The cycle of attack and retaliation has become depressingly familiar: Kurdish guerrillas kill Turkish soldiers in a hit-and-run raid. Politicians express outrage and vow vengeance as patriotic Turks fly flags of solidarity to commemorate the dead from every window and car. Fighter jets, gunships, and commandos stream over Turkey’s southern border to hit the bases of the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, in the mountains of northern Iraq.
In October the PKK killed 24 Turkish soldiers in a series of coordinated ambushes, and the old pattern kicked into action. But this time there was an important difference—and it wasn’t just the scale of the attacks, which marked the biggest one-day loss to the Turkish security forces since 1993. Rather, the real difference was that a historic attempt by the government to reset relations with Turkey’s estimated 20 million Kurds has failed. That made these recent attacks the opening shots in a vicious new round of the country’s 35-year-old near–civil war.
In 2009 Turkey’s veteran Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan put his political neck on the line by reaching out to rebel Kurds, offering an amnesty to those who would come down from the mountains and hand themselves in. In Diyarbakir, the capital of the Kurdish-dominated southeast of Turkey, Erdogan promised to tear down the old jail—notorious for torture—and promised Kurds a new constitution that would “open the door to further change.” In 2010 secret talks were reportedly held on conditions for a permanent ceasefire with PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, jailed since 1999 in an island prison in the Sea of Marmara. Hopes were high that the decades-long conflict in the southeast could finally be defused.
A year later, instead of a reset, there’s a train wreck. Over the last four months, Erdogan’s “Kurdish opening” has been steadily dismantled piece by piece by Turkey’s judiciary, by the PKK, and even by Erdogan himself. In the run-up to a general election this June, Erdogan—playing for ultranationalist votes—said that if he’d been in power when Öcalan was captured, he would have had him hanged. Turkish judges, known for their hardline views, jailed a series of Kurdish activists, including a mayor who provided municipal services in the Kurdish language (still banned for government communications) and an editor who was sentenced to 166 years for supporting Öcalan in his newspaper. PKK returnees were jailed for terrorism in defiance of a government amnesty. Finally, despite an unusually strong showing by pro-Kurdish parties in elections, courts stripped a Kurdish M.P. of his parliamentary seat on a technicality—and then, to add insult to injury, allocated it to Erdogan’s ruling AK Party. As a result, Kurdish M.P.s boycotted Parliament and announced a campaign for greater powers for local government—an initiative they call “democratic autonomy.” Autonomy was, of course, exactly what Erdogan’s original outreach was supposed to avoid. And in the wake of the latest attacks, Turkish police further alienated Kurdish opinion by arresting 44 prominent Kurdish intellectuals in a probe into the PKK’s political wing.
Derailing the peace process is exactly what the old-school, Moscow-trained Marxist revolutionaries who run the PKK want. Since early summer, the PKK has been in an all-out war with the Turkish Army. Shootings, bombings, and ambushes have become a weekly occurrence, leaving at least 55 Turkish soldiers dead since June. And the Turkish military and public have risen to meet the challenge, just as the PKK intended. In the wake of October’s shootings, hundreds of thousands of Turks rallied against the PKK across central and western Turkey, calling for “martyrs’ blood to be avenged.”
With public anger running so high and hardliners on both sides intoxicated by the upsurge of violence, it’s clear that Erdogan’s Kurdish opening is dead in the water. Last year Kurdish moderates like Diyarbakir Mayor Osman Baydemir dared to speak out against the PKK, saying that “the time for armed struggle is over.” Öcalan, speaking through his lawyers, told him to shut up or “the youth will rip your mouth apart.” At the same time, the only thing the PKK has been able to come up with by way of new ideology is a charter for its latest political incarnation, the “Kurdish Communities Union,” which talks of “village communes” guided by the will of Öcalan, “our ultimate decision maker.” It’s not far from the notorious “village communism” of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge.
Yet even though the PKK has left 40,000 dead over 35 bloody years and forced the depopulation of millions of villagers into the cities, there’s little sign that its support is petering out. Europe’s other separatist terror movements—the Basque ETA, the Irish Republican Army—went out of business after the majority of the local population grew revolted by years of senseless bloodshed. In southeast Turkey, on the contrary, there have been massive demonstrations in support of the PKK, not against it. PKK fighters who took advantage of the amnesty offer were welcomed last year as heroes by cheering crowds tens of thousands strong. The PKK makes sure that its “support” remains strong by ruthlessly punishing those who speak out against it, or who refuse to pay protection money. In September, for instance, PKK sympathizers threw a Molotov cocktail at a street vendor in Nusaybin, setting the man on fire. In Tunisia, a street vendor who set himself on fire tipped off a revolution; in Turkey, it’s the would-be revolutionaries who do the burning to suppress dissent.
One doesn’t have to look far for clues as to what the PKK—or the government, for that matter—will do next. During the last upsurge of PKK violence five years ago, bombers targeted civilians in Istanbul and in tourist centers. The chief of Turkey’s General Staff warned recently that the PKK “is shifting to urban terrorism as part of a plan to take over state authority.” He’s clearly planning to use the renewal of violence to claw back some of the Army’s tattered prestige, rocked by the arrest of more than 120 former and serving officers on charges of ordering extrajudicial executions, planning coups, and plotting to destabilize the government. He called on Turks “to preserve the indivisible unity of the Turkish state and the nation” by “paying attention to the morale of the security forces.” Decoded, that means: lay off criticizing the military. Having spent nearly a decade cutting the political power of the Army down to size, Erdogan faces the prospect of the military retaking the initiative on a wave of patriotic fervor.
In short, everyone’s a loser—except the PKK, which has successfully sabotaged Erdogan’s attempt to bring moderates to the fore and end Öcalan’s monopoly as sole champion of Kurdish rights. In part, that’s Erdogan’s fault for taking cheap political anti-Öcalan shots rather than sticking to his brave new initiative. But mostly it shows the power that a group of well-organized revolutionaries can still exercise on a traditional, poor society with a strong martyr culture and an all-consuming sense of grievance. And small wonder, given the broken promises from the government on everything from amnesty to greater representation in Parliament. It’s not until Ankara succeeds in convincing Turkey’s Kurdish underclass that they’re better off believing the government’s promises over the PKK’s that the vicious cycle will ever be broken.