ISTANBUL, TURKEY —
Turkish armed forces and Kurdish fighters are clashing regularly in low-grade firefights in southeastern Turkey, and soldiers are targeting local mules, which the authorities claim are used by Kurdish fighters for lucrative cross-border smuggling.
Last week a Turkish pro-Kurdish lawmaker accused the military of slaughtering many mules after raking a village with gunfire in the Uludere district. The district is a hotbed of cross-border smuggling, the profits of which go to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.
“Many mules were killed when the fire opened,” tweeted Ferhat Encü, a lawmaker with the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). The mule slaughter on June 30 is just one incident in a growing number that is prompting the rage of villagers, who say the mules being culled belong to them and not Kurdish insurgents. They also insist the mules are not used for smuggling across the border with Iraq.
The operation came the day after the local governor reported 13 soldiers were wounded in fire-fights with fighters from the PKK, which has been engaged in off-and-on peace negotiations with Ankara to end a three-decade long insurgency. About 50 mules have been killed since spring around the village of Ortasu in the mountainous southeast.
The area where most of the mule killings have occurred is a highly sensitive. In December 2011 the Turkish air force mounted strikes on a group of smugglers killing 34 of them, as well as 59 mules. Officials claimed the smugglers were PKK militants, but a subsequent government inquiry found that not to be true, but only one officer was disciplined for the incident.
For lawmaker Encü the June 30 operation fits into a pattern established in 2011. "This is the continuation of the war opened against us four years ago,” he told daily newspaper Evrensel. He and other local politicians say the area is becoming a tinderbox and the low-intensity conflict risks flaring into something much larger.
They are calling for the legalization of the cross-border smuggling, which mainly is focused on tobacco and cigarette trafficking. Each mule can make a $1,000 profit for its owner on a single smuggling run from Iraq, where cigarettes are cheaper.
Turkish officials say there has been a significant jump in the smuggling operations with large 200-to-300 mule trains and argue the trafficking is controlled by the PKK in league with crime syndicates. But the smuggling is also a good source income for local villagers who assist. Villagers say the cross-border smuggling is rooted in their history and culture and more often than not they are trading with relatives on the other side of the border.
The intensifying crackdown on border smuggling coincides with heightened tensions between Turks and Kurds.
The peace talks between the PKK and Ankara have seemingly stalled and are unlikely to be rekindled while President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling Development and Justice Party (AKP) is searching for a coalition partner to form a new government. Erdoğan’s Islamist AKP emerged again as the biggest party after the June 7 election, but lost its parliamentary majority needed for one-party government for the first time since 2002.
The most likely partner is the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which wants an end to the peace initiative with the Kurds.
Erdoğan has also been saber-rattling when it comes to the Syrian Kurds and warned last month the United States and Western powers of red lines when it comes to the Kurds and their military advances against Islamic extremists in northern Syria, including a firm position that the Kurds must not threaten the territorial integrity of Syria by seeking an autonomous Kurdish State there.
The dominant Syrian Kurdish party is the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and it is an offshoot of the PKK. Many of the Kurdish field commanders in Syria are from the PKK and not the PYD, say local Kurds, who nickname them “Qandil Kurds” in reference to the Qandil mountains, the PKK sanctuary in northern Iraq that extends 30 kilometers into Turkey and contains the separatist movement’s military training camps.
Following significant battlefield gains last month by Kurdish-led forces against the Islamic extremists in Syria, including the capture of the Arab border town of Tal Abayad from IS militants, Erdoğan vowed Turkey would never accept a Kurdish State in Syria. “I am saying this to the whole world: We will never allow the establishment of a state on our southern border in the north of Syria,” he said. “We will continue our fight in that respect, whatever the cost may be.”
“It is feared that if PYD gains de facto or de jure autonomy, as well as direct arms supplies from the U.S.-led coalition, this would benefit the PKK both politically and militarily,” according to analysts Can Kasapoğlu, Doruk Ergun and Sinan Ulgen of the Ankara-based Center for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies, an independent research organization.
Turkey has mobilized forces on its border with Syria, mainly across from Kurdish-controlled areas, and has strengthened border security with officials leaking to the Turkish media the possibility of military intervention in Syria. But duirng the weekend, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu tamped down speculation by saying there was no immediate prospect of a Turkish incursion south of the border.
But at the weekend Turkish warplanes bombed PKK bases in the Qandil Mountains in northern Iraq. Turkish officials say the raids were preemptive moves, accusing the PKK of getting ready to break a three-year-long ceasefire between the PKK and Ankara, a truce that has been broken several times by both sides. PKK officials deny the claim they plan to break the ceasefire.