Kurdish militants have launched a campaign to “turn Turkey into hell.” A series of bombings by the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (KFF) is part of a larger campaign to secure more autonomy from the Turkish government and the eventual creation of an independent Kurdish state. That ambition is not only opposed by the government in Ankara, but by all other countries in the Middle East as well. Creation of a Kurdish state would redraw the map of the entire region and plunge it into instability. That does not give Turkey a blank check against the Kurds, however; past excesses have fanned Kurdish nationalism, and Ankara’s human rights record has barred progress on Turkey’s goal of joining the European Union.
Kurds in Turkey’s southeast have long demanded greater rights from the government in Ankara. Their grievances established the basis for the formation of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which took up arms against the government in 1984 to fight for the creation of a Kurdish state. More than 30,000 people have died as a result of PKK-related violence. The capture of the group’s leader, Mr. Abdullah Ocalan, in 1999 was a blow to the Kurdish cause. The PKK declared a ceasefire, but violence resumed in 2004 and has been escalating ever since. Over 50 Turkish soldiers have been killed this year.
In recent weeks, bombings at tourist sites have claimed three lives and wounded dozens more. The KFF has taken credit for the attacks, and says it aims to cripple Turkey’s tourist industry, which hosts some 20 million people and brings in at least $14 billion in revenue annually. Thus far, the violence has not had the desired effect: Tourists seem to be ignoring it.
Little is known about the KFF. It is thought to consist of several hundred militants who dismiss the PKK’s readiness to give up the armed struggle. Turkish authorities believe the split is a sham and the two groups are linked; some analysts believe the PKK directs the KFF. Thus far, there is a key difference between the groups: while the KFF targets tourists, the PKK sticks to military targets. The PKK has condemned the KFF’s attacks.
The Turkish government is convinced the militants enjoy sanctuary across the border in Iraq under the protection of the Peshmerga, Iraqi Kurds who fought with the U.S. against Saddam Hussein and administer northern Iraq. The Peshmerga have condemned the recent attacks too, but that has not convinced Turkey’s government. Ankara is massing troops on its southern border with Iraq and has threatened to attack Kurdish bases if the U.S. does not use its influence to close them down. In response, the U.S. has appointed a special envoy to coordinate engagement between the U.S., Turkey and the government of Iraq.
The Peshmerga sympathize with Turkey’s Kurds, even if they do not overtly support them. The dream of a Kurdish homeland — Kurdistan — is shared by Kurds worldwide. Their dispersion throughout the Middle East makes Kurdistan a real threat. If Kurds carve out a piece of one state, their brethren in others will want to join and no country will retain its existing borders. Thus it’s better, argue some regional governments, to exploit the instability in Iraq and nip the problem in the bud.
Washington’s creation of the special envoy position is an attempt to respond to Turkish concerns. The PKK has already been labeled a terrorist group in the U.S., which helps in the fight to deny it funds. But the U.S. does not seek more violence in Iraq; nor does it wish to antagonize the Peshmerga, a group that has been largely supportive of attempts to build a working government in Baghdad.
The U.S. should ensure that its war against terrorism targets terrorism in all its forms. It cannot turn a blind eye to the actions of an ally — or the ally of an ally — without losing even more international credibility and moral authority.
Turkey’s real interlocutor in the battle against Kurdish extremism should be the European Union. Europe is negotiating with Ankara over the terms of its entry into the union and a key agenda item is the government’s human rights record. The best way to reduce and eventually eliminate Kurdish extremism is to eliminate the conditions that have won it supporters. That means ending the discrimination against Kurds and the human rights abuses against those who speak out against the Turkish government. Of course, there should be no tolerance of violence, but over-reaction will only magnify the problems.
A more balanced response will deprive the PKK and KFF of the mass support essential to their survival. More important, it will eliminate one of the largest obstacles to Turkey’s EU membership. If the gains from joining the union are shared equally by all Turks, Kurdish grievances will diminish further.
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