Turkey's decades-long conflict with Kurdish terrorists is heating up again. Tens of thousands of troops now line the border with Iraq, where members of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) have been staging attacks against Turkish soldiers. For Turkey, the stakes are high. It fears northern Iraq could become a permanent base for the PKK, especially if Iraq is partitioned.
Yet to truly eradicate PKK terrorism, Turkey must acknowledge the larger problem at hand – one that cannot be resolved by military force. Turkey must commit to meeting the needs of its Kurdish population, by giving it more rights and representation.
Turkey's struggle with PKK terrorism relied mostly on military force. It began in 1984 and peaked in the late-1980s to late-1990s, costing nearly 40,000 lives. Conflict subsided with PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan's arrest in 1999, but the ensuing cease-fire lasted only five years.
Today, Turkey once again faces the question of how effective the use of military force will be against the PKK. With more than 50 Turkish soldiers killed in the last two months, there is immense public pressure on the government to retaliate. The public has increasingly voiced its concern over the last weeks, staging protests against PKK violence in cities across Turkey.
Turkey has thus far avoided a full-scale military incursion into Iraq on the basis of its negotiations with Iraqi leaders and its call for support from Western allies, mainly the US. America has passed along military intelligence about PKK activities in Iraq but has yet to deliver more tangible support, including increased involvement in northern Iraq to prevent PKK terrorist activity. It is difficult to ascertain what approach could, at this stage of the crisis, prevent Turkey from using further military force.
Regardless of the diplomatic or military short-term steps Turkey takes, the PKK will remain a threat. Turkey's deep-rooted struggle with the PKK requires it to pay much closer attention to its Kurdish population. Kurds make up an estimated 20 percent of the Turkish population, yet their political and social rights continue to be repressed, and any expression of Kurdish culture continues to be deemed separatism.
While the "Kurdish problem" is frequently equated with the "PKK problem," they are significantly distinct and frequently conflicting. Following a period of relative economic stability and growth, the PKK hopes to reestablish itself by creating chaos in the region. While some Turkish Kurds feel that the PKK represents their cause for increased political and social rights, most are tired of the consequences of continued clashes in the region.
What many seek is further political representation and economic stability, which they are beginning to achieve. In the July elections, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) gained the majority of votes in several southeastern provinces, where Kurds are concentrated, and 20 independent Kurdish candidates were elected to parliament. These results reflect not only increased political representation of the Kurdish population but also increased trust in the current government.
It is crucial that elected Kurdish officials use their place in the political system to push for the rights of the population they represent. Only by distancing themselves from the PKK and denouncing terrorism can they maintain political legitimacy.
With a push from the European Union, the AKP has increasingly engaged the Kurdish community, gradually moving toward more open and democratic dialogue. Legal changes, such as allowing for radio and television broadcasting in Kurdish, though they remain limited, reflect a political will to address issues that have long been taboo.
It is important to note, however, that many previous governments also acknowledged the larger Kurdish issue without delivering the commitment needed for long-lasting change. The PKK will continue to use such policy inconsistencies to challenge any constructive endeavor.
But with increased political, social, and economic support, Turkey's Kurdish population will decrease its cooperation with and tolerance for extreme groups such as the PKK.
For Turkey, overcoming historic distrust of the Kurdish population and winning its trust will be difficult tasks. But it must remember that, while ceasefires may bring temporary peace, a long-lasting solution to its fight with the PKK requires accepting the legitimate, democratic representation of one-fifth of its population and an increase in their social and economic rights.
Didem Cakmakli is an independent researcher specializing in democracy and human rights.