North Africa, West Asia

Turkey: repeating past mistakes

Civilian Kurds bear the brunt of Turkey's indiscriminate campaign against the PKK. Only learning from history can finally end the vicious cycle of conflict and bring about a new dawn of peace.

Bashdar Pusho Ismaeel
8 November 2015

With daily violence, punitive curfews and escalating tensions, you would be forgiven for mistaking the current war between the Turkish government and the PKK for that of twenty years ago.

Since the ceasefire was ended in July, hundreds have been killed on both sides with the new rounds of bloodshed. Prospects for peace, which had been seemingly within reach after two years of calm, have all but disappeared.

With each killing from either side, a new score has to be settled; in the end this vicious cycle will continue unabated as it has done for the past three decades.

A contentious curfew in the Kurdish town of Cizre was finally ended, but not before a damaging crisis that will serve to stoke tensions further.

As both sides justify new rounds of violence, innocent civilians are left to suffer. A statement from local authorities thanked residents for their patience over the curfew in Cizre in what they determined as a "successful operation against the terror organisation", but the underlying problem is that residents feel that that they were the targets and not the militants.

The problem in Turkey’s battle against the PKK is that it becomes difficult to distinguish the subjects of the campaign.

For decades, Kurds have been too quickly branded with the PKK brush with thousands becoming stuck between harsh government policies and PKK militant tactics. The government has failed to separate the PKK issue from the overall Kurdish dilemma.

No one can deny that the Kurdish situation has improved a great deal compared to the dark days of the past, with the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, taking many bold and unprecedented steps since the AKP assumed power. But the journey is far from complete and as the peace talks have shown, the implementation of measures has always been greatly constrained by the burden of appeasing nationalist circles.

The Kurdish question and the PKK problem have become intertwined and as witnessed in Cizre, the civilians are the ultimate victims, which only feeds into a brutal cycle.

Turkey needs to grant greater rights and entice the Kurdish population regardless of peace—or lack of it—with the PKK. Only by appeasing Kurdish sentiment will Ankara’s campaign against the PKK ever succeed.

The government has failed to separate the PKK issue from the overall Kurdish dilemma.

The seeds of Kurdish disenchantment and disillusion goes back long before the PKK arrived on the scene. Kurdish-populated areas have long been disenfranchised and impoverished compared to the rest of Turkey. The high percentage of unemployed youths needs jobs and prospects for a brighter future, away from the appeal of militancy.

For now, statement from the Turkish prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, that the militants will be “wiped out from the mountains” lacks a broader perspective.

Under a climate of resentment and animosity, for every rebel that is taken down from the mountains, more are keen to join the mountains and the suffocating cycle continues.

As long as grassroots support remains rife, the insurgency will continue. You can cut off the branches of your problem, but Ankara must finally address the roots. This has been proven with decades of an unsuccessful campaign to eradicate PKK rebels at a cost of billions of dollars each year and thousands of lives.

If sheer military expenditure or military might was a viable solution, this war would have ended decades ago. More importantly, one can only imagine what could have resulted in the Kurdish areas if the billions spent on the war had been spent on the local economy and infrastructure.

Even the rise of the HDP in parliament, the first time a Kurdish party has surpassed the 10 percent election threshold—which could have given the peace initiative a boost—has been quickly tied to the PKK dilemma.

HDP leader Selahattin Demirtaş has been locked in a fierce showdown with Turkish President Erdogan and there is no doubt that HDP’s success at the polls was the ultimate knock-out blow to the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) quest for a majority.

The AKP has tried hard to tie HDP and PKK with the same rope, and the fallout from Cizre served as a heated theme ahead of snap elections on November 1.

Erdogan tried to woo the nationalist vote ahead of the election and at the same time try and stain the credibility of HDP. Every outcry of the HDP against government actions was seen as support for the PKK.

Whilst Kurds still voted in droves for the HDP, Erdogan sought (and succeeded) to dilute their non-Kurdish voter base by positioning HDP as a Kurdish nationalist party linked to the PKK.

At least on paper, the onset of a Kurdish party in parliament could have served as a boost to peace and hastened rapprochement of the south east.

As the doors to the peace process appear firmly shut, Ankara will make a big mistake by equally shutting the Kurdish door. By leaving the Kurdish question merely a ‘terrorism problem’, the only door that remains wide open is that of decades of more conflict.

If the Kurdish question is not addressed, it will continue to prove a detriment to Turkey’s growth, stability and immense potential. This vicious cycle in Turkey must be broken for the sake of future generations.

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