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Turk Tack on Kurds: Kinder, Gentler War

After 14 years of fighting, Army tries winning 'hearts and minds.' But will Ankara follow by recognizing rights?

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 2, 1998


The Turkish military helicopters beat their blades low over the ground, delivering a bird's-eye view of the bleak, snow-swept landscape that seems to have come directly from J.R.R. Tolkien's medieval fantasy world of Middle Earth.

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The helicopters follow the contour of barren hills, then break out over a luminescent green-blue lake that is pierced by fingers of hard-frozen land. Further north is Tunceli, an area that Army commanders say they have reclaimed from guerrillas of of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has sought a separate state for the region's ethnic Kurds.

There is little sign of life between towns. But because these cave-ridden mountains are often impenetrable, the Army says there are still some 230 rebels left in this area. Several thousand more are believed to be hidden elsewhere in southeast Turkey and northern Iraq, though by most accounts they have been weakened by a series of recent blows.

"The Army has established an acceptable level of violence," says a Western military analyst in Ankara. "It is not perfect, it may never be perfect, but they have really improved. The generals say: 'We have done all we can, our finger's in the dike, now it's time for the government to do its job.' "

This shift may help contain one of the most volatile powder kegs in the Middle East, where Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran have all manipulated Kurdish factions for their own, often risky, short-term gains.

Turkish forces have been criticized for widespread and systematic human rights abuses in the past. During a trip to Tunceli organized by the general staff to display scores of captured weapons, officers spoke about their "new concept" of waging war against the insurgents.

High on their agenda, they say, is winning "heart and minds." Under way since 1995, this strategy may have so far worked better than any other used during the 14-year guerrilla conflict. Now the Army claims to have gone as far as it can go in controlling the rebels, but lasting success will require direct government investment. Probably, analysts say, it will also require political recognition of separate cultural rights.

"You have to win the people first," says Col. Husnu Dag, who says Army units in this area help provide medical clinics and are rebuilding roads and schools. "Without the support of the people, you can't do it."

Combined with bolder counterinsurgency tactics that involve staying in the mountains and living in the caves, and night and winter operations, the Army seems to have gained the upper hand. And contrary to international calls for restraint, Turkey has launched several cross-border attacks into northern Iraq to root out PKK bases, including one last year in which 30,000 troops penetrated deeply across the border for weeks. A new Turkish alliance with the northern Iraq Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) may help further control the PKK.

But victory is in the eyes of the beholder. "They're lying about their successes," says one Turkish woman in Ankara, who says that her soldier friends still regularly engage the PKK in combat.

Rebel death tolls announced by the Army are thought to be routinely exaggerated by a factor of five or 10.

"Until they give the Kurds there some kind of rights, there will always be a problem," says a Kurdish woman from Tunceli, interviewed elsewhere, who asked not to be named. She says Kurds no longer fight for a separate state - for years the aim of the Marxist PKK - but instead want to be able to speak their own language and practice Kurdish traditions, even as citizens of Turkey.