Where's 'Plan B'?
Renewed violence by Kurdish separatists leaves Turkey's leaders at a loss, says Gareth Jenkins
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Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan talking with Turkish soldiers in a trench during a visit to Hakkari on the border with Iraq
Turkey was left reeling last week after a series of attacks by the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) left 20 dead. The organisation is renewing its violent campaign for greater political and cultural rights for the country's Kurdish minority.
Early on Monday morning, four people were killed, including a 17-year-old girl, in a bomb attack on a bus carrying military personnel and their families in Istanbul. Another 12 were wounded, two of them critically. There was no immediate claim of responsibility although suspicions have fallen on the PKK. On Saturday the organisation killed 11 soldiers during an attack on a military outpost in Semdinli on Turkey's border with Iraq, the highest Turkish death toll in a single attack for nearly two years. Twelve PKK militants were also reported to have died.
The upsurge in the violence came a little over a month after the PKK's founder, Abdallah Ocalan, who is currently serving a life sentence on the Turkish prison island of Imrali, issued a statement via his lawyers threatening an escalation in the organisation's 26-year-old insurgency unless the Turkish state made substantive concessions on Kurdish rights by the end of May. No such concessions were forthcoming. On 5 June, in an interview in northern Iraq with the Firat News Agency, Murat Karayilan, the chairman of the PKK's Executive Committee, warned that the organisation would both step up its attacks in its main battlefields in the mountains of southeast Turkey and hit what he described as military and economic targets in the west of the country.
In the aftermath of the attack in Semdinli, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed that the government would not be intimidated by the PKK. "They will drown in their own blood," declared Erdogan.
But, when it comes to putting an end to the PKK insurgency, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) appears to have run out of ideas. Successive Turkish governments have been vowing to use military force to eradicate the PKK for the last 26 years. But, despite the loss of an estimated 40,000 lives, it has not worked.
In summer 2009, there was a brief glimmer of hope when the AKP launched what it termed its "Democratic Initiative". Starting as a process of engagement and dialogue, the initiative was supposed to culminate in the PKK laying down its arms. In October 2009, after months of indirect contacts with elements in the Turkish security apparatus, the PKK even sent a delegation of eight militants across the border to Turkey from its bases in northern Iraq. Naively, the AKP appears to have assumed that the militants had come to surrender. However, the delegation announced that they were merely emissaries from the PKK and had come to talk.
Amid violent street protests from Turkish nationalists at what they regarded as the government negotiating with terrorists, the AKP ordered the prosecution of the militants and the Democratic Initiative was quickly shelved. In December 2009, the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP), which was regarded by both its supporters and opponents as being sympathetic to the PKK, was outlawed. Since the beginning of 2010, hundreds of non-violent Kurdish nationalists have been arrested and charged with membership of PKK front organisations.
Although the latest attacks have demonstrated the PKK's continued ability to cause casualties, the organisation is aware that it is not strong enough to defeat the Turkish military on the battlefield. The main purpose of the PKK's recent upsurge in violence appears to be to demonstrate that it cannot be completely defeated militarily and that the Turkish state has no choice but to open direct negotiations. Yet, with a general election due in July 2011 at the latest, the AKP cannot afford to risk losing any more Turkish nationalist votes by being seen to be negotiating with the PKK.
In the short-term, the main political impact of the recent increase in PKK attacks is likely to be further strains in Turkey's relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which administers northern Iraq. After an emergency summit of politicians and government officials on Monday, the government announced that it would try to improve intelligence gathering and increase the pressure on the KRG to clamp down on the activities of the PKK in northern Iraq. Over the last two years, relations between Ankara and the KRG have improved considerably and the Iraqi Kurds have taken measures to restrict the movements of PKK militants in the lowlands of northern Iraq. But they lack the military resources to move against the organisation's camps high in the mountains and face a domestic political backlash if they were perceived as suppressing fellow Kurds on orders from Ankara.
Privately, KRG officials insist that they are already doing everything they can against the organisation and fear that, after the attack in Semdinli, there will now be a rise in Turkish military operations against suspected PKK positions in northern Iraq, including air raids and artillery bombardments.
"We have been happy with the recent improvement in relations with Turkey," said one official. "But that could all go into reverse if there is an increase in cross-border military operations and they start demanding that we take more measures against the PKK."