Turkey’s war with Kurdish militants has entered its bloodiest phase in more than a decade, with attacks on soldiers and police almost every day and a breakdown in ties with neighbors that had helped to contain the threat.
On Sept. 18, an army convoy in the largely Kurdish southeast was ambushed, leaving 10 dead. Two days earlier, eight police were killed when a mine blew up their minibus, and the day before four soldiers died in a similar blast. Police defused a bomb today near the airport in Diyarbakir, the largest city in the southeast, while the state-run Anatolia agency reported an attack on a Netherlands-based energy company in southeast Turkey that injured four earlier this week. The army has killed 500 members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK since February, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan says.
Turkey’s fraying ties with Syria, Iran and Iraq, neighbors with their own Kurdish minorities that have collaborated against the PKK, offer new openings for the group. Erdogan, who had vowed to end the Kurdish conflict, now risks presiding over an escalation that could undermine the $800 billion economy and encourage a backlash by Turkish nationalists.
“It certainly is the broadest PKK challenge since the late 1980s,” said Michael Rubin, a Middle East scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “With events in Syria, Iraqi Kurdistan’s growing wealth, and tension between Iran and Turkey, there has never been a better time for the PKK to stake its claim.”
The Kurdish conflict has killed almost 40,000 people over three decades, and cost more than $300 billion according to official estimates. Fighting peaked in the first half of the 1990s and eased after the capture of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, now in solitary confinement in a Turkish prison, in 1999.
Turkey’s relations with Syria have been hostile since Erdogan backed the rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad, allowing some to shelter on Turkish soil. A Turkish plane crashed into the east Mediterranean in June after it was fired on from Syria.
The collapse of ties gave Kurdish militants more freedom to operate over a 911-kilometer (566-mile) border where Turkey and Syria had previously staged joint exercises.
When Assad’s troops withdrew from parts of north Syria in July, Kurdish groups seized control of several towns. Front-page stories in Turkish newspapers said that the area was being administered by the PKK. Those reports were exaggerated, Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay said in an interview last week.
After a car-bomb killed nine people in the southern city of Gaziantep last month, government ministers raised the possibility that Syria may have collaborated with the PKK in the attack.
The Syrian conflict has hurt Turkey’s ties with Iran, an Assad ally. Its friendship with Iraq has been strained by the presence in Istanbul of fugitive Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, sentenced to death in his homeland for running death squads, and made welcome in Turkey. Kurds control northern Iraq and account for much of the population in nearby parts of Syria and Iran.
Nine Turkish citizens were arrested last month on charges of working for Iranian intelligence, Today’s Zaman newspaper reported on Sept. 7. The suspects were also accused of relaying positions of Turkish forces to the PKK, Today’s Zaman reported, citing security forces.
Erdogan, speaking in the western city of Denizli on Sept. 17, said Turkish security forces would only halt operations if the PKK, classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and European Union, lays down its weapons. He promised to pursue economic growth at the same time as “fighting the bloody handed terrorist organization.”
Kurdish politicians supportive of the PKK argue that there can only be progress if the Turkish army also halts operations.
“Both sides should pull their fingers from the trigger, without any conditions,” Selahattin Demirtas, co-leader of the legal Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, said this week. “If they can do that then we can build a new negotiation process.”
His party also calls for Ocalan’s release so that he can join in peace talks. The PKK’s commander in the field, Murat Karayilan, said this week that “the time has come” for Ocalan’s freedom, and vowed to respond in kind to the Turkish army’s drive against the group, according to the Kurdish Firat news agency.
So far, the latest wave of violence hasn’t affected financial markets, because attacks were viewed as isolated incidents that would not threaten political stability, said Inan Demir, chief economist at Finansbank AS in Istanbul.
Turkey’s benchmark stock index is up 31 percent this year, and yields on two-year bonds have slid more than four percentage points, nearing a record low. While growth has eased after last year’s 8.5 percent boom, the economy still expanded at an annual 2.9 percent rate in the second quarter.
An escalation to the level of conflict seen in the 1990s would “threaten Turkey’s human capital,” Demir said. “Less importantly, but unmistakably, it would weigh on fiscal balances and jeopardize the public debt dynamics.”
Erdogan’s government has invested $30 billion in the southeast, building hospitals, schools and airports, since coming to power in November 2002, Atalay said at his Ankara office. He cited an airport project in Yuksekova, a town in the largely Kurdish region, as an example of the difficulties. “They are burning down construction machines, harassing the contractor there,” Atalay said.
Militants fired on a helicopter on Sept. 15, wounding four security personnel working for Netherlands-based NV Turkse Perenco, which is searching for oil in the southeast, the Anatolia agency said today, citing the company. The helicopter came under attack as it took off from an oil exploration site in Batman province, Anatolia said.
An attack on a pipeline in the southeast briefly cut oil flow from northern Iraq on Sept. 16, prompting the government to step up security, Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said. The PKK has targeted energy and construction workers, threatening investment in the region, which has Turkey’s lowest employment rates.
Earlier in his premiership, Erdogan raised expectations in the southeast by removing some restrictions on the Kurdish language in education and media, part of a promised “opening” to a group that accounts for as much as 20 percent of Turkey’s 75 million people.
In the past three years, the government has taken a tougher line.
About 8,000 people are under arrest on charges of belonging to the PKK’s urban arm, the Peace and Democracy Party’s Demirtas said this week.
The government has threatened to strip some of the party’s lawmakers of their parliamentary immunity, so that they can be charged and jailed for being PKK supporters. One of them, Sebahat Tuncel, was sentenced to eight years and nine months in prison on Sept. 18, though she won’t serve the sentence unless her immunity is lifted.
Adding to local grievances was a botched air attack in December, which was aimed at the PKK and instead killed 34 Kurdish villagers smuggling goods from Iraq.
“Erdogan is currently indicating that he believes this can be solved by military and security policies alone,” said Hugh Pope, an analyst for the International Crisis Group in Istanbul, which published a report on the conflict this week. “Previous administrations have tried and failed with this strategy.”