Turkey’s spiralling violence

Originally commissioned March 2016

Turkey’s ongoing conflict in its restive south east is creating a climate of increasing violence, which is already catalysing other violent social fissures, and will likely worsen in mid-April, the traditional beginning of the country’s conflict season.

  • The ongoing conflict in Turkey is polarizing society, with starkly differing perceptions and antagonistic rhetoric catalysing other violent social fissures.
  • The conflict has spread out of its traditional geography and violence will likely increase when snows thaw in mid-April, bringing the PKK further in.


The conflict in Turkey’s majority-Kurdish south east is by some measures at the worst stage it has ever been. The recent fighting in cities such as Cizre, Idil, Nusaybin and Diyarbakir, among others, has led to a level of destruction hitherto unseen even in the conflict’s bloodiest peaks in the 1990s. Militant groups have sworn to spread the conflict out of the south east and we have seen a wave of recent gun and bomb attacks. These events are polarizing Turkish society.

Claims of massacres of civilians in south eastern towns are serving to even further entrench anti-state sentiment among large segments of society in the south east. Massive destruction of property and claims of Turkish soldiers mistreating civilians will feed the radicalization of Kurdish youth. The scores of Turkish soldiers dying in the fighting is driving anger and violent nationalistic sentiment. This has resulted in lynch-style killings of Kurds across the country.

The conflict is interpreted very differently across different segments of society and rhetoric surrounding the conflict is highly politicized. The government’s recent drive to encourage citizens to report on friends and colleagues they suspect of holding sympathies towards Kurdish separatism and an increasingly oppressive media environment are cutting off channels of peaceful dissidence. The possibility of a peaceful settlement appears very distant.

Turkey’s other long-term but less talked-about minority issue, its Sunni-Alevi divide, has also been worsening over the last years. Clashes with police are a daily reality in Alevi neighbourhoods across the country, and attacks by Alevi-linked groups are increasing. The Turkish government, Sunni Islamist, has displayed an increasingly open disdain for the group over the last years. Alevis have traditionally had a disproportionately high representation amongst violent leftist groups, including the Kurdish groups currently fighting the state. Turkish Alevis have traditionally been split politically but continued oppression may drive them into becoming a more unified force.

Daesh maintains support among the Turkish population and continues to recruit and carry out attacks. In an atmosphere of ongoing violence and polarization, there is fear of a return to open clashes between leftist and Alevi groups on the one hand, and Islamist groups on the other. Daesh takes care to appeal to nationalist sentiment in its Turkish-language output. The worsening security situation in Turkey’s south may bolster Daesh’s recruitment efforts.

April is typically the beginning of the worst period for PKK activity in Turkey. Before this time, access from the PKK headquarters in Qandil Mountain in Iraq to Turkey is more limited. The fighting over the last months, which has claimed the lives of hundreds of Turkish soldiers and many hundreds more citizens, likely saw the presence of very few PKK militants. Instead, in most locations a small number of PKK recruiters organized units of YDG-H (Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement), effectively groups of local teenagers. Come April, we may well see a significant increase in the fighting, which in turn will likely fuel the violence already spreading across Turkey.

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