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ECONOMIST DERGISININ TURKİYE VE KÜRTLER HAKKINDAKI YAZISI
Turkey and the Kurds
Giving war a chance
The Turkish response to a surge in Kurdish violence has been swift and hard
Aug 27th 2011 | DIYARBAKIR AND ULUDERE | from the print edition
THE dull thud of mortar shells echoes across the barren mountains separating Turkey from Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. Columns of armoured vehicles trundle along the border as Turkish F-16 fighter jets screech over their targets: rebels of the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). On a nearby peak hundreds of Kurdish “peace mothers” keep vigil for their sons; some of them soldiers in the Turkish army, others PKK fighters inside Iraq. They won’t come down, they say, until Turkey halts its air strikes. The army is blocking buses containing thousands of Kurds who want to join the protests, paralysing traffic in the narrow mountain roads. “They are being used by the PKK—we won’t allow it,” says a stony-faced corporal.
The scenes are ominously reminiscent of the worst excesses of the 1990s, when some 3,000 Kurdish villages were emptied and destroyed, and torture and extra-judicial killings of dissidents were rife. But life has since got better for Turkey’s 14m Kurds, particularly under Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s conservative Justice and Development (AK) party, which has ruled
Mr Erdogan is the first Turkish leader to acknowledge the state’s “mistakes” in its handling of the Kurds. In a slew of groundbreaking reforms, AK has eased restrictions on the Kurds’ long-banned mother tongue, poured money into their impoverished region and launched secret talks with the PKK’s imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan. In 2009 a deal to disarm the rebels seemed within reach.
This collapsed after a string of deadly PKK attacks. Yet the government continued to talk to Mr Ocalan, who, despite having spent the last 12 years behind bars, has largely retained his grip on the PKK. But everything changed last month when the rebels escalated the violence, killing more than 40 Turkish soldiers and policemen.
Matters came to a head when the PKK set off a landmine in the township of Cukurca near the Iraqi border, killing nine soldiers. Declaring that his patience had run out, Mr Erdogan ordered a wave of air strikes against PKK targets in northern Iraq. The army claims that at least 100 rebels have been killed since the operation started on August 17th. The PKK says it has lost only three men. A war of words has erupted over the reported killing of seven Iraqi Kurdish civilians, two of them babies, by a stray Turkish bomb. The army has dismissed footage of their dismembered bodies as “PKK propaganda”. But Masoud Barzani, head of the Iraqi Kurds’ semi-independent enclave, insists that the claims are real and has angrily called for an immediate end to the Turkish offensive.
America, which has backed Turkey in its battle against the PKK (it shares satellite intelligence on the rebels), is getting nervous. The fitful entente between the Turks and the Iraqi Kurds is crucial to America’s quest to keep Iraq stable. But Turkey insists its attacks will continue.
What can Turkey hope to achieve? Not a lot, probably. Previous incursions into Iraq have damaged PKK bases and killed many rebels. But the fighters keep coming back, and in greater numbers. Lack of co-ordination, and mutual mistrust, between the army and the police do not help. Mr Erdogan has often admitted that the Kurdish problem cannot be solved by military means alone, and he has vowed to continue his reforms. Yet officials close to the prime minister say he is fed up with the Kurds’ unrelenting demands.
The Kurds reply that the impasse is entirely Turkey’s fault. “We are treated like pariahs,” insists Ayla Akat Ata, one of 35 deputies from the pro-Kurdish BDP party elected to parliament in a general election in June. Six of her fellow deputies remain in prison, mostly on terrorism charges. The BDP is boycotting parliament until the government agrees to legal changes that would set them free. At least 3,500 other pro-Kurdish figures, including several elected mayors, have been imprisoned on AK’s watch. Evidence “proving” their links to the PKK includes their sporting chequered Palestinian-style scarves and attending rebel funerals.
The BDP’s wishlist includes regional autonomy, Kurdish-language education, an amnesty for PKK fighters and an end to laws that land not only Kurds but dissidents of all stripes in jail. When Mr Erdogan begins to draft the new constitution he has promised, he will have to accommodate some of these demands. But even if he meets all of them it is not clear that the violence will cease, says a senior Turkish security official in a border province.
The PKK began as a home-grown movement fed by genuine grievances. But it has since evolved into a complex network spanning Europe and the Middle East, with connections to organised crime and rogue elements in the Turkish security forces, who have profited from the war and want it to continue. (Both the United States and the European Union brand the PKK a terrorist organisation.)
Equally unhelpfully, Syria and Iran have long used the PKK as leverage against Turkey. Turkish intelligence sources claim that the Cukurca attack was ordered by Fehman Hussein, a Syrian PKK commander. In a further twist, Murat Karayilan, the senior PKK commander in northern Iraq, who is seen as a moderate and who was involved in brokering the now-defunct deal with Turkey, has gone missing. Rumour is rife that he is in Iranian hands. Amid the speculation, one truth stands out: the Kurds and their problems will be around for a long time to come.