A Civil War Revived

By Matthews, Owen | Newsweek International, November 14, 2011 | Go to article overview

A Civil War Revived


Matthews, Owen, Newsweek International


Byline: Owen Matthews

Turkey's prime minister promised peace with the country's Kurdish separatists. A year later, violence between the two sides is worse than ever.

The cycle of attack and retaliation has become depressingly familiar: Kurdish guerrillas kill Turkish soldiers in a hit-and-run raid. Politicians express outrage and vow vengeance as patriotic Turks fly flags of solidarity to commemorate the dead from every window and car. Fighter jets, gunships, and commandos stream over Turkey's southern border to hit the bases of the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, in the mountains of northern Iraq.

In October the PKK killed 24 Turkish soldiers in a series of coordinated ambushes, and the old pattern kicked into action. But this time there was an important difference--and it wasn't just the scale of the attacks, which marked the biggest one-day loss to the Turkish security forces since 1993. Rather, the real difference was that a historic attempt by the government to reset relations with Turkey's estimated 20 million Kurds has failed. That made these recent attacks the opening shots in a vicious new round of the country's 35-year-old near-civil war.

In 2009 Turkey's veteran Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan put his political neck on the line by reaching out to rebel Kurds, offering an amnesty to those who would come down from the mountains and hand themselves in. In Diyarbakir, the capital of the Kurdish-dominated southeast of Turkey, Erdogan promised to tear down the old jail--notorious for torture--and promised Kurds a new constitution that would "open the door to further change." In 2010 secret talks were reportedly held on conditions for a permanent ceasefire with PKK leader Abdullah Acalan, jailed since 1999 in an island prison in the Sea of Marmara. Hopes were high that the decades-long conflict in the southeast could finally be defused.

A year later, instead of a reset, there's a train wreck. Over the last four months, Erdogan's "Kurdish opening" has been steadily dismantled piece by piece by Turkey's judiciary, by the PKK, and even by Erdogan himself. In the run-up to a general election this June, Erdogan--playing for ultranationalist votes--said that if he'd been in power when Acalan was captured, he would have had him hanged. Turkish judges, known for their hardline views, jailed a series of Kurdish activists, including a mayor who provided municipal services in the Kurdish language (still banned for government communications) and an editor who was sentenced to 166 years for supporting Acalan in his newspaper. PKK returnees were jailed for terrorism in defiance of a government amnesty. Finally, despite an unusually strong showing by pro-Kurdish parties in elections, courts stripped a Kurdish M.P. of his parliamentary seat on a technicality--and then, to add insult to injury, allocated it to Erdogan's ruling AK Party. As a result, Kurdish M.P.s boycotted Parliament and announced a campaign for greater powers for local government--an initiative they call "democratic autonomy." Autonomy was, of course, exactly what Erdogan's original outreach was supposed to avoid. And in the wake of the latest attacks, Turkish police further alienated Kurdish opinion by arresting 44 prominent Kurdish intellectuals in a probe into the PKK's political wing.

Derailing the peace process is exactly what the old-school, Moscow-trained Marxist revolutionaries who run the PKK want. Since early summer, the PKK has been in an all-out war with the Turkish Army. Shootings, bombings, and ambushes have become a weekly occurrence, leaving at least 55 Turkish soldiers dead since June. And the Turkish military and public have risen to meet the challenge, just as the PKK intended. In the wake of October's shootings, hundreds of thousands of Turks rallied against the PKK across central and western Turkey, calling for "martyrs' blood to be avenged.

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