Turkey launches air assault on Kurds in Iraq amid uptick in violence

Violence between Turkey and the PKK, a Kurdish separatist group classified as a terrorist organization, is on the rise as Turkey considers constitutional change.

Osman Orsal/Reuters
Protesters shout slogans against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) during a demonstration in Istanbul, Turkey, on July 17. The Turkish military launched an air assault on Kurdish separatists in northern Iraq overnight Wednesday, in response to the killing of nine Turkish soldiers in southeastern Turkey.

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The Turkish military launched an air assault on Kurdish separatists in northern Iraq overnight Wednesday, hitting 60 targets by plane and another 168 with artillery from across the border.

The assault was a response to the killing of nine Turkish soldiers in southeastern Turkey Wednesday by Kurdish separatists and targeted a region "frequented" by the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK), which has fought for autonomy in southeastern Turkey for decades, The New York Times reports. Both Turkey and the US have the PKK listed as a terrorist organization.

The PKK operates from hideouts in the mountainous border region between Iraq and Turkey. Turkish military planes last bombed inside Iraq in the summer of 2010, according to the Times.

Wednesday's ambush against the Turkish soldiers was the deadliest attack on the military since a campaign against the Kurdish autonomy movement began in July. That crackdown was prompted by an attack on the Turkish military on July 13, which killed 30.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is under pressure to ensure stability and prove his strength as a commander after his top military leaders resigned last month, putting control of the military in his civilian hands, Bloomberg reports. Making concessions to the Kurds – such as granting them autonomy, like Iraq did – would be a risky move.

The PKK refuses to give up violence unless its demands, such as the use of the Kurdish language in public education and an amnesty for militants hiding in northern Iraq, are met by Turkey, according to the Times.

Turkey warned that similar attacks could happen in the future. "Such operations will be carried out within and outside of Turkey with determination until the separatist organization is neutralized," a military report said, according to Turkish newspaper Hurriyet Daily News.

At a meal to break the Ramadan fast on Tuesday following the ambush on the Turkish soldiers, Erdogan warned that "a new period is starting" in the conflict, which has led to more than 30,000 mostly Kurdish deaths since the 1980s, when it began, CNN reports.

Erdogan has tried to improve relations with Turkey's Kurds and has admitted that the government made mistakes in its treatment of the country's largest minority, but recent tensions have negated some of the progress. The main Kurdish party in parliament boycotted the swearing-in for new lawmakers, despite winning a larger number of seats in June's elections, because the government disqualified some of the party's candidates, reports to CNN.

Recai Birgün, a former deputy who worked as the chief bodyguard of former Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit, said that the "forces of terrorism" increase whenever the country is in a critical phase, as it is now with its debate on constitutional changes.

“We have been fighting the PKK since 1984. The military operations are needed, but we have to remember that it is not the only solution,” he said. “One of the goals of the increase in the frequency of attacks is to sabotage the upcoming constitutional reform when Parliament opens for session in October.”

He added that the aim of the PKK is to force the government to resort to violent methods.

“The PKK wants violence and chaos. Terror thrives on violence and confusion,” he said. “We have to find a political solution to the problem. The military solution alone will not solve the PKK problem.”

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