A car bomb that struck the heart of Istanbul this morning, killing 11, has underlined how the violence once limited to Turkey’s Kurdish-populated southeast is now casting a shadow over the whole country.
Today’s bombing of a police bus was the third terrorist attack in Istanbul this year, and hit close to popular tourist spots, such as the Grand Bazaar. While no group has claimed responsibility, the attack bears hallmarks of Kurdish separatists, who have launched a wave of similar strikes in recent months.
At a time when the 32-year-old Kurdish insurgency is arguably at its deadliest, Turkey claims its “hearts and minds” strategy is succeeding in undermining popular support for the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). But long-time observers fear that the government is failing to win over Kurds, and that the fight is leading the country toward deeper instability.
“The irony is that there is serious dissatisfaction with the PKK within the Kurdish population, but the government’s response has been so heavy-handed that they have not really undermined its support,” says Aliza Marcus, author of “Blood and Belief: the PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence.”
The PKK, which is designated a terrorist organization by the United States, is exacting a higher toll on Turkey than at any previous time in the conflict’s history. Attacks by the PKK and its affiliates have helped drive a 28 percent year-on-year decline in tourist arrivals – the biggest drop in a decade for a country that was hitherto the world’s sixth-most popular tourist destination.
It is also gaining fresh combat tactics and equipment from Syria, where its affiliate, the PYD, is a key ally of the United States in the fight against the so-called Islamic State. Last month, PKK militants for the first time used a MANPADS shoulder-launched missile to bring down a Turkish military helicopter.
Kurdish anger with PKK running high
Since a two-year peace process collapsed last July, the war has cost the lives of 517 security officials, 519 PKK militants, and at least 271 civilians, according to the International Crisis Group.
Meanwhile, as many as half a million people have fled southeastern urban centers devastated by the conflict, which has included intense house-to-house fighting. The exodus from cities such as Diyarbakir, Cizre, and Nusaybin mirrors a similar population shift in the 1990s that helped trigger a new wave of radicalism, says Ms. Marcus.
“This is creating a new pool of people who are ready to join the PKK,” she says. “Many are abandoning their cities and moving to the west, which eventually brings the risk of more bombings there.”
That view is sharply contested by government officials and their supporters, who claim that the PKK is facing imminent defeat due to a collapse in support.
“The government is helping the people in the southeast to understand that we care for them,” a senior Turkish official told the Monitor, asking that his name be withheld because he is not authorized to speak on the record. “We’re fighting terrorists who are oppressing the people, and the people realize that.”
Most observers agree that Kurdish anger with the militant group is running high, mainly over its decision to draw the conflict away from the remote rural regions in which it had hitherto fought and into urban centers, with deadly results.
“While the PKK thought that by this campaign they would further radicalize the people of the region, in fact they have lost a measure of support because people see that their lives and livelihood is threatened by their actions,” says Sinan Ulgen, director of EDAM, a nonpartisan think tank in Istanbul.
‘We’re not only fighting terrorists, we’re [winning] hearts’
Turkey’s Kurds, who make up between 15 and 20 percent of Turkey's 75 million people, faced oppression and enforced cultural assimilation policies for decades.
Since the PKK launched its separatist insurgency in 1984, successive Turkish governments have claimed that it relies on brutality to cow a Kurdish populace that does not fully support them.
The current Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, which came to power in 2002, has gone further than its predecessors in acknowledging Kurdish identity and freeing restrictions on the Kurdish language, but has dodged demands for autonomy.
At a general election in June last year, the People's Democratic Party (HDP), a pro-Kurdish movement with close links to the PKK, enjoyed a record showing by winning 13 percent of the national vote.
At a subsequent general election in November following the resumption of fighting, its vote share decreased to just over 10 percent – a sign of disaffection but still far higher than in previous years.
“The difference today,” says the senior Turkish official, “is that the security forces and the government are much better organized, and we make sure that we not only fight the terrorists but also support the people. We’re not only fighting the terrorists; we’re gaining the people’s hearts.”
Among the government’s planned initiatives is a pledge to rebuild the ancient city center of Diyarbakir, a recently UNESCO world heritage site that has been damaged by street-fighting.
However, the potential for goodwill has been undercut by the fact that the redevelopment has involved forced evictions, the bulldozing of homes, and compulsory purchases, causing critics to accuse the government of purging the city’s population.
“This is not an investment in the region; at best, it’s making good on something that was destroyed. It doesn’t win any new supporters,” says Marcus.
Parliament moves to prosecute Kurdish lawmakers
A more serious threat to Ankara’s hearts and minds campaign are moves currently under way to prosecute and possibly imprison many of the elected MPs of the pro-Kurdish HDP.
Last month Turkey’s parliament voted to lift a law protecting elected deputies from prosecution, a move mainly intended to target Kurdish parliamentarians accused of supporting the militants.
Many analysts have also linked the move to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s separate ambition to tip the current parliamentary balance in his favor in order to redraw Turkey’s constitution and award himself more power.
“The danger is that when you shut down all democratic avenues you make it that much more attractive to people to turn to armed organizations,” says Marcus. “So even while the PKK is clearly taking some hits in terms of its ability to organize in southeast Turkey, it is once again becoming the only avenue through which people can express their demand for Kurdish rights.”
Lack of clarity about Turkey's goal
Currently, the government appears to be grinding out victories in the latest bout of conflict. Last weekend it claimed to have pacified the town of Nusaybin, on the Syrian border, after a 10-week operation against PKK militants there.
While advanced military hardware, urban guerrilla tactics, and a newfound expertise in the use of improvised explosive devices have all made the PKK a potent threat to Turkey, they do not negate the Turkish military’s continuing advantage, says Ulgen. “[T]hat makes a military response more complicated, but not to the extreme where Turkey cannot respond.”
However, he does not believe that Turkey's endgame is to outright destroy the PKK, but rather soften it up in preparation for a return to the negotiating table – something that Turkish officials deny.
“Part of me thinks that’s wishful thinking,” responds Marcus. “This is more than a softening up… All it’s really doing is causing huge economic damage, and killing a huge amount of people.
“If they want to negotiate with the PKK, they already had the basic elements in place [during the last negotiations]. So why do this if the basic goal is to have negotiations again?”