2:08am

Wed October 26, 2011
World

Fresh Violence Strains Reforms For Turkish Kurds

Originally published on Wed October 26, 2011 5:49 am

Turkish soldiers, artillery and military aircraft are engaged in their biggest military operation in a decade after a raid last week by the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, killed 24 soldiers and wounded more than 100. The operation comes as Turkish politicians begin to debate a new constitution that many hope will grant Turkey's Kurdish population long-sought civil rights.

The abrupt escalation in violence by the PKK — listed as a terrorist group by Turkey, the U.S and European Union — has some Turks searching for an explanation. The Turkish government's efforts to enact pro-Kurdish reforms have so far been seen as inadequate. But the proposed new constitution was expected to be the Kurds' best chance to make advances in education, language and other basic rights they have long been denied.

Now, those reforms will be more difficult, in the face of fresh popular outrage at the latest PKK attacks.

Turkish officials have raised a new, troubling warning as well: that "outside powers" — meaning Syria and possibly Iran — are encouraging the PKK attacks, perhaps in retaliation for Ankara's shift away from the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after his brutal crackdown on dissent in recent months.

Turkish analyst and columnist Yavuz Baydar says Kurdish media and websites are suggesting that the PKK is getting closer to Damascus at the same time it launches fresh attacks in Turkey. He says the PKK is clearly warming up to Assad's regime.

"It's sort of a change in the tactics, a desperate act at this phase," Baydar says.

Ibrahim Dogus, editor of a London-based Kurdish newspaper, told Al-Jazeera's English channel that it's only natural for the PKK to try to exploit the diplomatic rift between Ankara and Damascus.

"It will be plausible for PKK to take advantage of deteriorating relations between Syria and Turkey, between Iran and Turkey," Dogus says. "But the best thing that the Turkish government could come up with is a resolution to the Kurdish question within Turkey."

Dogus says Turkey tries to deal with the Palestinians, Somalia and the rest of the world, but when it comes to Kurdish politics, it always looks to other countries to blame.

At the moment, however, it is PKK violence that's posing a major obstacle to reforms that would benefit Turkey's Kurdish minority. Some analysts question the notion that the PKK is morphing into a proxy for Syria or Iran, similar to Lebanon's Hezbollah, not least because both Tehran and Damascus have long repressed their own Kurdish populations.

Author and columnist Mustafa Akyol says another possibility is that hardliners within the PKK leadership are resorting to bloodshed because they don't want the government's reforms to succeed. That would drain popular Kurdish support away from the militant group, a trend that has been noticed in the last two elections.

"That's the thing ... PKK is not only about Kurdish rights now. PKK's main political target is to create an autonomous Kurdistan within Turkey and be its sole master," Akyol says. "PKK is more interested in carving a political entity for itself and being the only political party there."

But both Kurds and Turks agree that whether the PKK's star is rising or falling, it's up to Turkey's government to move ahead with reforms if it wants to break the cycle of violence that is threatening to send this long-running conflict into another extended period of bloodshed.

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Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Turkey's 7.2 magnitude earthquake has now claimed more than 450 lives. A bit of good news came earlier today when emergency workers rescued a 27-year-old schoolteacher and an 18-year-old student from the rubble. Both had survived, trapped for 67 hours.

Many survivors are sleeping outdoors in near-freezing temperatures. The Turkish government now says it will need emergency help from other countries after all. Israel is sending an airlift of mobile shelters, even though Israeli-Turkish relations have deteriorated lately.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And as this natural disaster plays out, Turkey's military is going after a longtime enemy. In the past week, it says it's killed scores of fighters in the militant Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which operates from just across the border in Iraq. The Turkish attack came after PKK militants killed two dozen Turkish soldiers. That spike in violence comes as Turkish politicians debate a new constitution that many hope will grant Turkey's Kurdish population the civil rights it has long sought. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Istanbul.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAMING)

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: If there's one positive thing many Turks take from the harrowing images coming from earthquake-ravaged eastern Turkey, it's the sight of Turkish soldiers, rescue workers and civilians rushing to the aid of quake victims in largely Kurdish Van province. But not far from the earthquake rescue effort, Turkish soldiers, artillery and military aircraft are engaged in their biggest anti-PKK military operation in a decade. The abrupt escalation in violence by the PKK - listed as a terrorist group by Turkey, the U.S. and European Union - has some Turks searching for an explanation.

The Turkish government's efforts to enact pro-Kurdish reforms have so far been seen as inadequate. But the new constitution, now under discussion, was expected to be the Kurd's best chance to make advances in education, language and other basic rights they've long been denied. Now those reforms will be more difficult in the face of fresh popular outrage at the latest PKK attacks.

Turkish officials have raised a new, troubling warning as well: that outside powers - meaning Syria and possibly Iran - are encouraging the PKK attacks, perhaps in retaliation for Ankara's shift away from the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after his brutal crackdown on dissent in recent months.

Turkish analyst and columnist Yavuz Baydar says Kurdish media and websites are suggesting that the PKK is getting closer to Damascus at the same time it launches fresh attacks in Turkey.

YAVUZ BAYDAR: And it's warming up clearly with clear signals to Bashar al-Assad's regime, and it's sort of a change in the tactics, a desperate act at this phase.

KENYON: Ibrahim Dogus, editor of a London-based Kurdish newspaper, told Al-Jazeera's English Channel that it's only natural for the PKK to try to exploit the diplomatic rift between Ankara and Damascus.

IBRAHIM DOGUS: It will be plausible for PKK to take advantage of deteriorating relations between Syria and Turkey, between Iran and Turkey. But the best thing that the Turkish government could come up with is a resolution to the Kurdish question within Turkey. Turkey tries to deal with Palestine. Turkey tries to deal with Somalia. Turkey tries to deal with all over the world now. But when it comes to Kurdish politics, they always look for other international forces or countries to blame for.

KENYON: At the moment, however, it's PKK violence that's posing a major obstacle to reforms that would benefit Turkey's Kurdish minority. Some analysts question the notion that the PKK is morphing into a proxy for Syria or Iran - a la Lebanon's Hezbollah - not least because both Tehran and Damascus have long repressed their own Kurdish populations.

Author and columnist Mustafa Akyol says another possibility is that hardliners within the PKK leadership are resorting to bloodshed because they don't want the government's reforms to succeed. That would drain popular Kurdish support away from the militant group, a trend that has been noticed in the last two elections.

MUSTAFA AKYOL: That's the thing: I mean, PKK is not only about Kurdish rights now. PKK's main political target is to create an autonomous Kurdistan within Turkey and be its sole master. PKK is more interested in carving a political entity for itself and being the only political party there.

KENYON: But Kurds and Turks here agree that whether the PKK's star is rising or falling, it's up to Turkey's government to move ahead with reforms if it wants to break the cycle of violence that's threatening to send this long-running conflict into another extended period of bloodshed. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.