-November 2016) where there are no more local Kurdish parliamentary representatives, despite them being voted into office with 50-80% approval ratings. Thus millions of Kurdish voters have had their voice in parliament stolen.

But the persecution of Kurds in Turkey did not end there. In Sirnak, yet another Kurdish city immensely affected by the war, an estimated 90% of the city is now destroyed, making more than 60,000 residents homeless. Moreover, residents who dared to camp near the city in tents in the hope to return to their destroyed houses soon were pushed out in November 2016 by the Turkish police, who used water canons and tear-gas in freezing temperatures to force the remaining civilians to flee their hometown for good.

Emma Sinclair-Webb, the Turkey Director of Human Rights Watch, sums up the situation in East Turkey with harsh words:

“The cost to the civilian population of the security operations against PKK-linked militias entrenched in towns and cities of the southeast in the period September 2015 to the Spring of 2016 has been immense. It is tragic that densely populated towns became the setting for fighting which precipitated the flight of the local population, civilian casualties and deaths as a result of mortar attacks, shelling and other forms of excessive use of force by the military and police without necessary precautions taken to protect residents’ lives. The PKK-linked militias put the local population at great risk by embedding themselves in towns and digging trenches packed with explosives. This should not have happened in the first place and the state response to it was devastating. Following the operations and curfews, entire parts of towns have been demolished, destroying the world and culture of the local population. The displacement in the southeast is estimated at 400,000.”

Furak, a local reporter for the Pro-Kurdish Dicle News Agency, who witnessed many of the atrocities firsthand, feels utterly helpless: “It is as a Kurd you have no right to live at all in this country. If they would be able they would even forbid breathing the air for us. But luckily that is at least not possible.”

But he feels also let down by the West: “For me the international community and NATO, through their silence, are complicit in all these crimes against us Kurds!”

NATO and the weapon trade

The silence by NATO members towards the atrocities committed by the Turkish state against their own population has numerous reasons. Since the Cold War, Turkey was seen as a key ally in the fight against Communism and an important bulwark in the event of a Russian invasion of Europe. Though there were times during the Cold War when the US stopped its weapon exports to Turkey, this was always only ever for a short period of time.

After the Cold War, Turkey stayed an important partner for the US, especially when the US Air Force needed to use their airbases for the conflicts and wars in the Middle East – indeed they are currently used for the fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

Aside from the US, Germany is the other main deliverer for arms for Turkey. In 2014 the German state gave approval to military equipment exports into Turkey for the total of 72 Million Euro, including ammunition, light weapons, parts for Turkish artillery and electronic surveillance equipment. But even after the conflict in Eastern Turkey escalated in 2015, Germany continued its arms exports and in actual fact, all estimations appear to show a rise in the export numbers. For Germany the main imperative for the close cooperation with Turkey is for the country to be a compliant “guard” holding off the refugee flow towards Europe. Germany and the EU even agreed in the end of November 2015 to pay 3 billion Euros to Turkey for hosting Syrian refugees. Erdogan quickly became aware that he now had leverage over the EU as he always could open the border again to allow millions of refugees to cross into Europe. Some critics say that the EU has put itself into a position of being blackmailed and that Turkey is now allowed to violate the human rights of its own citizens while the EU stays silent, due largely to this relationship.

But are weapons from the USA and Germany actually used in human rights violations in Turkey? This is hard to prove. In the 1990s old East German military equipment, which the re-united Germany sold Turkey for a bargain price, was used against Kurds in the East. But nowadays Turkey, for the most part, does not rely anymore on direct weapon shipments from Germany or the US, as they obtained various licenses to produce their own versions of these country’s weapons, like the G3 battle rifle that is widely used by Turkish armed forces. Furthermore, there is no consent if these licenses could be revoked by Germany and the US. But for instance the Turkish T-155 Firtina (Storm) howitzer, which was used in the cross-border shelling of Kurdish militias inside Syria, is powered by a German diesel engine. Germany did not allow Turkey to install these engines in the T-155 series exported by Turkey to Azerbaijan due to its conflict with Armenia but continues to export these engines for the Turkish Army itself.

Overall NATO has taken a weak stance towards its member state Turkey out of political and geostrategic reasons and with that bolstered the Turkish state to continue its brutal policy against the Kurds without fearing any repercussions.


Is there any hope for a lasting peace in Turkey? Again and again there have been signs of a lasting peace in the form of negotiations and cease-fires. However in retrospect, these can be seen mostly a way for politicians to gain leverage over their opponents or to gain more power in the electoral system. And as long as the international community does not find a common ground in dealing with Turkey’s response to the Kurdish question, and is ready to take hard action in form of sanctions or travel restrictions for key political and military figures within Turkey, it seems doubtful that anything will change soon. With the current geopolitical crises in the Middle East, the wars in Syria and Iraq as well as the new president-elect Trump in the US, the outlook for a lasting peace process seams bleak at best.

Emma Sinclair-Webb from Human Rights Watch has a similar outlook for the future of the conflict: “I can say that the government of Turkey is currently pursuing a disastrous policy of criminalizing and wiping out the legal Kurdish political movement in Turkey by jailing the leadership and MPs of the HDP, jailing and replacing elected mayors in the southeast with government-appointed trustees and closing down civil society organizations and media they associate with the Kurdish political movement and PKK. As millions of voters are deprived of their political representatives, there are few signs of any steps to return to the negotiating table in this context.”


3 thoughts on “Complicity through silence

  1. The Turk-Kurd conflict is more tangled than your excellent status report. The main political-historical problem, in my opinion, has been the long-lasting inability of the assorted Kurdish factions and militias to articulate exactly what they want: is it federation, autonomy, independence, what? As such there is no chance this tragic situation will change.

    • Definitely a good point! The article is indeed only focused on the recent events and how the whole situation escalated; but the whole conflict itself is far more complex, especially in regards to the different Kurdish factions, their aspirations, the change of goals over time (or at least the stated goals) etc. But for that books are written, as it would be a bit to much for this blog to cover it all…

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