ISTANBUL - Turkey's military crackdown on the Kurdish rebel group the PKK has seen unprecedented levels of fighting in towns and cities in the predominantly Kurdish region of the country. With the death toll among soldiers rising, a disagreement has erupted between the government and a former army chief.
In a rare display of discord, Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik told his former chief of the armed forces, Yasar Buyukanit, to be silent and know his place after Buyukanit criticized government tactics in fighting the PKK. Former Turkish brigadier Haldun Solmazturk, a veteran of the nearly 40-year conflict, says the fighting has reached unprecedented levels.
"It's getting out of control because of its scale and intensity,” Solmazturk said. “The cities, the towns and even neighborhoods themselves are military targets. Under normal combat conditions, an ordinary army unit would never enter into an urban environment."
Official Turkish figures say more than 900 security force members have been killed and nearly 3,000 wounded since fighting erupted last year following a collapse in a government-sponsored peace process with the rebels. Most of those who died were involved in fighting in towns and cities across the predominantly Kurdish region.
Until this latest surge in fighting, the conflict had largely been restricted to the countryside. The PKK and its affiliates sought to take control of many urban areas and declare autonomy. The government's decision to retake these areas by force put the military in a difficult situation, says Kurdish affairs expert Kadri Gursel of Al-Monitor website.
"It's impossible to differentiate between the guerrillas and innocent civilians right now,” Gursel said. “Look at the places which were devastated by the Turkish army using heavy weaponry, tanks and artillery. These places are where the pro-Kurdish party won elections by having between 85 percent and 93 percent of votes."
The military claims to have killed more than 7,000 rebels since the renewal in fighting. Retired brigadier Solmazturk says the conflict is stretching the army to its limit.
"The Turkish army is and has deployed whatever it has under its control. All elite available units have already been deployed and engaged PKK. The Turkish army even had to deploy some elite units from Cyprus to the mainland to fight against the PKK. This would indicate that the current force levels are not enough to maintain the operational tempo," Solmazturk said.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said the army was starting to wind up most of its urban operations against the PKK; but, this week the army announced that 25 villages and towns were being placed under curfew in preparation for further operations, while President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pledged the fight will continue until the rebels are wiped out.