Al-Ahram Weekly Online   25 - 31 August 2011
Issue No. 1062
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Rising violence, fading hopes

Turkey turned back the clock last week, ruling out any negotiations with Kurdish nationalists and launching a massive military strike against rebel positions in northern Iraq, reports Graham Usher

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Riot police try to disperse pro-Kurdish demonstrators during a protest against Turkish air strikes over northern Iraq, in central Istanbul

Last week, Turkey launched a series of heavy air strikes and artillery bombardments against positions of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in northern Iraq amid fading hopes of a peaceful solution to the country's decades-old Kurdish problem.

In recent weeks, the PKK has once again stepped up its 27-year-old violent campaign for greater political and cultural rights for Turkey's Kurds, staging a string of attacks on government institutions and police and military bases in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of the country. Last Wednesday, eight soldiers and a member of the pro-government militia known as "Village Guards" were killed by roadside bombs in a PKK ambush on a mountain road in Cukurca, close to Turkey's border with Iraq. Turkey responded by hitting over 400 targets associated with the PKK in northern Iraq in a series of airstrikes and cross-border artillery bombardments. No PKK militants appear to have died in the attacks, although reports from northern Iraq suggest that several civilians, including a family of seven, were killed.

Massoud Barzani, the head of the Kurdistan Region Government (KRG), which administers northern Iraq, bitterly condemned the Turkish action. "Seven of our citizens have been martyred," said Barzani. "There can be no excuse for killing our citizens. We demand that the Turkish state stops these operations."

Barzani's calls for a halt to military operations were echoed by non-violent Kurdish nationalists inside Turkey. But Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan remained unmoved. "No one can tell us to stop the operations," declared Erdogan. "Conducting operations for the peace of the nation is the most natural right of the government. It is an obligation and we shall do whatever is necessary. Those who hope for a return to the dark past are waiting for nothing."

Yet, for many Kurds, it is the government which is taking them back to a dark past, when the Turkish state sought to use violence to eradicate Kurdish nationalism. Erdogan recently announced that he was considering giving local governors in southeast Turkey additional powers and reintroducing special counter-insurgency police units. Both policies were tried and failed in the 1990s, when the police units, known as "Special Teams", acquired such an appalling reputation for human rights abuses that even the regular army stopped conducting joint operations with them.

Although the PKK has itself been guilty of numerous human rights abuses, and has frequently deliberately targeted civilians, the recent escalation in its campaign did not come out of nothing. In the run-up to the 12 June general election, the PKK had scaled back its attacks in the hope that, once the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had secured a third consecutive term in power, it would be prepared to launch peace negotiations.

The AKP duly won the election, securing nearly half of the popular vote. But, rather than becoming conciliatory, flushed with its electoral triumph, the AKP became more hard-line. A total of 36 members and sympathisers of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) won seats in parliament in the June election. One was immediately stripped of his seat. Five others had run for parliament from prison, where they were being held on remand on charges of belonging to a PKK front organisation. The Turkish courts refused to release them pending the completion of their trial. Not only did Erdogan reject calls for negotiations but he refused even to acknowledge that there was a "Kurdish problem", claiming that his government had already granted the country's Kurds all the rights that they needed.

Although a large proportion of Kurdish nationalists are sympathetic to the PKK, there are many who are opposed to the organisation and appalled by its often indiscriminate use of violence. But Erdogan has refused even to meet with non-violent Kurdish nationalists. AKP officials have frequently grouped all Kurdish nationalists together as "PKK terrorists".

In early August, the PKK issued a statement declaring that the AKP had demonstrated that the Kurdish problem could not be solved by "democratic means" and that the government had left it no choice but to resort to violence. The AKP has responded with more violence of its own. Privately, Turkish officials report that the government is now considering following the air strikes and artillery bombardments with a ground operation -- probably in the form of an extended commando raid -- against PKK positions in northern Iraq as soon as the Islamic holy month of Ramadan is over.

In the past, Turkish military raids into northern Iraq have temporarily forced the PKK onto the defensive, but arguably strengthened the organisation in the long-term; antagonising the KRG and making it less willing to clamp down on PKK activities in northern Iraq while boosting recruitment to the organisation from Kurds inside Turkey. Most worryingly, the escalating spiral of violence appears set to exacerbate already dangerously high tensions between Turks and Kurds inside Turkey and increase the risk of the conflict moving down from the mountains and onto the streets in ethnic clashes.

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