Turkish bombing campaign against PKK signals shift in strategy

The Turkish government's six-day campaign that has killed up to 100 Kurdish rebels in Iraq suggests emphasis on military might over diplomacy in dealing with the guerrillas.

Murad Sezer/Reuters
A pro-Kurdish demonstrator sits to block the main road during a protest against Turkish air strikes over northern Iraq, in central Istanbul on Sunday. Turkish warplanes backed by heavy artillery struck Kurdish guerrilla targets in northern Iraq overnight, the military said on Saturday, a third consecutive night of raids.

Turkey has cracked down hard on Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq, responding to their attacks by hitting guerrilla bases with air strikes. The bombing campaign, coming amid rising tensions with the country's significant Kurdish minority, signals a shift away from diplomacy to military might in dealing with the rebels.

Turkish leaders today claimed to have killed up to 100 Kurdish rebels following six days of intense bombing of their bases. The bombing campaign was launched following an ambush last week in which the rebels killed eight Turkish soldiers near the Iraqi border, after which Turkish Prime Minster Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his government had "run out of patience."

“The state is obliged to carry out these operations for the peace of the nation and it is the natural right of the state to do so,” said Mr. Erdogan yesterday.

Despite reports of civilian casualties and condemnation from the president of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, Erdogan vowed to continue the attacks on the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a separatist guerrilla outfit that has been fighting the Turkish state for 26 years. Turkey, the US, and the European Union have all designated the group to be a terrorist organization.

Rising tension between government, Kurdish minority

The assault comes amid rising tensions between the Turkish government and the country's Kurdish minority since June elections. Candidates backed by the Kurds, who make up almost a fifth of Turkey's population, performed well in the poll, garnering 36 seats. But after some members of parliament were barred because of PKK-related convictions, the Kurdish bloc boycotted parliament – a boycott that is still in effect.

In recent years Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has repeatedly said it plans to redress the long-running grievances of the country’s 15 million Kurds, who are seeking greater cultural and political autonomy. Among other initiatives, the government has loosened restrictions on the use of the Kurdish language, launching a Kurdish state TV channel.

But partly as a result of a backlash among Turkish nationalists, the government’s rhetoric has become increasingly hostile in recent months.

“Even before this last PKK attack, the government was preparing to increase pressure, but the latest attack has forced them to step forward,” says Gokhan Bacik, director of the Middle East Research Centre at Zirve University in southern Turkey.

Backed by US intelligence?

The Turkish Army has often bombed PKK positions in the Qandil Mountains of Northern Iraq, a safe haven for the rebels, but seldom with such apparently devastating effect.

Professor Bacik says the bombing may also have been aided by US intelligence. According to the Turkish Army, some 2,000 fighters are hiding in the mountains. The government of Iraqi Kurdistan has repeatedly claimed it is not able to eject the rebel group.

"I call on Turkey to stop these operations,” said Iraqi Kurdistan’s President Massud Barzani on Monday. “Actions that injure people and destroy their property cannot be justified.”

But Bacik says that in spite of its protests, the bombing campaign was unlikely to seriously alter Turkey’s relationship with the autonomous Iraqi region.

“They can protest, but they have no leverage with which to control Turkey, and it is not a strong government,” he says.

In recent years, Turkey has developed massive economic influence over northern Iraq. More than half of the 2,000 foreign companies working in northern Iraq are Turkish, and 75 percent of all goods sold in the region are Turkish made.

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