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

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.

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.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

"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.

But the authorities in 1995 outlawed the moderate pro-Kurdish Democratic Party (DEP), and any talk of recognizing the Kurds as anything other than "mountain Turks" is still forbidden political territory.

A 'code of conduct'

Stung by past criticism of human rights abuses against civilians, however, Turkish soldiers are now issued with "Code of Conduct" pamphlets that spell out how "winning the people" means more than just winning the war. Soldiers are told "not to hurt the local people, but to build solidarity with them," to respect their family life, pay for any damage, and to "be generous." The top brass, it adds, "believes we should fight terrorism without violating human rights."

In Tunceli, Lt. Gen. Kamuran Orhon says: "In our struggle we're spending a great deal of effort to win the people." For instance, soldiers now protect herdsmen who take their livestock to a higher plateau for grazing, which was once off-limits even to the military.

This "new concept" suggests a sea change since the early 1990s, when the PKK "owned" eastern Turkey, and the armed forces were finally ordered by exasperated commanders to "do whatever it takes" to eliminate them. More than 3,000 villages were evacuated and destroyed in such an effort, and hundreds of thousands of ethnic Kurds were displaced.

Human rights abuses were so blatant during this "dirty war" that the United States delayed plans to sell the country attack helicopters in protest - though Turkey is a member of NATO. But the arrival in late 1994 of a new chief of staff, Gen. Ismail Hakki Karadayi, has resulted in the "new concept" of operations.

"The problem was with draftees, no one spoke the language, they were afraid, and bad things happened," says the Western military analyst. Today one Army corps runs its own Kurdish language radio station, and restrictions on Kurdish music have eased slightly. "The Army is now part of the solution, not part of the problem," he adds.

But in Ankara the government is weak and distracted by the political games and scandals that have rocked Turkey for a year and a half. The popular, pro-Islamist Welfare Party was banned last month, and secular leaders are facing a rush of allegations of high-level corruption.

Some Kurd returnees and money are making their way to the city of Diyarbakir, but the effort is not enough, as one Turkish source says, to prevent more "mosquitoes" from coming out of the "swamp."

What the Kurds want

Adding to the problem, analysts say, is that while the military argues that "social and economic" measures are now sufficient to solve the PKK problem, Kurds themselves, and others, say that continued official refusals to recognize any aspects of Kurdish identity will ensure future unrest.

"If they want, they can solve this problem in one day," says the Kurdish woman from Tunceli. "OK, they consider the PKK terrorists, so then they should talk to the moderates. There is this war, which is not nice to think about, but they haven't allowed any other way for Kurds to express themselves."

Turkey claims to have spent $80 billion fighting the PKK, and more than 20,000 people are believed to have died. But unless the government acts during this lull in the fighting, analysts say the gains may not last.

"When four soldiers sit on top of a mountain, they are making a sacrifice," says Metehan Demir, defense correspondent for the Turkish Daily News. "One day, when they see that the government is not serious, people will begin to say: 'Why should I send my son to this stupid war?' "

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...