Islamic State: Is Turkey jeopardizing peace with Kurdish minority?

Islamic State militants are besieging the Syrian town of Kobane, leading tens of thousands of Kurds to flee into Turkey. Kurdish leaders accuse Turkey of supporting IS in order to curb Kurdish self-rule in Syria. 

Murad Sezer/Reuters
Turkish soldiers stand guard as Syrian Kurdish refugees wait behind the border fences to cross into Turkey near the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province September 27, 2014.

An 18-month-old ceasefire between Kurdish rebels and Turkey is increasingly imperiled by the crisis in the besieged town of Kobane in Syria, as well as by the Turkish government’s growing authoritarian streak.

In recent days, fighters of the self-declared Islamic State have tightened a siege on Kobane, which lies near the Turkish border, and over 140,000 mainly Kurdish inhabitants have fled into Turkey. Kurdish politicians are now accusing Turkey of either facilitating or else failing to act against the militants.

Turkey has denied coddling Islamic State. Its parliament is due to vote Thursday on a government proposal to allow foreign forces to launch raids into Syria and Iraq. Turkey's own military already has a mandate for cross-border incursions. 

Turkey has been holding informal peace talks with Abdullah Ocalan – the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has fought a 30-year-long insurgency against Turkey – since Mr. Ocalan declared a ceasefire last March. The peace initiative, widely seen as Turkey's best chance at resolving the conflict, has boosted investment in the impoverished southeast and led to improvements in civil rights for Turkey's 15 million Kurds.  

In return for expanded freedoms, the government wants the PKK to lay down its arms. But the strife in Kobane could put those talks at risk. Last week Murat Karayilan, a high-ranking commander in the PKK, told a Kurdish TV station that peace negotiations with the Turkish government were "finished."

“The ceasefire and the peace process is in a very fragile situation,” Ertugrul Kurkcu, a member of Parliament for the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, the political affiliate of the PKK, tells The Christian Science Monitor.

“The state of the ceasefire is not only determined by the situation in Turkey, but the situation in the entire Kurdish nation,” Mr. Kurkcu says, alluding to the Kurdish-populated region of Syria, referred to by Kurds as Rojava.

In a report issued Monday, Human Rights Watch said discrimination against Kurds had eased under the ceasefire and that these changes “could further human rights for all ethnic and religious minority groups in Turkey.” But it also warned that weakening rule of law and civil rights under the 12-year leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “may well jeopardize” the peace process.

'Buffer zone'

The Democratic Union Party (PYD), which seized control of a Syrian enclave in 2012 from regime forces, has close links to the PKK and is regarded warily by Turkey. For the past two years it has been one of the main rebel groups fighting IS in Syria. In recent months, however, IS militants armed with US-supplied heavy weaponry looted in Iraq have gained the upper hand. 

“The situation in Rojava, and particularly in Kobane, is seen by the Kurdish armed movement as a proxy war by Turkey against Kurdish gains in Syria,” says Kurkcu, reflecting the widespread conviction among Kurds in Turkey that Ankara is aiding IS.

Last week Turkey successfully freed 46 citizens taken hostage by IS after it overran Turkey’s consulate in Mosul. The parliamentary vote on cross-border military incursions could allow the creation of a "buffer zone" to help Turkey deal with the flood of refugees from Syria and Iraq. 

Kurdish leaders view that possibility as yet another ploy against their kinsmen in Syria, much to the Turkish government’s frustration. 

“On the one hand you ask Turkey to help, on the other, you say the buffer zone is a source of war,” Deputy Prime Minister Yalcin Akdogan said on Turkish television Sunday, addressing the PKK’s leadership. “If you have enough power to declare war, then go and fight [against IS].”

'Hard to restore trust'

Regardless of Ankara’s true intent, the growing belief among Kurds that Turkey is willing to allow Kobane to fall could derail peace talks with the PKK, while not necessarily reviving a full-bore conflict that has cost 40,000 lives. 

“The perception that the Turks weren’t quickly willing to help the Kurds in Kobane has created a trauma in Kurdish minds and it will be very hard to restore trust,” says Cenk Sidar, CEO of Sidar Global Partners, a Turkey-focused political and strategic risk consultancy firm.

If Kobane falls and IS carries out massacres of the population and Kurdish fighters, says Mr. Sidar, “the peace process will be over.”

Henri Barkey, a professor of International Relations at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, believes that even in that event, however, a return to war between Turkey and the PKK is unlikely.

“They have been fighting since 1984, and they’ve had enough,” Mr. Barkey says. “The economic situation has improved and people in [Kurdish-populated southeast Turkey] do not want to go back to war.”

However, Barkey believes that regardless of what happens in Kobane, Kurdish trust in the Turkish state, which the peace process sought to foster, may be irreparably damaged.

The same may go for the broader trend highlighted by Human Rights Watch, which notes a string of authoritarian responses by Turkey to last summer's protests and corruption probes of Erdogan’s inner circle. 

The government portrayed both as “coup attempts,” and used them to justify broad police crackdowns on dissent, and tighter control of the judiciary.

“Turkey needs to build a comprehensive democratic climate, and only in that context can the Kurdish issue be solved,” says Sidar.

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