Thirty years ago today, a group of artists, writers, and opinion leaders were at the Madımak hotel in the eastern-Anatolian province of Sivas as a part of Pir Sultan Abdal Festival. Alevi and left-wing participants, including poets and well-known writers, were there to attend seminars and discussions for the festivities. On July 2, 33 of them were killed in a fire set by an angry Islamist mob that attacked the hotel after surrounding it with slogans like “down with secularism,” “long live Sharia.” They were besieged there for hours, hearing the slogans calling for their “burning,” seeing the crowd getting bigger and finally setting them on fire. It is since called the Madımak Massacre.
Among the killed were two of my friends, Behçet Aysan, whose poems we published in the magazine Yarın, and the cartoonist Asaf Koçak.
Subsequent developments showed that the attack could not be considered only as an anti-secularist, anti-Alawite political Islamist uprising.
In fact, three days after this attack, on July 5, outlawed Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) militants, backed by Türkiye Communist Party/Marxist Leninist organization’s armed wing TIKKO militants, raided the village of Başbağlar in the Kemaliye district of East Anatolian province of Erzincan, east neighbor to Sivas, and massacred 33 villagers, including women and children.
Başbağlar massacre was then interpreted as a reaction to the Sivas massacre, but that interpretation only hides the other side of the story: a bloody energy war that was being waged over Türkiye on geostrategic grounds at the time, detaches us from the political, economic and historical perspective of the event.
The assassination of renowned journalist Uğur Mumcu in 1993; the PKK’s assassination of 33 unarmed soldiers; the Sivas massacre and all keystone events that year must be seen in the context of a bloody struggle for the transportation of Azerbaijani oil to Western markets after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Geostrategic background of a massacre
The Soviet Union officially dissolved on December 25, 1991. However, just over a year earlier, on November 19-21, 1990, NATO and the disbanded Warsaw Pact countries met in Paris and agreed to mutual arms reductions by signing the European Conventional Forces Agreement (ECCA). The only exception to this agreement was Türkiye.
Due to both the PKK problem and the ongoing civil war in Iraq, the area from the port of Mersin to Hakkari on the Iranian border, including the Incirlik base and the Ceyhan-Yumurtalık oil terminal, was excluded from the agreement. One consequence of this was that the liquidation of Turkey’s Gladio-type counter-guerrilla organizations, which had been exposed in NATO countries at the time, was excluded from the agreement on the grounds of PKK attacks.
By the beginning of 1992, 15 independent republics had emerged from the Soviet space. One of the priorities of the US, which had won the Cold War, was the transportation of Azerbaijani oil to Western markets without Russia’s (and Iran’s) control. The first thing that came to mind was the Ceyhan-Yumurtalık port, which transports Iraq’s Kirkuk and Mosul oil to the West via pipelines.
This project, which would increase Türkiye’s importance, disturbed not only Russia but also Armenia, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Greece.
This is how 1993 came about.
1993: A coup in slow motion
The following shocking developments took place that year leading up to the Sivas massacre:
- January 5: Minister of Finance Adnan Kahveci was killed in a car accident near Ankara after “taking the wrong road”; he was part of President Turgut Özal’s “solution to the Kurdish problem” team.
- January 24: Journalist Uğur Mumcu was murdered. Both the IBDA-C and the (pro-Iranian) Hezbollah claimed responsibility for the murder. Thirty years have passed, the killer has still not been found, the murder file is open.
- February 17: The plane carrying Gendarmerie Commander Eşref Bitlis to Diyarbakir to cross to Iraq for talks with Kurdish leaders crashed just after taking off from Ankara, killing Bitlis.
- March 5: Türkiye and Azerbaijan signed the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline protocol in Ankara; the agreement was to be signed in Baku in the last week of May.
- March 15: PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, through Jalal Talabani, announced a “one-month ceasefire” in the Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley in Lebanon.
- April 16: Öcalan announced an extension of the ceasefire for another month. The day before, President Özal had returned from an 11-day trip to Central Asia following a severe gout attack.
- April 17: Özal was pronounced dead after a heart attack during a morning jog.
Towards the Sivas massacre
- May 16th: Süleyman Demirel was elected President instead of Özal.
- May 24: PKK ambushes and kills 33 unarmed soldiers between Bingöl and Elazığ. The de facto ceasefire ended.
- June 18: Heydar Aliyev, who replaced President Ebulfez Elchibey, who was ousted in a coup d’état after the June 4 uprising in Azerbaijan, canceled the Baku-Ceyhan protocol.
This was followed by the July 2 Sivas massacres and the July 5 Başbağlar massacres.
The year 1993 was a secret coup d’état by the established system in Türkiye to resist change at a time when the world balance was being re-established.
But here we are taking a wider perspective.
Aliyev’s cancellation of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline protocol had disturbed Ankara, which would have benefited strategically from it.
The then Foreign Minister Hikmet Çetin met with Okan Özdemir, the General Director of Turkish Petroleum (TPAO). Çetin, whom I had spoken to when I was writing my book “The Kurdish Trap – Öcalan from Damascus to İmralı”, was “speechless” when he saw a large-scale map of Türkiye that Özdemir had received from the British (BP was to build the pipeline).
Azerbaijan, oil, Greece, PKK
On the map, three regions were marked as “terrorist zones”. One was Hakkâri-Şırnak-Diyarbakır, the region bordering Iraq. The other was Kars-Iğdır-Erzurum, the Armenia-Azerbaijan border region, but there were no major acts of terrorism there at the time. The third was around Sivas.
According to the canceled protocol, the Baku-Ceyhan line was to pass through the “southern route”. It was to enter Türkiye via Nakhchivan-Iğdır, and land in Adana, at the Ceyhan-Yumurtalık terminal via Bingöl-Elâzığ.
However, six years later, on November 18, 1999, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, signed by Presidents Demirel, Aliyev and Georgian President Eduard Shvardnadze in the presence of US President Bill Clinton, was supposed to enter Türkiye on the more costly “northern route”, entering through Georgia and landing in Ceyhan via Erzurum. And so it was built. Thus, the border with Iran, Armenia and Iraq was avoided.
This was important in one more respect. On February 15th of that year, 1999, PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan was captured in a joint operation by MIT and the CIA as he was leaving the Greek Embassy in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, and the next day he was brought to Türkiye to the prison where he is still being held on İmralı Island.
Why is this important? We need to go back to March 20, 1992.
Demand for action on the map
Dimitrios Vounatsos, a PASOK MP in power in Greece, visited Öcalan in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, then under Syrian control, and brought a map. This map of Türkiye, written in Greek, showed two pipeline routes.
The first (and never to be realized) route envisaged the transportation of Azerbaijani oil through Russia and the Black Sea to Bulgaria and from there to the Aegean coast of Greece. Thus, Türkiye would be bypassed, albeit for the sake of making it look backwards and raising the cost to surreal heights.
The other was the “southern route” that was not built. The point that Vounatsos and Öcalan were photographed pointing to was almost exactly the area of Elâzığ-Bingöl where 33 privates were martyred, ending the forced ceasefire agreement. Vounatsos, who will later serve as mayor of the island of Lesbos and will ask for forgiveness to lift the ban on his entry into Türkiye in 2013, was almost as if asking the PKK leader to support them on this strategic issue.
Question with an answer
The question that remains unanswered, or in other words, is: just when the Turkish government was about to make a deal with the PKK through the Iraqi Kurds to end terrorist activities, did someone step in with the bloody 1993 acts, including Sivas, both to keep the PKK problem and to block the pipeline that would pave the way for Türkiye and Azerbaijan?
If so, we should think that Türkiye did not succumb to the provocation at that time and returned to the “northern route” and convinced the US and the UK for that. Perhaps the massacre of 33 soldiers served the purpose, but the Sivas and Başbağlar massacres backfired.
We also need to say this. One of the two acts that Öcalan admitted during his interrogation that were carried out by PKK members, but said that he did not give the order, was the martyrdom of 33 privates and the other was the Başbağlar raid. Even today, it is not publicly known who, if not Öcalan, gave the orders for the actions.
But in any case, we need to keep in mind that the Sivas massacre, now in its 30th year, was more than just the reaction of provoked, angry Sharia mobs against leftists, secularists and Alevis.