Monday, June 7, 2010

A Very Unquiet Week on the Kurdish Front

Had last week's news not been dominated by Israel's raid on the flotilla, Turkish eyes would be more squarely turned on the rising tide of violence in the predominantly Kurdish southeast. The same day of the flotilla attack, a PKK attack on a naval base in Iskenderun (Hatay) left six Turkish soldiers dead. It was the first attack on a Turkish naval base in the history of the Turkish Republic, and a sign that the PKK is intent on expanding the conflict.

A few days later, BDP deputy Emine Ayna, largely regarded as a hawk within the BDP, held a rally in Diyarbakir in which she warned of an expanded war that would affect all of Turkey. Ayna rhetorically asked an absent Prime Minister Erdogan if this what the government wanted while repeating calls for the government to make radical reforms and engage Ocalan. Meanwhile, clashes between the PKK and Turkish military/police continued throughout the week, as did continued operations against operations against alleged members of the Democratic Confederation of Kurdistan (KCK).

Imprisoned on an island in the Marmara Sea, Ocalan has said through his lawyers that he is no longer supportive of negotiations with the Turkish government. The move is no doubt meant to presure the government to pay attention to the former PKK leader, who still plays the dominant role within the organization. The BDP has said that it will try to convince Ocalan not to give up efforts to engage the Turkish state, calling on both parties to engage in negotiations while organizing a number of rallies across the southeast at which Kurds sympathetic to Ocalan and the PKK will call on the leader to remain engaged.

The question of engaging Ocalan and the PKK in direct negotiations aside, this maneuvering is somewhat like a dance in which Ocalan threatens to disappear, and then the BDP acts to raise is profile, holding demonstrations to show his support among a significant sector of the Kurdish community. The BDP has said that if Ocalan disappears from the process, PKK violence wll increase (hence, Ayna's remarks).

Having made two weeklong trips to Diyarbakir in the past month to hear voices in the region, the trend is particularly disturbing given the context of the very polarized discourse at the moment. BDP supporters, and even Kurds outside both the BDP and the AKP, are increasingly troubled by the ongoing operations against accused members of the KCK, often described as the "urban wing" of the PKK. On the other hand, PKK violence has drastically increased in recent weeks, a turn that will only frustrate prospects for peace and the success of the government's Kurdish initiative should it resume. The victim of this polarization will be the dialogue and moderation needed to bring an end to the conflict.

The KCK Operations

Today the Diyarbakir Public Prosecutor's Office finally issued an indictment for some of the alleged KCK members currently being detained. There number is at least 1,500, and they stretch across a wide variety of sectors in Kurdish society and include 11 BDP mayors. The indictment comes more than one year after the operations began last April. Prosecutors are asking 15 years to life for those named in the indictment for having "membership in the PKK."

Meanwhile, the operations continued last week with six arrests in Van on Tuesday and another seven on Friday. 120 more were detained two weeks ago (see May 23 post), and more the week after.

For many Kurds, the operations are being used as a witchhunt to silent voices who are critical of the government. While many acknowledged the AKP government made an important step in recognizing the Kurdish problem and admitting to past state abuses, few were optimistic about the initiative, which has so far failed to deliver the kind of wide-reaching reform some thought initially possible.

With the AKP government increasingly less interested in the initiative, re-coining it one of many "democratic initiatives" rather than the great "opening" it was early billed as, many Kurdish activists are becoming increasingly frustrated. It is hard to judge the extent to which support for the BDP has grown, but it is safe enough to say that the AKP government's influence in the region is waning.

Just as importantly, the government seems less inclined to listen to the voices of Kurdish civil society actors who are outside the BDP or only loosely linked. The web of networks in the southeast is ambiguous and wide, but without talking to all parties involved and making an effort to engage Kurdish civil society actors, there is little chance at ending the polarization.

Many of these actors are not necessarily close to the BDP, but are strongly critical of the state and the AKP government. Too often dismissed and their legitimacy discounted, the government is overlooking the potential they have to transform the conflict insofar as they are able to exert pressure over the BDP and more leftist/radical Kurds, especially in more leftist/radical centers like Diyarbakir and the far southeast.

Indeed, failure to adequately take into account voices from Kurdish civil society is one of the principal reasons why the government's initative has failed. For a timeline of the Kurdish initiative, click here.

The Security Situation

As the security situation in the southeast diminishes, especially in Hakkari and Sirnak provinces near the border, the Turkish government called a security summit, held on Wednesday just two days after the attack in Iskenderun. At the summit, Interior Minister Besir Atalay expressed the government's commitment to the political and economic solutions laid out in the announcement of the Kurdish opening last summer, but again, failed to give any specifics.

It is precisely this lack of specifics and concrete action, on top of the ongoing KCK operations, that Kurdish civil society leaders (again, both in and outside of the BDP) bring up in discussing relations between the Turkish government and the region. State officials announced that the government would continue to guard against future attacks, taking increased precautions and learning from past mistakes in order to minimize Turkish military casualties.

In addition to the attack in Iskenderun, three Turkish soldiers were injured on Tuesday in Cukurca (Hakkari). On Thursday, an attack on an armed police vehicle in the same area injured three Turkish police officers, and the local police department and police housing facilities fell under attack the same night. Another two police officers were injured in another attack there on Friday.

Also on Tuesday, six PKK members surrendered at the Habur Gate in Silopi province, and another in Adiyaman province, though I have yet to find details or any particular significance to the surrenders. In the past two months, PKK fire has killed 28 Turkish soldiers.

Though violence has been increasing for some time now, the PKK also used last week to declare an official end to its unilateral ceasefire, first declared last year though violence has been intermittent.

Barzani Visit

Other news on the Kurdish front involved the visit of Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani. The KRG leader's first visit to Ankara in six years, the visit was largely overshadowed by events in Gaza.

Trade between Turkey and the KRG has been increasing, and Ankara has made serious efforts in the past two years to gain the support of Barzani in quelling the PKK. Barzani, in return, has taken a harder liner against the PKK, calling last year for the organization to end its "terrorist" campaign. He repeated those calls in Ankara, as well as offered praise of the government's attempts to find a political solution through the Kurdish opening.

After meeting with Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Barzani also discussed problems in the region with BDP leaders, including BDP Chairman Selahattin Demirtas, Ahmet Turk and Bengi Yilmaz.

Some analysts speculate that the most effective way of transforming Turkey's Kurdish conflict is by more closely using Barzani's political capital in the region. In this vein, U.S.-based analyst Henri Barkey has a new report endorsing this approach.

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