Why is Turkey setting fires in Kurdish regions?

by Meghan Bodette    


Turkish military forces continue to set forest fires across Kurdish regions both within and outside of Turkish borders, threatening wildlife, agricultural land, and civilian safety.

This summer alone, fires have been reported in the cities of Tunceli, Diyarbakir, Hakkari, and Sirnak, as well as in areas of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq and occupied Afrin Canton in Syria where Turkey conducts military operations against local Kurdish forces.

The most serious damage has occurred in Tunceli. According to ANF news, fires there have raged in 12 different provinces in the city.

This region has faced similar attacks in previous years. In 2017, a statement from the Tunceli Central Assembly on fires set by the Turkish military claimed that “the Turkish state apparatus has been trying to force the indigenous population to flee or migrate from the region by various means, including military attacks, construction of dams and gold mining projects using methods which are destructive to the environment, in order to carry out an ethnic and religious purge in Tunceli (Dersim).”

In Afrin, 41 acres of agricultural land, belonging to several local families, were burned in July alone. Agriculture is essential to the local economy in Afrin, especially after the invasion and occupation of the region cut off outside resources.

Ecological attacks were also characteristic to the occupation of Afrin. Many civilians reported the burning, cutting, and theft of olive trees throughout the offensive, as well as the bombing of water sources.

The Turkish military has used forest fires as a weapon of war against both armed Kurdish groups and Kurdish civilians’ lives and livelihoods for decades. In the 1990s, during campaigns of forced displacement, eyewitnesses report seeing Turkish troops setting these fires in forests close to populated areas. A 1995 Human Rights Watch report, Weapons Transfers and Violations of the Laws of War in Turkey, details several instances of this phenomenon.

More recent studies by the Mesopotamia Ecology Movement show that the majority of forest fires in Kurdish regions within Turkey were caused by the Turkish military, and that they can still be considered “a more indirect way to increase the pressure on villagers to leave their villages.” The Mesopotamia Ecology Movement report also notes that state institutions did not do their part to put out fires— leaving the work of doing so up to “villagers, volunteers, and municipality employees.”

The United Nations prohibits the use of “environmental modification techniques”— including the deliberate setting of forest fires— for military purposes under the Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques of 1976.

Turkey is a signatory to this agreement, but has not ratified it. It continues to use attacks on the environment and natural resources as tools of war across Kurdistan— such as the Ilisu Dam project in Hasankeyf, which would submerge 50 villages and several historic sites. Guner Yanlic, a member of the Hevsel Protection Platform, told ANF that dams in Kurdistan are an “extension of the security policy, as well as a project to create cheap workers in big cities by cutting off social communication and forcing people to migrate.” This is similar to the purpose of the forest fires set by the state, which are also used to force displacement.