With Rebels on Run, Turkey Gets Tougher
A successful Army offensive and arrest of a Kurd leader may undermine hopes for a negotiated end to a guerrilla war.
ISTANBUL, TURKEY — Turkey seems to have won the upper hand in its long and costly war against a Kurd separatist movement. And amid new military gains against the rebel group PKK, or Kurdish Workers Party, Turkey's position has only hardened.
The prospect of a negotiated settlement with the group, which seeks a homeland for the region's ethnic Kurds, including 12 million in Turkey, appears to have faded.
Turkey is a key NATO ally that has increasingly sought to cement its special relationship with the United States, particularly since being snubbed earlier this year for membership in the European Union. The EU cited human rights concerns - including questions about Turkey's treatment of Kurds - as a reason it was not admitted.
The recent capture of a top PKK commander, Semdin Sakik, came amid an offensive in which Turkey's Army also claims to have killed scores of rebels in Turkey's southeast.
'Brink of collapse'
"The PKK has received a severe blow and is on the brink of total collapse," said a senior member of the Army's general staff April 17, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Now it is up to the government and other civilian organizations to resolve the region's economic and social problems, which are the real cause of the violence," he said.
Another military source, asked whether the "defeat" of the PKK might encourage Turkish authorities to listen to recent PKK overtures for a settlement, was blunt: "No one in Turkey would agree to negotiate with terrorists," he said. "We have always resisted any contacts with the PKK, and now that they are crumbling, there cannot be any question of ... acceptance of their conditions."
A call has gone up among liberal Turks, however, to go beyond economic and social reform in the region. There is debate over allowing Kurds to use their language in education, broadcasting, and official contacts.
"If we want this [military success] to be permanent, we have to deal urgently with other aspects of the problem," wrote Hasan Cemal, a prominent columnist for the daily newspaper Sabah, on April 17. "To secure economic well-being in the southeast is only one aspect; the other is to respect [Kurdish] identity and their rights to use their culture and language," he wrote.
Army and government still at odds
Tensions remain high between the Army, which regards itself as guardian of the secular state founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk more than 70 years ago, and the civilian government. Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz was not told about the raid to capture Mr. Sakik until the operation was over.
At the time the raid was being undertaken, PKK chief Abdullah Ocalan was making an appeal to both Mr. Yilmaz and to Gen I. H. Karadayi, the Army chief of staff. Mr. Ocalan proposed a cease-fire followed by a dialogue, and stressed that he was not trying to establish an independent Kurdish state, which had previously been stated as the PKK's aim.
In a statement broadcast April 17 by a London-based Kurdish TV station, Ocalan pointed to the "Northern Ireland formula" as an example for Turkey. "I'm prepared to leave the arms and enable [talks]," he said.
But one senior government official says Ocalan is simply trying a new tactic. He says Turkey's "southeast problem" - officials still refuse to refer to it as a "Kurdish problem" - has no resemblance to the situation in Northern Ireland.
Public opinion, beyond that of the liberal elite, seems to favor a hard line. Many Turks blame the PKK for 14 years of terrorism, the deaths of 30,000 people, and a cost to Turkey of $80 billion. Many have rallied for the execution of Sakik, who is likely to be tried for several guerrilla attacks, including one that killed 33 Turkish soldiers in 1993.