Awhile ago, I used “Turkey’s Guernica” to describe the Roboski incident along the Iraqi border in late 2011, in which F-16 jets bombed and killed 34 Kurds, most of them boys, mistaking them for PKK militants seeking to infiltrate Turkey.
Roboski is the Kurdish name of the area where the incident took place. Its official name in Turkish is the district of Uludere, part of Sirnak province. And now, less than two weeks later, the murder of three female PKK members in Paris has been described as “France’s Roboski” by Selahattin Demirtas, the co-chair of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which shares the PKK’s political agenda.
The trauma the Roboski killings inflicted on Turkey’s Kurds has been massive. The fact that the Kurds now use it as a metaphor for the shadowy assassinations in Paris gives us an idea of how distressing the latest incident is for them.
The news of the murder of the three PKK women in central Paris sent shockwaves through Turkey when it reached the country on Jan. 10. Death tolls from unrest involving the PKK or from security operations targeting the PKK are often higher than three, and Turkish society has been quite accustomed to hearing such “statistics” for nearly 30 years. The murder of three PKK militants in far-away Paris had not been likely to cause such a tremor. But it did. The impact has been huge. Kurds in particular have been devastated. Turks have been seriously troubled.
Even though some government members were quick to suggest that the women could have been executed as a result of an internal PKK feud, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc reacted in a very emotional and humane manner. Remarkably, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who learned of the murders while on a visit to Senegal, made a prudent statement and displayed an attitude that was in no way callous.
The timing of the Paris assassinations, the fact that they coincided with a rise of great hopes in Turkey over a newly initiated dialogue with PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, has led to a near consensus that the attack was designed “to undermine the process.”
However, there have been diverging opinions about who the perpetrators are. Speaking shortly after the news broke, BDP co-chair Demirtas suggested that the Turkish state could be behind the murders and warned that “the process would suffer” if this turned out to be so. Accompanied by the other BDP co-chair, Gultan Kisanak, Demirtas flew to Paris, where his criticism turned into accusations targeting France and the French authorities.
For those who have demonized the PKK and frowned upon at “the dialogue process” launched with Ocalan at the beginning of 2013, the murders are the result of “internal score-settling of the PKK.” PKK sympathizers and Turkey’s leftist circles, on the other hand, have blamed the murders on “the deep state” as an attempt to blow up “the peace process.”
Yet another group has tried to analyze the incident by asking the traditional question of “who benefits?” and pointed an accusing finger at “foreign intelligence services.”
But which foreign intelligence services?
Even though no country has been openly named, the speculation in casual conversations ranges from Iran and Israel to Syria and France, from Germany and Britain to Russia.
It remains a mystery how the perpetrator, or perpetrators entered the first-floor Kurdish information center in Paris since the building had an electronic lock system that allowed entrance only with a code. The identity of the slain women not only deepens the mystery but introduces also a significant element of symbolism.
Sakine Cansiz, Fidan Dogan and Leyla Soylemez all belonged to the Alawite sect of Islam, which is a minority among the Kurds. Cansiz was the most prominent among the victims, and essentially the primary target of the attack, regardless of what message it sought to convey and for whom that message was intended. She was the only woman among a group of militants who founded the PKK at a meeting in a village near Diyarbakir in 1978, and one of its few surviving members.
Equally significant about Cansiz is the fact that she had acquired a legendary status for the resilience she displayed in the notorious Diyarbakir jail, where she was imprisoned during most of the 1980s. Despite the horrible tortures that inmates suffered there, Cansiz refused to bow down and led the great prison resistance. Later she spearheaded the organization of a women’s movement within the PKK. The fact that women today make up nearly half of the PKK’s membership illustrates vividly the significance of the 55-year-old, dubbed “the Kurdish Rosa Luxembourg.”
Dogan, one of the two younger women who shared Cansiz’s fate, worked to develop contacts and friendly relations with members of the French and European parliaments. Her activities became public knowledge when French President Francois Hollande said they had been acquaintances.
Pictures of Cansiz clad in military fatigues, taken at PKK camps in Lebanon in the 1990s, were splashed on the front pages of Turkish newspapers in the wake of the murders. Remarkably, the predominant public sentiment over the slaying of the three women suggests that the murders are not viewed as an ordinary or acceptable event.
On the contrary, a sense of sorrow, and even more prominently, a sense of anxiety have prevailed. The best way to put it perhaps is that Kurds were profoundly upset, while Turks were strongly disturbed.
The sense of apprehension stems from the perception of the Paris murders as a “signal flare” that certain players will not allow the continuation of the “dialogue process,” which was already expected to be arduous and vulnerable to persistent attempts of manipulation and obstruction. The fact that the attack came as the fledgling process was only one week old, and on top of it took place in Paris, was seen as an omen that more bloodshed is in store.
Regardless of the motive behind the murders — be it an in-house PKK feud, or a deed of the Turkish “deep state” or a foreign power unhappy with Turkish-Kurdish reconciliation — fears have now emerged of “bad and bloody days” awaiting Turkey and the Kurds.
The tragic connotations of the shooting — one woman was killed with four bullets in the head, while the other two had three bullets each in their heads — are spreading fears that a tragedy on a larger scale may follow.
The Paris attack is unprecedented in the sense that no PKK leader had so far been assassinated in Europe, which has had a prominent place in the PKK’s nearly three-decade armed struggle thanks to the efforts of the Kurdish diaspora.
The murders being “a first” are one of the very reasons for Turkey’s apprehension. It is an apprehension that unprecedented and unpredictable events could happen also inside Turkey in the context of the Kurdish question.
Following the attack, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan indicated that he would insist on “continuing the process.” His words constitute the most precious sign so far that keep the hopes for the future alive.
It remains to be seen, however, how resilient the government and its Kurdish interlocutors will be in the face of a looming chain of sabotage and provocations. It is certain that the Paris murders are a dangerous, ominous starter.
Cengiz Çandar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. A journalist since 1976, he is the author of seven books in the Turkish language, mainly on Middle East issues, including the best-seller Mesopotamia Express: A Journey in History.