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Turkey Seen Taking Harder Stance Against Militant Kurds

FILE - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
FILE - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to be taking an increasingly hard line toward militant Kurds with continued strikes against PKK military bases in Turkey. That stance comes as the president is being seen as moving closer to his generals.

The Turkish army has launched several raids against bases of the Kurdish rebel group the PKK. Skirmishes have also been reported between the rebels and army, although no casualties are reported.

Meanwhile, the government and the PKK continue a peace process to end the three-decade insurgency. But with a general election due in June, political scientist Cengiz Aktar of Istanbul’s Suleyman Sah University said the crackdown could be an election ploy.

"They think that by minimizing the peace process they are creating music to the ears of the nationalist, anti-Kurdish voters. The government has one and only agenda; it is about the safety of the security of the party and president," said Aktar.

FILE - Rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party [PKK] are seen in Turkey near the border with Iraq, May 2013.
FILE - Rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party [PKK] are seen in Turkey near the border with Iraq, May 2013.

Earlier this month during Kurdish new year celebrations, a letter from imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan declared the armed struggle was obsolete, but he disappointed the government by failing to give a date for disarmament.

Since then, President Erdogan caused further anger among Kurds by declaring there is no longer a Kurdish problem, and no further concessions would be made until the PKK disarmed.

International relations expert Soli Ozel of Istanbul Kadir Has University said the hardening stance of the president, even as an election ploy, was a risky strategy.

"I do not know whether or not it would be good for him. Because at the end of the day he is responsible for everything in the country. If he brings the country back to the brink of armed conflict, I am not sure that this is necessarily going to be seen as good even by his own constituencies," said Ozel.

The leader of Turkey’s main pro-Kurdish HDP party, Selahattin Demirtas, has accused the president of trying to provoke the Kurdish movement into conflict, but said there would be no return to fighting.

Demirtas is trying to break through the 10 percent election threshold and enter parliament. Political columnist Asli Aydintasbas of Turkey’s Milliyet newspaper predicted the president’s rhetoric would subside after the general election.

"Erdogan always tends to be more nationalistic before elections and more compromising after elections. He is a very clever politician and he also probably sees that [ruling party] AKP voters are slightly in decline," said Aydintasbas.

Some analysts said Erdogan’s increasingly nationalist stance coincided with a growing alignment with his generals. For more than a year, the president has looked to support from the military and nationalists in his battle against followers of his former ally, Islamic cleric Fetullah Gulen.

Earlier this month, Erdogan apologized to senior army commanders for the prosecution and imprisonment of hundreds of serving and retired officers for trying to overthrow him and his government.

Tuesday saw a Turkish court overturn the conviction of more than 200 people, many former military officers for coup plotting.

Analyst Ozel said turning to the army could be a sign of the president's growing political isolation.

"He has burned all his other bridges so he has got to find some allies, whether or not the military bought what he said, I do not know...He has deserted everybody else and everybody else has deserted him," he said.

Analysts said whether the president’s aligning himself with the army, along with an increasing nationalist stance was just an electoral ploy or whether it was a strategic change, could be key to defining the political direction of the country.