Turks fear country is returning to 1990s violence
Istanbul - With the Turkish air force pounding Kurdish rebel hideouts, police rounding up activists and militants killing soldiers and police officers almost on a daily basis, many in Turkey fear their country is sliding back to the darkest times of the Kurdish war.
A cycle of military action and guerrilla attacks that started with a suicide bomb that killed 32 pro-Kurdish leftist activists in the town of Suruç near the Syrian border on July 20th has all but ended a peace process between the Turkish state and Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) armed separatists. The development has given rise to concerns that the results of democratic reforms of the last decade, which strengthened civil rights and won Turkey the start of formal talks for membership in the European Union, might be swept away.
“We had a dream, but it’s over now,” Meral Cildir, deputy leader of the Human Rights Association, said in Istanbul. “Everyone has woken up.”
Critics say President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is using the Suruç attack, blamed on Islamic State (ISIS) jihadists, as a pretext to step up military pressure on the PKK as well.
Turkish fighter jets have attacked ISIS targets in northern Syria, but also PKK camps in northern Iraq and inside Turkey since last week. Meanwhile suspected PKK members have killed at least seven soldiers and police officers, and kidnapped several others since July 20 as they hold the Turkish state partly responsible for the Suruç attack.
The government says it is merely fighting terrorism. “In both fronts, Turkey is acting in accordance with international law and coordinating its efforts with its neighbours and allies,“ Erdogan’s spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, wrote in a column for the pro-government Daily Sabah, an English-language newspaper, on July 29th “The operations will continue until the ISIS threat is eliminated from the Turkish-Syrian border and the PKK stops its terrorist attacks and lays down its arms.”
Erdogan has called for parliament to strip Selahattin Demirtas, leader of the legal pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), and other Kurdish politicians of their parliamentary immunity from prosecution. Meanwhile, police have detained more than 1,300 people in countrywide raids directed against suspected ISIS and PKK supporters as well as against leftist groups.
The events shattered a ceasefire between the Turkish military and the PKK, in force since 2013. Erdogan has said it was impossible to continue with peace talks between his government and jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, which started in late 2012.
Fears that militants could start revenge killings in Turkey have triggered several bomb scares in Istanbul and other cities in recent days. According to media reports, authorities in Istanbul have warned police to watch out against attempted attacks on metro and bus stations in the city of about 15 million people. Police were also looking for five vehicles, allegedly filled with explosives, the reports said. There was no official confirmation. Istanbul had turned into a “city of fear”, the news website RotaHaber said.
HDP leader Demirtas said the government was trying to provoke tension and panic in an effort to justify steps against his Kurdish party and to position itself for possible early elections.
Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its parliamentary majority in elections in June, but the search for a new coalition government has proved futile so far.
Critics such as Demirtas say Erdogan is bent on wrecking the coalition-building process because he hopes he can regain the AKP majority in new elections, which will take place in November if negotiations between political parties fail to produce results by the end of August.
The HDP leader says the president would like to push the Kurdish party below the 10% barrier that parties in Turkey have to cross in order to be represented in parliament.
The HDP gained 13% of the vote in June, but parliamentary arithmetic means a result below 10% for the Kurdish party in fresh elections would drastically boost the number of AKP seats in the assembly. “Our only crime is to have won 13%,” Demirtas said this week.
Political tensions, coupled with the ongoing military confrontation and the fear of attacks on soft targets in Turkish cities, have some observers worried that Turkey could slip back into a situations like the 1990s, years that saw a bloody climax in the war between Turkey and the PKK, a confrontation that started in 1984 and has killed more than 40,000 people.
Mahmut Bozarslan, a Turkish journalist who has been reporting from Turkey’s mainly Kurdish south-east for years, compared the situation to a new version of an old film; just the actors were different.
“That is exactly what we are seeing today,” he wrote on Twitter. The Taraf daily, which is strongly critical of Erdogan, said on July 29th the president wanted to push Turkey “back to the 1990s”.