Three Turkish soldiers were killed in the southeastern province of Mardin over the weekend in an ambush laid by Kurdish nationalists. In Istanbul police detained some 70 people following days of inter-communal violence, amid growing signs that the uneasy peace between the two sides is unraveling.
More worryingly, analysts warned, the disturbances in Istanbul could signal a new chapter in the Turkish government’s decades-long fight with Kurdish nationalists as the conflict moves to the cities. They also point to opinion polls that show a growing polarization between Turks and Kurds.
Turkey sends first fuel aid to east Libya rebel gov'tThe Kurdish case
“We had two years when we had extremely positive development, up to the elections,” Hugh Pope, project director for Turkey and Cyprus at the International Crisis Group. “The elections supplied an amazingly positive-looking parliament in that there were 36 people from the Kurdish nationalist party elected. Now we’re seeing a setback.”
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, fresh from a third-term election victory last month, has sought to press forward with democratic reforms to the constitution and ensure the economy stays on its growth trajectory. But some analysts worry that the recent violence risks spinning into the carnage of the 1984-2007 period when fighting between Turkish forces and the PKK claimed some 40,000 lives.
The three Turkish soldiers killed over the weekend brought the total
number of casualties attributed to the outlawed Kurdish Workers Party
(PKK) to 21 since election day. Thirteen of them were killed in a July
14 ambush. In response, Erdogan vowed that Kurdish rebels would pay a
"heavy price." But, in fact, the killings had the immediate effect of
sparking inter-communal tensions.
In Istanbul’s Zeytinburnu district nightly clashes erupted spurred by
social media and what police say were rumors of killings and arson
designed to encourage tensions. At an Istanbul jazz concert shortly
after the killings, Aynur Dogan was booed by audience members for
singing in the Kurdish language.
“That night we again saw the real reason behind the insolvability of
Kurdish problem,” wrote Cem Erciyes, a journalist for the newspaper Radikal
Fadi Hakura, a Turkey specialist at the British research institution
Chatham House, said the fighting, once principally confined to the
Kurdish southeast, may spread to the cities with what he called a “mass
Kurds make up about 20% of Turkey’s population, but they are
concentrated in the southeast, adjacent to Kurdish areas in Syria, Iraq
and Iran. But, they have flooded into the cities as the army’s crackdown
on Kurds’ traditional strongholds made many homeless and economic
growth has created urban job opportunities.
“If the stagnation and confrontations escalate between the Turks and
Kurdish nationalists, this is likely to put further strain in
inter-communal ties. Already there are hints that the strings have begun
to fray,” Hakura told The Media Line
The stagnation relates to the political and cultural opening that
Erdogan promised in 2009, which included easing restrictions on the use
of Kurdish language and more access to government assistance. But after
some initial progress, the drive bogged because Erdogan, like many
Turks, see Kurdish aspirations as a challenge to Turkish unity.
“Although the AKP has adopted more relaxed attitude towards Kurds
compared to previous governments it’s still a nationalist party that
doesn’t agree with many of the demands put forth by the Kurdish
nationalists,” said Hakura, referring to Erdogan’s Justice and
Development Party AKP.
The PKK ended its six-month-old unilateral ceasefire with the government
in February and adopted what it calls an “active defense,” whereby its
fighters defend themselves if threatened. Meanwhile, Kurds pressing for
change using ordinary political channels ran up against strong
Hundreds of people belonging to the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party
(BDP), including lawmakers, are being prosecuted under what Human Rights
Watch calls draconian anti-terror laws. Shortly before elections,
Turkey’s High Elections Board barred some Kurdish candidates from
running, prompting widespread violence and a quick retreat from the
Nevertheless, Erdogan‘s AKP captured 30 seats in Kurdish areas while the
BDP won 36 in the June elections. Pope, of the International Crisis
Group said the two sides should have seen the split vote as a sign of
their respective strengths and moved to negotiate.
Instead, six of the BDP lawmakers remain in jail and the rest have
refused to take the oath of office until they are released. Two week
ago, an umbrella organization of the Kurdish figures and groups, the
Democratic Society Congress, or DTK, announced a declaration of
democratic autonomy for Kurds, provoking a sharp criticism from many
“There is a problem in the media coverage. There is very little
understanding in mainstream Turkish public opinion about what the Kurds
want,” he said. “You have an ingrained habit of violence. The
democratic opening we had over last two years went some way to counter
that, and now we’re seeing a reversion.”
Analysts disagree about how big a role the upheavals of the Arab Spring
are playing either as an inspiration for popular unrest or because
turmoil has created a security vacuum in neighboring countries, making
it easier for PKK fighters to move across the border into Turkey.
Hakura and Pope are doubtful, saying the Kurds are mainly influenced by
domestic issues. But, Mehmet Kalyoncus, an independent political analyst
writing in Today’s Zaman
newspaper close to the AKP, warned that Syria, Iraq and Iran could all
serve as staging ground for PKK operations inside Turkey even after the
Arab Spring turmoil subsides.
“Syria will also be paralyzed by an internal conflict and instability in
a way that would prevent Damascus from functioning as an effective
regional partner for Ankara in the foreseeable future,” he wrote in a
commentary on Monday. “Iran is [also] highly likely to experience
popular unrest in the coming years.”