Accessibility links

Breaking News

Turkey Takes on the P.K.K.


Turkey has escalated security operations against the Kurdistan Worker's Party, or P.K.K., in the face of that separatist group's attacks.

Turkey, especially its southeastern region, is dotted with the rubble of conflict between government forces and the separatist Kurdistan Worker's Party, or P.K.K., which Turkey and the United States consider to be a terrorist group. The violence began in 1984 and has since claimed at least 30,000 lives. Recently, the Turkish government has escalated its security operations in an effort to crush the P.K.K. But so far, the insurgents continue to fight back.

This year, the clash between the group and government forces rose sharply in March, when funerals for insurgents in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir led to anti-government demonstrations. Security forces responded, killing three civilians and further inflaming regional anger.

Turkey-Iraq Border Security

Ankara now has more than 200-thousand troops along its border with Iraq and elsewhere in the southeast to counter the P.K.K., a contingent larger than all of the U.S. forces now in Iraq. Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul says Ankara's troops are trying to prevent P.K.K. insurgents from using the mountains of northern Iraq as a base from which to attack Turkey.

In Istanbul, Turkish political commentator Cengis Candar says border security is only one of Ankara's objectives. "This is how the government legitimizes its troop buildup in the southeast. It has, of course, a very strong element of intimidation - - to deter any kind of opinion that through violence, the 'Kurdish question' can be addressed in a better way," says Candar.

What is often called the "Kurdish question" is that ethnic group's struggle for cultural recognition and greater political participation, and the Turkish state's response to those demands.

In Washington, Kurdish Human Rights Watch Director Pary Karadaghi says there are long-standing problems in southeastern Turkey that the P.K.K. uses to gain a measure of sympathy for its attacks. "From Diyarbakir to the Iraqi-Turkish border, we see a lot of poverty. We don't see economic development. We don't see jobs. We don't see health clinics. You do see the [government] roadblocks. You see how many times the cars are stopped and the people are frisked [i.e., searched] and I.D.'s are requested. You know, the kinds of things you see in southeastern Turkey, you don't see elsewhere [in the country]," says Karadaghi.

Parliamentary Treshold

When the P.K.K. ended its five-year cease-fire in June 2004, part of that group split away to promote political action to advance the Kurdish agenda, instead of going back to violence. But for years, Turkey has held that a political party has to get at least 10 percent of the vote nationally to hold seats in parliament.

Analyst Fadi Hakura, at the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London, says Ankara set that high threshold to encourage unity. "The Turkish state is very much worried about factionalism, separatism and division. They wish to promote cohesion within the country. So they have this rule to try to promote stability, especially in the national parliament," says Hakura.

In Ankara, Nazmi Gur, Vice Chairman of the Democratic Society Party, says the 10 percent threshold effectively prevents his and other small political movements from having a hand in governance. "We have got more than 50 percent of the vote from the southeast. Totally, [though], we have 6.22 percent of the vote nationally. But just because of this national threshold, we couldn't get seats in the parliament," says Gur.

Since Turkey and the European Union have begun discussions regarding Ankara's possible membership, Turkey has said that it will restudy the 10 percent parliamentary threshold, perhaps lowering it to allow direct representation by smaller parties.

A Political Solution

Some observers say Turkey should look to the example of Northern Ireland and how decades of violence by the Irish Republican Army was essentially ended by the 1998 Belfast or "Good Friday" agreement. That pact opened up Northern Ireland's government to political factions that had never shared governance before.

Turkish commentator Cengis Candar says there has to be a similar gesture by Ankara. “The discourse is quite different from what we have with the Irish question, but there has to be a political solution to be found involving the Kurds in the political process. And one has to be innovative, creative, and flexible," says Candar.

Since the founding of the Turkish state in 1920, the military has served as the underpinning of the government. Typically, no major policy decisions are made in Ankara without the military's input.

Fadi Hakura, at the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London, says that despite the Turkish military's long record of using force to address problems, it now agrees that there has to be a better way, so long as the state itself isn't threatened. "The Turkish military does recognize and has stated very clearly that a political solution has to be found to this problem. [But] what the Turkish military is worried about is instability, to maintain the territorial integrity and cohesion of Turkey and law and order," says Hakura.

While a political solution is seen as a better way to resolve the conflict, military force in the face of insurgent violence is still today's reality, and it has complications. Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul says his forces should be able to cross the Iraqi border, if necessary, to pursue the P.K.K. That has prompted a strong reaction from Iraq's President, Jalal Talabani, who says Iraq, not other countries, will control its border.

Meanwhile, Turkey and Iran have been discussing the P.K.K. problem both countries face, a move Kurds throughout the region are watching warily. Many observers say the U.S. - led coalition in Iraq, which has enjoyed relative calm in the Kurdish-dominated north, may wind up in a new field of conflict if Turkey's effort to quell the P.K.K. insurgency spills across its borders.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.