New Violence between the Turkey and the PKK

Stephen DeAngelis

November 12, 2008

I have written nine previous posts about the security situation in and across the border from the Kurdistan region of Iraq [The Symbiotic Relationship Between Turkey & Kurdistan, Turkey, Kurdistan & Water, Tensions Mount with Uneven Iraqi Development, Despite Advances, Kurdistan Sits in Shaky Neighborhood, The Kurdish Situation Intensifies, Internecine Challenges in Kurdistan, Good Sign from Kurdistan, Kurdistan’s Economic Boom and Relations with Turkey, Kurdistan Regional Government Still Seeking Oil Contracts, Turkish Raids on PKK should Come as No Surprise, and Turkey Invests in Kurdish Region]. The rebel group PKK (which has officially been labeled a terrorist group) hides openly in the mountains of the Kurdistan region of Iraq and makes periodic raids into Turkey. Each time Turkish soldiers are killed by PKK rebels there is an enormous outcry and calls for the government to eradicate the Kurds. An article in The Economist asserts that “renewed violence raises new questions about Turkey’s treatment of its Kurds [“Terror in the mountains,” 18 October 2008 print edition]. To demonstrate how intense the feelings are among Turkey’s Kurdish population, the article begins with the deep-seated emotions of a Kurdish grandmother.

“Her boots caked in cow dung, her hands in soil, 80-year-old Xaje Artuget has but one regret. ‘I wish all eight of my sons had gone to fight in the mountains,’ she sighs. In fact, ‘only one’ joined the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and is now ‘somewhere in northern Iraq’. Similar feelings abound in many hardscrabble townships in eastern Turkey, where decades of repression and poverty have provided a steady stream of recruits since the PKK launched its violent campaign for independence in 1984. At least 44,000 people, mostly Kurds, have died in the conflict. The Turkish government says it has spent some $300 billion battling the terrorists. The results have been mixed. The PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, was captured in 1999, and several ceasefires followed. Yet the violence continues today—17 Turkish soldiers were killed in early October when some 400 PKK rebels raided a military outpost in Hakkari province, near the Iraqi border, and days later rebels killed four policemen in Diyarbakir. Sympathy for the PKK remains strong among Turkey’s 14m Kurds.”

The response to this violence has been predictable.

“The Turkish parliament has now extended the army’s mandate to bomb PKK targets in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, and Turkish aircraft have been doing just that. Yet the latest wave of PKK attacks has embarrassed the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and raised new questions about the army’s competence. The cries of incompetence grew louder when Taraf, a newspaper, published a leaked internal report showing that the army knew about the planned attack in Hakkari but did little to stop it. It did not help when the air-force chief was photographed playing golf a day later.”

What is new, the article reports, is that the violence is beginning to spread outside of the region near the Iraqi border.

“In an alarming twist, ethnic tensions are erupting in western parts of Turkey as well. Two people died in the town of Altinova recently when a Kurdish youth rammed a truck into a group of Turks who were taunting Kurds by playing loud nationalist tunes. The army was called in when Kurdish homes and businesses came under siege.”

Everyone agrees that something must be done about the violence. No country is going to tolerate attacks against its military or against it citizens without some kind of response. But $300 billion is a lot of money for a developing country to spend on fighting an internal security problem and still hope to achieve economic progress. Additionally, trade with Iraq (especially the autonomous Kurdistan region) is very lucrative. The article wonders if there isn’t a better course of action.

“The Kurds remain a huge problem for Turkey’s government. The prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, raised hopes in 2005 when he said the state had ‘made mistakes’ in handling them. Steps to ease bans on Kurdish broadcasting and education followed, and vast sums were poured into Kurdish regions. The handouts included education subsidies for the poor, especially for girls. These helped the AKP to clobber the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) in much of the south-east in the July 2007 election. Yet to many the measures smell of vote-buying. ‘I haven’t received a penny for my girls’ schooling since April,’ complains Sabiha Celik in Sason. ‘I will never vote for the AKP again.’ Indeed, Kurdish support for the AKP has been fading ever since the government yielded to army pressure to resume cross-border operations against the PKK in northern Iraq. The generals are baying for a freer hand, prompting worries of a return to the human-rights abuses of the 1990s. Ominously, the Turkish Human Rights Foundation says that, this year alone, over 30 people have been killed in alleged police violence, mostly in the Kurdish region. The government had to apologise when Engin Ceber, a left-wing activist, was tortured and beaten to death by security forces recently in an Istanbul prison.”

The AKP can’t afford to lose any more friends. As a Muslim-based political party, many in Turkey already view it with suspicion. The party “narrowly escaped a constitutional court ban in July.” The DTP is now under similar scrutiny by the courts — not for being religion-based but for propagating separatism.

“DTP deputies spend lots of time lobbying for better prison conditions for Mr Ocalan. Many of them were handpicked by the PKK to run for parliament. Yet just as in the AKP case, much of the prosecution’s argument rests on words rather than deeds. Moreover, any ban might just boost the DTP’s popularity.”

Turkey, which has had a long love/hate relationship with the West (especially Europe), believes that the Kurds are receiving unwarranted support from outside the country.

“Turkey blames some of its Kurdish woes on the West. ‘We are still seeing co-operation with the PKK, they are doing fund-raising in EU countries and there are many PKK terrorists living in Europe. This really bothers us,’ Ali Babacan, the foreign minister, claimed in an interview with The Economist. Similar harangues at the Americans have subsided since they agreed to let the Turks pursue the PKK in Iraq.”

Normally, violence begets violence. There is no doubt that most Kurds would like an independent Kurdistan (although it is unlikely that Kurds spread throughout Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria could ever really get along under a single flag), but most would settle for a dramatically improved standard of living. Improvements must also include better treatment. No minority likes to be treated as second- or third-class citizens (though most are). The article concludes with the upbeat hope that things might change.

“There are some hopeful signs that Turkey is trying to make friends with the Iraqi Kurds. This week Turkish diplomats met Masoud Barzani, who heads the Kurdish regional government in Iraq. This has prompted speculation that Turkey could be thinking of reviving an amnesty for PKK fighters untainted by violence. As the winter cold sets in, many might be tempted. And, as Mr Babacan acknowledges, ‘a military solution is not a solution.'”

Mr. Babacan is correct. A military “solution” may quell the violence but it won’t stop it. The Kurds themselves are the only group capable of stopping the violence. There was internecine conflict between Kurdish factions in Iraq until they decided to cooperate. The political compromise that ended the fighting established conditions for a minor economic miracle in the Kurdistan region even as conflict raged on its doorstep to the south. Turkey must do what it can to help its Kurdish population achieve the same kind of economic growth as their Iraqi cousins. It won’t be easy because Turkey is suffering liquidity challenges as a result of the current financial crisis and longstanding feelings against the Kurds (fueled by continued PKK attacks) won’t heal easily.