Tension over a peace process that has yet to deliver results, fear of a possible bloodbath in a besieged Kurdish enclave in Syria’s north, and frustration with the government’s unwillingness to confront Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) jihadists came to a boil in Turkey on Tuesday night, as clashes erupted across the country between Kurdish protesters, Islamist groups and police. What followed were scenes that reminded many here of the 1990s, when war between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Turkish army engulfed much of the country’s Kurdish-majority southeast. At least 21 people were reported dead, with many more wounded.
In Diyarbakir, about 60 miles north of the border with Syria, members of Hizbullah, a local Islamist group allegedly sympathetic to ISIS, traded gunfire with Kurdish protesters, including PKK militants. Ten people were found dead by the morning. More clashes have been reported in a number of other cities across the southeast, as well as in Kurdish neighborhoods in Ankara, Izmir and Istanbul, with security forces firing tear gas and rubber bullets against protesters armed with rocks and Molotov cocktails. A curfew was imposed in six provinces, with soldiers patrolling the streets of several cities on Wednesday.
The unrest is largely due to allegations that Turkey’s government is turning a blind eye to, or even supporting, ISIS’s onslaught against Kurdish militants holed up in Kobani, a city in Syria’s north. A day after at least 24 people died in anti-ISIS protests across Turkey, jihadist militants continued to defy U.S. led airstrikes by pounding Kobani with artillery fire, all in plain sight of Turkish tanks deployed on the other side of the border.
Leaders of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Kurdish militia protecting the city, warned of a looming bloodbath. Desperately outgunned, they also continued to ask Turkey to open a corridor to deliver heavy arms — particularly antitank weapons — to Kobani.
Such requests have been falling on deaf ears, says Salih Muslim, head of the YPG’s political wing. Earlier this week, Muslim personally pleaded with officials in Ankara to allow Kurdish fighters from other areas of Syria — cut off from Kobani by swaths of ISIS-controlled land — to enter the city via Turkey. “They promised some things,” he told TIME. “But they have done nothing.”
Since late September, Turkey has opened its doors to 160,000 Syrian Kurds fleeing ISIS. It has also begun delivering humanitarian aid to the city, but has provided nothing, at least not officially, in the way of military assistance. The reason for Turkey’s inaction, analysts say, is its fear of empowering the YPG, widely believed to be the PKK’s Syrian affiliate. Although the Ankara government and the PKK have been holding peace talks for nearly two years — talks that have yielded a tenuous cease-fire, but little more — the bad blood between them runs deep. “What ISIS is to us, the PKK is the same,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Oct. 4. The PKK, in turn, accused Erdogan of supporting ISIS to fight the Kurds inside Syria, warning that its negotiations with Ankara were on the verge of collapse. “If this massacre attempt [in Kobani] achieves its goal, it will end the process,” the PKK’s jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan, said in a statement released on Oct 1.
In a recent speech, Erdogan offered to send troops to Syria, but only if the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS pledged to bring down the regime of Bashar Assad after doing away with the jihadists. Turkey’s policy towards Kobani, says Atilla Yesilada, a political analyst with Global Source Partners, is fueled just as much by fear as by opportunism. On the one hand, he says, Ankara knows that any move against ISIS would invite retaliation from jihadist cells inside the country. Security forces across Turkey were placed on high alert after the country’s parliament gave a green light to possible troop deployments in Iraq and Syria last week.
On the other hand, Ankara views Kobani as potential leverage against the Kurdish militants. “They want to bring the PKK down a notch, to teach them a lesson,” says Yesilada, “and to put an end to any aspirations that Syria’s Kurds might have for autonomy or independence.”
Even with the fallout from Kobani reaching Turkey on Tuesday night, some experts believe the peace process with the PKK can still be salvaged. “It’s an explosion of rage,” says Huseyin Yayman, a Turkish security expert, “but it can be contained.”
“The underlying dynamics are still there,” says Hugh Pope, of the International Crisis Group, a think tank. “But the rhetoric has to come down. Erdogan has to stop comparing the PKK to Islamic State, and the PKK has to stop doing the same,” he says. “It’s simply not true.”
The Ankara government gave no intimation that it would meet the Kurds halfway, however. “The same people who were silent in the face of the death of 300,000 people in the past three and half years, ignoring the use of chemical weapons, SCUD missiles and barrel bombs, are now trying to make it seem as if Turkey has to solve the problem in Kobani right away and all by itself,” Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said late Wednesday. “Those who cooperate with the Syrian regime,” he said, referring to the YPG, which Turkey accuses of siding with Assad, “have no right to accuse or to blame Turkey.”