ISTANBUL, Turkey — A long and brutal fight between Turkey and Kurdish separatist fighters has erupted in a spate of violence that has claimed the lives of 15 Kurdish soldiers within the last five days.
And many observers here fear that the renewed killing has derailed an effort toward reconciliation and a democratic opening for Kurdish leadership.
The conflict, which has unfolded through a bloody quarter century and claimed the lives of 40,000 soldiers, guerrillas and civilians, had become relatively dormant in recent years. As part of Turkish efforts to enter the European Union, the government lifted its ban on the Kurdish language being spoken or sung in public settings and inaugurated a Kurdish-language TV station.
But in the last week, the fighting has suddenly and dramatically erupted in a new cycle of violence. A minivan bombing that killed three soldiers and two others on Tuesday in Istanbul was the first fatal attack in the city since 2008 and it raises the specter that the conflict could return to the cities.
Turkish newspapers and television have run saturation coverage of the grieving families of those killed in recent days.
Responding to public outrage, the Turkish government launched a campaign against PKK rebels based out of northern Iraq on Monday.
The largest loss of life occurred at a border unit assaulted by around 250 Kurdish guerrillas infiltrating from mountain bases inside Iraq. Nine soldiers, some of them inexperienced teenagers doing their national service, were killed in the nighttime attack. A land mine and a separate assault in another eastern province killed three more soldiers.
“The government promised a lot for its democratic opening and did nothing,” said Shamil Altan, a political activist for the BDP. “Nobody talked with us or with the Kurds.”
The governing AK party’s outreach has flagged after a vigorous media reaction last October to a video that showed deserting PKK fighters from Iraq being greeted as heroes in the predominantly Kurdish southeast.
Although the AK party has made enormous headway in attracting support among Kurdish voters, the outreach had come under mounting criticism by the opposition MHP party and increasingly morphed into political risk for a government headed into elections later this year.
“For months now they are promising and doing nothing,” Altan said. “On the contrary, they started attacking our BDP cadres and thousands of people in military operations.”
The idea was to offer more civil rights to Turkey’s estimated 14 million Kurds and a greater sense of entitlement in a country where they have been discriminated against for decades. When the PKK was founded in the late 1970s, it intended to create a socialist state across Kurdish-settled territories in present-day Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey.
“Remember the prime minister said ‘one minute’ [to the Israeli president for killing Palestinians],” said Emine Ayna, a deputy of the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). “We have been saying ‘one minute’ to the prime minister for the killing of Kurdish people with Israeli guns and bombs for a long time.”
Erdogan turned to more confrontational rhetoric Sunday at a ceremony for the dead soldiers, promising that the PKK will “melt in their own darkness, dry up in their own swamps, drown in their own blood.”
Hundreds of commandos, infantry and mechanized divisions are being deployed on the Turkish-Iraqi border after an emergency national security meeting Monday that Erdogan attended.
“The Turkish nation knows very well on whose behalf the terrorist organization works as a subcontractor,” he said in a veiled reference to Israel.
He was joining a slew of politicians and military personnel who have publicly speculated that the Israeli intelligence service Mossad has sponsored PKK attacks on the Turkish military as a way of upping the ante since the Gaza flotilla incident.
“Whenever Turkey has a say in the international community, whenever we fly high, some circles take action to bring trouble to Turkey and disturb peace and calm,” said AKP Deputy Chairman Huseyin Celik. “These could be orchestrated international powers or their subcontractors in Turkey.”
On the day of the botched Israeli commando raid on the Gaza flotilla — in which nine Turkish citizens died — seven Turkish soldiers were killed in a PKK attack on a naval base in the Mediterranean city of Iskenderun.
“The PKK may be thinking that the U.S. and especially Israel will understand, welcome and, in Israel's case, even support anything that creates trouble for Turkey, Erdogan and the AKP,” said Bahadir Koc, a researcher at the 21st Century Turkey Institute in Ankara. “They know that Turkey is not yet ready for their demands, hence the need for them to inflict a little more pain.”
With attacks expected to mount in the coming weeks, Turks are bracing themselves for a long hot summer of military action.
“Will we see large scale civil disobedience by the Kurds and will the PKK strike civilian targets in the West?” Koc asked. “Both are more than likely.”
The Turkish military will boost its intelligence collaboration with the U.S., press into service the surveillance airplanes it purchased from Israel and may order several more attack helicopters. U.S. Ambassador to Ankara James Jeffrey stated that Washington is “ready to review urgently any new requests from the Turkish military or government regarding the PKK.”
Some are doubtful whether the solution can be military.
“There will be a cross-border operation which will be satisfied with a meaningless air operation in which they will destroy already deserted buildings and a cosmetic limited land operation,” Koc said.