Is Turkey Winning Over the Kurds?

Turkey's military appeared to be poised for war. Responding to a surge in Kurdish separatist attacks launched from northern Iraq, Turkish troops massed on the border—while commandos reportedly staged hot-pursuit raids inside Iraq itself. At the same time, though, inside Turkey the Army was trying a very different tactic—an unprecedented bid for hearts and minds that may end up doing more to end Kurdish violence than brute military force.

What a difference a year makes. Last May, the cities of Turkey's southeast were convulsed by bloody riots as ethnic Kurds vented their anger at discrimination, poverty and police brutality. Last week the streets of Sirnak and Diyarbakir were again full of demonstrators, many of them Kurds. But this time they were protesting not against the government, but against the very group that claims to fight for their rights—the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK. Turkish authorities sanctioned the rallies, where speakers denounced the PKK's latest terrorist attacks in Kurdish, a language once banned by those same, fiercely nationalist authorities. Most surprising of all, the protests were encouraged by the most hawkish institution in the country—the Turkish Army, which on the eve of the rallies called on all citizens "to demonstrate their collective opposition against the terrorist attacks."

The turnabout seemed to have a rapid impact. Last week the PKK abruptly announced a ceasefire in the wake of nationwide protests by Turks and Kurds alike against its latest campaign of violence. Previous ceasefires have crumbled. But this one could last—particularly if Turkey's politically powerful military turns a new leaf by engaging the Kurds, rather than simply by concentrating on killing off Kurdish terrorists. "Turning grass-roots people against terror is the key," says one senior EU diplomat in Ankara, who is not authorized to speak on the record. "It happened in Spain in 2000, when the people turned out en masse against [the Basque terrorist group] ETA. It could happen here."

This is a dramatic about-face for the Turkish military, which is better known for heavy-handed tactics like destroying more than 3,000 villages and forcibly displacing nearly 400,000 people during the 25-year Kurdish insurgency. Yet clearly, at least some in the military now recognize that Kurds can be allies in the war on terror, and not just an untrustworthy fifth column. "Terror organizations fear democratization," says Ihsan Bal of the Ankara-based International Strategic Research Organization, citing a sharp fall in attacks after reforms granting Kurds more cultural rights.

At the same time, old habits die hard. Many in the military remain deeply suspicious of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan—not just because of his Islamist past, but because of fears that his Brussels-backed reforms have only encouraged Kurdish hopes of independence. By allowing Kurds to teach and broadcast in their own language, hard-liners fear, Erdogan has conceded that Turkey's 14 million Kurds belong to a different culture—which the hard-liners see as a first step to separatism.

How to deal with the PKK's latest campaign of bombings and ambushes has also become a political football in the run-up to early elections next month. Opposition parties have accused Erdogan of being soft on terror for refusing to sanction a military incursion to whack PKK bases in northern Iraq. A top general has hinted that the solidly secular military agrees, perhaps angling to undermine the Islamist's election chances. Meanwhile, many officers recognize the PKK problem can only be solved by smart policies inside Turkey, not by foreign adventures. In the end, though, it will be loss of popular support, not military action, that will finish off the remnants of the PKK.

Support for the PKK and its radical separatist line has been slipping for years. If Ankara can mobilize moderate Kurds behind an anti-terror movement like that of the Basque country, it will put the rebels on the run.