How will Turkey respond to growing rebel violence?
Next month the European Union will hear a progress report on Turkish membership, with a final vote due in December.
ISTANBUL — The ambushing of Turkish forces by Kurdish guerrillas. Bombings of hotels in Istanbul. The evacuation of a village in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast. This may sound like a recounting of events in the bloody 15-year war fought in the 1980s and '90s between Turkey and the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). But, in fact, it is the story of the past few months.
While the fighting is nowhere near the levels reached during the previous conflict, when more than 30,000 lost their lives, the potential of Kurdish-related violence once again appears to be looming in Turkey. How Turkey responds will not only have profound implications for life in the country's Kurdish areas and across the border in northern Iraq, but also for Turkey's relations with the US and the EU, analysts say.
The PKK (which now calls itself Kongra-Gel) called off a five-year unilateral cease-fire in June. Since then, more than 30 Turkish security personnel have been killed in a series of attacks, while some 70 rebels have died.
In early August, coordinated bombings struck two Istanbul hotels and a fuel depot in the city, killing two and wounding 11. An unknown Kurdish group took responsibility for the blasts, but Turkish officials said they believe the PKK was behind them. Several smaller explosions linked by Turkey to the PKK have also gone off throughout the country in recent weeks.
In July, the 343 residents of a small village in the southeast were forced out of their homes for six weeks while security forces tried to flush out rebels from the area. For many Kurds, it was an ominous reminder of the '80s and '90s, when some 3,600 villages were emptied as a result of fighting, displacing 300,000 people.
The PKK began its cease-fire after the 1999 capture of its leader, Abdullah Ocalan. It withdrew its fighters from Turkey to the mountains of northern Iraq, where it today has an estimated 5,000 members. With the start of last year's war in Iraq, Turkey had asked the US to use its military presence in the country to confront the PKK. American officials have said the US plans to go after the rebel organization but that right now it's a question of not having enough resources in Iraq. But with the increase in PKK activity inside Turkey, government and military officials are growing impatient.
"We cannot progress in this issue by relying on other countries," Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul told Turkish television. When asked if the Turkish military would engage in cross-border operations, Gul replied, "We do what our security necessitates."
There are an estimated 12 million Kurds living in Turkey, mostly in the southeast. Another 10 million are spread among Syria, Iraq, and Iran. The leftist PKK started its activities in the 1980s in the hope of carving out an autonomous Kurdish area within Turkey.
Now, analysts say, Turkey must figure out its own response to the possibility of more PKK violence. A move by Turkey against the PKK in northern Iraq could lead to conflict with other Kurdish groups and severely strain Turkey's relations with the US. A harsh response against the organization's activities in Turkey's southeast could jeopardize Turkey's EU aspirations. But Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says that while the PKK's fighting capability has been diminished, major attacks by the group could lead to a strong Turkish response.
"These are still very fresh wounds. If the organization caused major casualties through sensational attacks then, yes, the response would be very strong," he says.
In the meantime, people in Turkey's southeast fear getting caught in the crossfire. After almost two decades of warfare and life under emergency rule, the region has been slowly returning to normal. Reforms by the Turkish government, such as allowing private Kurdish-language schools, have brought some sense of greater cultural freedom to the area.
"People are waiting in anxiety," says Selhattin Demirtas, head of the Human Rights Association office in Diyarbakir, the largest city in the southeast. "I think that at this point both the government and PKK/Kongra-Gel should take steps to let peace prevail. The people's only expectation is that."