Kurdish Conflict Takes Toll on Turkey's Image

Article excerpt


ISTANBUL -- Turkey's regional status as a democratic role model is being threatened by the Muslim country's 30-year conflict with Kurds, which now is pushing Turkey toward violent upheaval.

Turkish warplanes on Sunday bombed suspected Kurdish rebel targets in northern Iraq in the second cross-border airstrike in less than a week.

Emma Sinclair-Webb of Human Rights Watch in Istanbul said Turkey's actions are undermining its prestige.

Unless Turkey can really tackle the Kurdish issue in a more constructive way and guarantee minority rights, it will always be compromised internationally, she said. Its regional role cannot be as a model, while there are those very burning issues.

Turkey's political, economic and cultural progress over the past decade has inspired emerging governments in the Middle East.A poll conducted in 16 Arab countries by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation, Turkey's leading think tank, found that 78 percent of respondents regarded Turkey as a role model for the coexistence of religion and democracy.

That view often is echoed by leaders in Europe and Washington. Turkey, a NATO member, is a key U.S. ally and crucial strategic partner in the region.

Turkey's popularity abroad belies a brutal interethnic struggle that some say is pushing the country toward renewed conflict in its predominantly Kurdish southeastern provinces and home of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, known by its Turkish acronym PKK.

Increasing violence

An underground organization designated as a terrorist group by the United States and Europe, the PKK has fought a guerrilla war against the Turkish military for the past 28 years. Its aim is autonomy and political and cultural rights for the Kurdish people.

After years of relative quiet, last year was one of the bloodiest in the recent history of the Kurdish-Turkish conflict, analysts say.

Over recent months, hundreds have been killed in clashes between Kurdish rebels and government troops in Turkey's southeast and during cross-border raids into northern Iraq. The upsurge in violence has shattered hopes for a peaceful solution that has been in the works for the past seven years.

The broad support for the PKK among Turkey's Kurds, who represent about 20 percent of the population, stems from the government's pursuit of a strict assimilation policy for decades. It has cracked down on Kurds for using their own language, listening to Kurdish music or wearing traditional Kurdish garb.

Since 2005, the ruling Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish acronym AKP, had been making concessions to the Kurds, slowly acknowledging their ethnic identity. In late 2009, the government launched a Kurdish opening aimed at resolving the conflict through political means.

It opened a 24-hour state-run Kurdish-language television channel and promised other reforms to end discrimination. A second initiative, started in 2010, included secret talks with PKK leaders in a groundbreaking and bold step, analysts say.

The moves toward reconciliation came to a halt after PKK militants began launching strikes in mid-2011 on Turkish soldiers and police.

There is not a single party you can blame for the uptick in violence, said Henri Barkey, who specializes in Turkish affairs at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.

Whenever there was a step taken toward a political solution, a spectacular PKK attack undermined this process. The initiative of 2009 was mismanaged by the government. It did not prepare the public, and it did not consult the Kurdish leaders, so it was bound to collapse. …