Reining in the Army

Seferi Yilmaz was sitting with friends in his bookshop, in the remote mountain town of Semdinli in southeastern Turkey, when the grenade came rolling in. He dived for a back door just in time. The blast blew out the front of the shop and left two dead. There was little doubt that Yilmaz, a former Kurdish rebel who had served 15 years in jail for terrorism, was the intended target. Five Turkish soldiers were killed in rebel attacks around Semdinli over the last six months, and anonymous leaflets threatening revenge had been circulating in the town. On Nov. 1, a mysterious bomb blast downtown wrecked several shops and houses and injured dozens. The question was, who wanted Seferi Yilmaz dead?

The answer has shocked Turkey--and touched off a scandal that could rock the country's powerful security forces to the core. A crowd of townspeople caught four apparent perpetrators as they ran from Yilmaz's devastated shop and made a fair attempt at beating them to death. According to eyewitnesses, one of the fugitives shot dead a member of the mob before they were rescued by police. The shooter turned out to be Ali Kaya, a 32-year-old sergeant from the intelligence service of Turkey's Gendarmerie, or paramilitary police. An apparent accomplice was Veysel Ates, a police informer and former member of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK. The Renault 19 the men had used was registered to Gendarmerie intelligence and contained Kalashnikovs and explosives. Most incriminating, police found an official Gendarmerie watch list of 105 "suspicious" locals with some of their names and addresses--including Yilmaz's--marked with red ink.

News that members of the Turkish military had apparently been caught red-handed in a vigilante attack against Kurds set the region ablaze. Riots broke out through the week amid fears that the scandal would be hushed up by the authorities, like so many allegations of torture and extra-judicial killings by security forces in the 1980s and '90s. In fact, this time things may turn out differently. Europe's eyes are on Turkey as it starts negotiations to join the European Union. Encouraged by Brussels, Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has slowly but surely been edging the military out of politics. The Semdinli incident could be just what he needs to decisively complete the job. Erdogan was quick to promise no cover-up. "Those who breach the peace, whoever they are, will pay the price," he declared. Parliamentarians from all parties called for official inquiries. Most surprising was the reaction of Gen. Hilmi Ozkok, chief of the general staff. Sensing the magnitude of the gathering scandal, Ozkok made no attempt to protect his men: "I neither blame nor defend our personnel for this. We trust the judiciary."

Evidence that the Semdinli bombers were acting on orders from above could put Erdogan on a collision course with what Turks call the Deep State--a shady alliance of nationalist officers, bureaucrats and judges who consider themselves the true guardians of Turkey's interests. The outcome of such a clash would be profoundly unpredictable. "It will be a real test of civil society," says one senior European diplomat in Ankara, who agreed to speak only off the record. "Either the Army is brought inside the law or it is not."

A housecleaning within the security forces will not in itself suffice. For the cycle of violence between Kurdish radicals and the military to be truly broken, the country's estimated 14 million Kurds and their leaders must embrace moderation too. Last week Kurdish politicians called for calm. Diyarbakir's Mayor Osman Baydemir addressed crowds in Kurdish, which would have been a criminal offense just five years ago but is now legal thanks to a raft of freedom-of-speech reforms pushed through by Erdogan. "The people of Semdinli have given Turkey the possibility of a bright future," he said. "We must use this bitter opportunity."

Despite last week's violence, most Kurds resisted radicals' calls for a "rebellion." There seems to be little desire to return to the bad old days of the Kurdish insurgency, which between 1984 and 1999 left 35,000 dead and whole swaths of the southeast economically devastated. "What we need is not revolution, not independence, but simple rights," says Selattin Demirtas, a human-rights lawyer in Diyarbakir. With a bit of political boldness on the part of Ankara and the Kurds' own leaders, they might just get them.