27 October 2007

The Turkish war on terror

By Liam Carroll

Do terrorists punch above their weight? The latest bout of fighting between the Turkish military and Kurdish Workers Party near to the northern Iraq border is only the most recent example of a relatively small guerilla force of a few thousand fighters potentially instigating a major regional crisis.

A dozen Turkish citizens murdered in cold blood and scores of soldiers ambushed, blown up or killed in combat in one year alone has rightly angered the Turkish public, but like other comparable situations it would be absurd if the death of a hundred or so people led to a virtual Turkish invasion of northern Iraq, as has been threatened, which might lead to the death of far greater numbers of innocents.

An underreported aspect of the current conflict is the fact that the Turkish military has made major incursions into northern Iraq before, in pursuit of Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) fighters, and has singularly failed ever to eliminate this enduring guerilla force. In 1997 Turkey sent 50,000 troops into the Kurdish area of Iraq with the support of local Kurdish parties who had also complained of PKK interference in their region, and several thousand troops have since remained. The campaign was unsuccessful, as had previous campaigns been which had shocked fellow NATO members for their high levels of aggression and abuse that included village burnings and torture.

As for the war in Turkey against the PKK, which has lasted over 20 years and resulted in 37,000 deaths and included thousands of village clearances, it has become evident that eliminating the PKK is no simple task. While the authorities in Baghdad, and indeed the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq have condemned the PKK actions and closed offices there, they are probably quite genuine in their protests that they have limited scope for action given the difficult terrain of the region and the considerable burden of other pressing security issues.

In short, after 20 years of a fruitless guerilla war in southeast Turkey and Iraq, and one that has brought massive condemnation upon their heads from allies and human rights organizations for the criminal manner in which they have conducted much of that campaign, Turkey might have to think more seriously about an alternative approach. Difficult as it may be, it has become almost a cliché of conflict resolution, of which the US military commanders in Iraq have become the latest advocates, you cannot have peace without a comprehensive political settlement.

Now, much as we may sympathise with Turkey for the current round of attacks and fatalities, there can be little doubt that they have treated the Kurdish minority, which is in the region of 16 million people or so, extremely harshly in the past. Indeed a comprehensive campaign of repression of Kurdish identity, including language and political expression, predated the resort to force by the PKK by over ten years. Since that time village burnings, torture and extra-judicial killings have become the tools of the Turkish campaign.

Turkey has moved in recent years to improve Kurdish representation in parliament, allow the Kurdish language to be taught in schools and the courts have upheld complaints by Kurds against the security forces. Turkish moves toward EU accession certainly appears to have encouraged the authorities to recognize Kurdish grievances, but reports of continued impunity for crimes committed against Kurds, amongst many other injustices, suggests that they remain far from being respected equals.

Now whether Turkey imagines that it really can make a clean sweep of the PKK with Iraqi Kurdish assistance or not, human rights organizations have warned that it would be premature to imagine that Turkey has made good its relationship with the Kurds domestically. Thus any temporary military success over the PKK now is unlikely to be the end of the matter if it is not accompanied by a long-term political settlement.

More alarmingly, trying to tackle the legacy of past repression through further use of force might end up adding woefully to another Kurdish communities problems if the cycle of violence, which might start as a disciplined counter terrorism operation, were to escalate in a fashion with which we are all too familiar with by now.

Turkey's NATO allies and the KRG are right to urge restraint and must do what they sensibly can to bring the PKK to the negotiating table, however the current crises cannot be entirely separated from historical injustices. This is a point that Turkey should be encouraged to recognize less they let their sense of injury destroy the political gains that have been acquired at great cost, both inside Turkey and out, but are not yet complete and indeed still remain, precipitously fragile.