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Renewed Armed Conflict in Southern Turkey

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Last month, prominent Turkish human rights lawyer Tahir Elci was shot dead on a street in Diyarbakir, southern Turkey. Elci had been an outspoken activist for Kurdish rights in a region that has seen decades of conflict between Turkish security forces and the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a militant and political movement for greater Kurdish autonomy. In TIME magazine, Jared Malsin writes that Elci’s murder is a sign of dark and uncertain days ahead for Turkey as it follows the collapse of a ceasefire between the PKK and the Turkish government in July. That ceasefire marked the return to armed conflict with “hundreds of deaths on both sides” reported by Turkish human rights groups since July 2015 alone. That armed conflict began in 1984 and as part of their counterinsurgency efforts, the Turkish government targeted civilians, killing tens of thousands in an episode of mass killing. The conflict continued through the 1990s but seemed to be drawing to an end over the last three years. Peace negotiations had begun in 2013 but this round of violence has many wondering if it marks a return to civil war. Vice News reports:

The crackdown is the latest sign that Turkey's government has widened a military campaign in the Kurdish Southeast after the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, won a sweeping victory in November 1 parliamentary elections. Since then, an emboldened President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has stepped up military response to a revamped Kurdish armed insurgency.
"A few months ago these two sides were at peace," Yalman said, referring to the Turkish Army and the Kurdish militia. "Now people are fleeing this city in fear as the government is turns its own citizens into refugees." Video that appeared on Turkish media on Thursday seemed to show residents vacating the town amid continued violence.

In the Early Warning Project’s annual statistical risk assessment, Turkey ranks among the top 35 countries most likely to see a new onset of mass killing this year. This assessment is driven largely by the bad regime model that points to characteristics of countries’ national politics that hint at a likelihood to commit genocide or “politicide,” especially in the context of political instability.

And while relative risk of mass killing remains low in Turkey, and a new episode of mass killing is unlikely, renewed civil war is certain to increase that risk. Meanwhile, events in Syria and Iraq continue to complicate interactions between Turkish security forces and Kurdish forces.

Experts we spoke to stressed that the trajectory of the conflict is unlikely to change. A Monkeycage Blog post by Aysegul Aydin and Cem Emrence reiterates this point saying that neither side has any hope of defeating the other, provoking an ongoing stalemate and continued violence.

Writing on Elci’s death, Cale Salih, an analyst with expertise on Turkish and Kurdish issues, says

“International media attention on the Kurdish issue in Turkey has faded since the Nov. 1 election despite recent developments that mark the slow but steady return to civil war. State security forces and the PKK’s armed youth wing have moved their fight into cities, leading to weeks-long curfews and sieges in urban hub…
Most Kurds I interviewed across the southeast over the past week told me that they are more afraid now than they were during the 1990s, the infamous decade during which the conflict reached its peak of deadly violence. Back then, they told me, there was some logic to the violence. Now, nothing is predictable.”

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