Turkey’s Kurdish conflict blows up

Friday 18/03/2016
Women mourn over the coffin of a car bombing victim during a commemoration ceremony in a mosque in Ankara on March 14th.

Istanbul - About a year ago, peace talks between the Turk­ish government and Kurdish rebels reached a climax with the publi­cation of a joint statement outlin­ing the path to a lasting peace after more than 30 years of guerrilla war and more than 40,000 deaths.

Today, the country is sliding into a renewed war. A suicide car bomber killed at least 37 people and wounded 125 others in an attack in the centre of Ankara on March 13th, the second big attack in the capital in a month. There was no imme­diate claim of responsibility, but media reports said authorities sus­pected militant Kurds to have been behind the carnage.

Thirteen months after the Dolma­bahce accord between Ankara and Kurdish officials, the peace process has been suspended, fighting and bomb attacks have returned and the president is leading calls for Kurd­ish deputies to be kicked out of par­liament. “Turkey entered a one-way street and is racing towards a wall,” journalist Ergun Babahan wrote in a column for the Ozgur Dusunce newspaper.

Government officials and repre­sentatives of Turkey’s biggest legal Kurdish party, the Peoples’ Demo­cratic Party (HDP), met at the gov­ernment’s Istanbul offices near Dol­mabahce Palace on the Bosphorus in February 2015 and presented a plan for the resolution of the Kurd­ish conflict.

The meeting turned out to be the high-water mark of the Kurd­ish peace process, which started in 2013.

But since then the government has tried to play down the signifi­cance of the Dolmabahce accord, especially after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he did not accept the agreement.

Critics say Erdogan ended the peace process and opted for a re­turn to a hard line after his Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost parliamentary elections in June, an accusation rejected by Ankara. Fighting between security forces and rebels of the Kurdistan Work­ers’ Party (PKK) resumed in July, and the AKP swept back to power in elections in November. Each side blames the other for reigniting the conflict.

Since then several hundred peo­ple have been killed in house-to-house fighting in Kurdish cities. The clashes started when PKK fight­ers declared “autonomy”, digging trenches and putting up barricades to keep the police and the military out. The state answered with mili­tary onslaughts and curfews. As a result of the fighting, more than 300,000 people have fled their homes.

Violence outside the Kurdish re­gion is also on the rise. The govern­ment says a Syrian branch of the PKK was behind a suicide bombing in Ankara that killed 29 people on February 17th. The bombing was claimed by the Kurdistan Free­dom Falcons (TAK), a PKK splinter group operating outside the Kurd­ish south-east of the country. Syrian Kurds vehemently deny involve­ment in the attack.

Tensions rose further when HDP lawmaker Tugba Hezer paid a con­dolence visit to the family of the suspected suicide bomber. The HDP said the visit did not mean that the party or Hezer approved of the at­tack but the party drew fierce criti­cism from the government, other opposition parties and much of the media, even those who are nor­mally critical of Erdogan. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the Repub­lican People’s Party (CHP), the big­gest opposition bloc in parliament, called Hezer’s visit “treason”.

Erdogan and other leading gov­ernment politicians, who accuse the HDP of being the political arm of the PKK, went further and said the 59 HDP lawmakers in parliament in Ankara should be stripped of their parliamentary immunity and put on trial. “They have to be held to ac­count legally,” Erdogan said.

It would not be the first time for Turkey’s parliament to move against Kurdish MPs. In the early 1990s, the chamber threw out mem­bers of a now-banned Kurdish party who were accused of supporting the PKK. They were later jailed.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on March 4th the government would ask parliament to lift the immunity of five HDP lawmakers, including the co-chairs Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuk­sekdag. News report said a decision on the request was due in the com­ing weeks.

Devlet Bahceli, leader of the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), hinted that his party would support the lifting of the Kurdish MPs’ immunity.

Mustafa Sentop, a senior AKP lawmaker, said the HDP politicians could be taken into custody once immunity was lifted.

In a statement after the Ankara attack of March 13th, the president said he remained committed to his tough line, vowing to bring “ter­ror to its knees”. Hours before the attack, authorities announced the start of a new government offen­sive against the PKK in the districts of Nusaybin and Yuksekova in the Kurdish region.

A year after the Dolmabahce ac­cord, a return to negotiations looks impossible for the foreseeable fu­ture. Both sides blame each other for the breakdown of talks and the war in Syria adds a further compli­cation to the conflict.

The Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian-Kurdish party with strong ties to the PKK, has carved out two autonomous regions along the Turkish border in northern Syria that Ankara says could be the first step on the road to an independent Kurdish state there. Erdogan says Turkey will not allow that to hap­pen.

The conflicts on both sides of the border have become intertwined, Can Paker, chairman of the Istan­bul-based think-tank Public Policy and Democracy Studies, told the A Haber news channel. “As long as the Syrian conflict has not been stabilised and solved, there is little chance that Turkey’s Kurdish prob­lem can be solved,” he said.