Turkey Seeks to End Kurdish Conflict
ANKARA, Turkey — For a quarter century, defeating the Kurdish insurgency has been a pillar of Turkish state policy. Now, that's being called into question as the government takes stock of the fight's cost and its role in hampering Turkey's ambitions for regional leadership.
The struggle against the Kurdish guerrilla organization, marking the 33rd anniversary of its foundation Sunday, has claimed tens of thousands of lives and cost Turkey hundreds of billions of dollars.
Turkey has superior firepower and now U.S. supplied drones to fight the rebels, but there's not clear path to victory. The government recently left the door open for future dialogue with the rebels while vowing to fight maintain its military drive until they lay down arms.
"We say it very clearly: We will struggle against terrorism until the end, but we will also negotiate with those who prefer politics," Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said late September. "Those who prefer politics can talk to us, others can't."
Analysts said the two-pronged message appeared aimed at keeping pressure on the Kurds while encouraging them to reach a political solution to the conflict.
In another gesture, Erdogan apologized Wednesday for the first time for the killings of nearly 14,000 people in a bombing and strafing campaign to crush a Kurdish rebellion in the southeastern town of Dersim — now known as Tunceli — between 1936 and 1939.
While the apology was less a policy shift than a political tactic to tarnish the reputation of the opposition party, which was in power at that time, it still signaled a softening of lines toward the Kurds.
Meanwhile, Turkey, a U.S. ally and the largest Muslim member of NATO, is basking in growing popularity in an Arab world being transformed by revolution, even as the nation's aspirations to join the European Union stagnate.
Turkey's Islam-based government, praised for economic stability since coming to power 2002, believes a solution to the Kurdish conflict would enable the country to transfer its energy and resources to development, and eventually make it a more powerful actor in the Middle East.
"God willing, Turkey will fly when we solve this terrorism problem and traitors' actions that we see as the biggest obstacle that blocks Turkey path are ended," Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said Friday.
The government has recently admitted to holding secret talks with the rebels of the Kurdistan Workers' Party or PKK last year but it was not clear whether the sides were again conferring amid an intensified fight that has killed dozens of rebels, Turkish soldiers and since this summer.
Erdogan said this week that he "fully supports" the arrests of hundreds of alleged PKK supporters, including more than 40 Kurdish lawyers — who are accused of relaying orders from imprisoned rebel chief Abdullah Ocalan and running their own courts in a separate power structure.
Kurdish lawmakers said the government was waging a campaign of intimidation.
The PKK was founded Nov. 27, 1978, but it began fighting for autonomy in the country's largely Kurdish southeast in 1984. The government has granted more cultural rights to the Kurdish minority such as broadcasts in the once-banned Kurdish language on state television, in a failed effort at reconciliation.
The rebels and the country's Kurdish political movement insist on autonomy and Kurdish education in schools, which Turkey fears could divide the country along ethnic lines.
The conflict has forced Turkey to acquire drones from Israel and the United States and develop armored personnel carriers that can withstand roadside bomb attacks by the rebels, who also resort to suicide and car bombings.
The United States, which has been sharing drone surveillance data with Turkey to aid its fight against the Kurdish rebels, has deployed four Predator drones in Turkey ahead of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq at the end of this year. The drones started test flights out of the southern Incirlik Air Base this week and Turkey said their flight route will be determined by the Turkish military.
The drones have enabled the military to stage pinpoint attacks against the elusive rebels, who often vanish into the mountains of the southeast or return to their bases across the border in Iraq.
Henri J. Barkey, a Turkey expert at Lehigh University in the United States, said that Erdogan's political and military strategy was aimed at putting pressure on the PKK and the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party to return to official talks.
"This is possibly what he is trying to do in order to restart negotiations," Barkey said in an email. "Similarly, the PKK has been flexing its muscle to show that it can hurt the government."
"The government has moved quite far by having secret talks with the PKK, there cannot be a return from this," he said.
But he cautioned that the current government strategy is a delicate one and can go awry.
"A miscalculation could undermine everything because you are using violence and negotiations at the same time," said Barkey. "Very tricky."
By AP, 27/11/2011