Turkey edges toward conflict with Kurds

As reforms stall, spate of killings, unrest in Istanbul signal growing violence; analysts warn fighting could escalate.

Kurdish Rebel 311 (photo credit: Warrick Page)
Kurdish Rebel 311
(photo credit: Warrick Page)
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.
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The 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 popular mobilization.”
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 opposition.
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 ruling.
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 Turks.
“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, a 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.”