The 7.2-magnitude earthquake that struck Turkey, which has killed already killed at least 279 people, occurred in the Kurdish-dominated southeastern part of the country – an area that has seen an escalation in hostilities between the Turkish government and Kurd nationalists seeking autonomy from Ankara.
While the humanitarian tragedy arising from the quake will not occupy the hearts, minds and bodies of the local population – the longer-term struggle between Kurds and Turks will likely not abate.
International Business Times spoke to an expert on the region to assess his views on the current scenario in Turkey and its restless Kurdish minority.
Dilshod Achilov is a professor of political science at East Tennessee State University, in Johnson City, Tenn.
IBTIMES: Why has the armed hostility between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) escalated in recent months? I thought both sides agreed to lay down arms at some point earlier.
ACHILOV: I do not think that the PKK will lay down its arms in the near future -- and Ankara knows this as well. Even more than the Turkish military, the PKK is afraid of social and political changes and reforms, which would grant greater rights to ethnic Kurds.
The PKK seems to be acting in urgency to disrupt these reforms at all costs.
During the past month of Ramadan, (the holy month in Islam which prohibits fighting), the PKK attacked multiple military and civilian installations and claimed many lives. Despite Ramadan, the Turkish government responded by heavy air assault on PKK camps located in northern Iraq (a safe haven of the PKK) near the Turkish border.
The PKK suffered heavy casualties and vowed to avenge.
In the past few weeks, the PKK has focused its attacks on Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) as well as on peaceful civilians. Ankara now finds itself in the decisive stage on how to address PKK militancy.
IBTIMES: The recent killing of more than two dozen Turkish soldiers by PKK fighters – was that a pivotal moment in this endless war?
ACHILOV: Yes, I believe it is. Turkey may be at a critical juncture in its history.
The killing of the TSK soldiers was devastating, which overflowed the cup of patience. Turkey’s government has realized once more that diplomacy, or a possible peaceful resolution to this conflict, has failed to deliver peace.
We should expect to see a change of tactics by Ankara in engaging PKK. Moreover, we should expect to see extended military operations both inside and outside Turkey (extending to northern Iraq).
Turkey has never seemed as committed to destroy the PKK separatist-terrorist organization as it does now. I think Turkey will utilize all its resources to neutralize PKK operations in northern Iraq at any cost.
Nevertheless, I do not think that the military engagement alone will succeed in eradicating the PKK. They will still have to win the hearts and minds of Kurdish youth and convince them to go to school rather than join the PKK.
The solution rests in integrating the Kurdish voice into a strong multi-ethnic, civil society. Turkey’s new constitution will probably be the major stepping-stone towards this goal.
IBTIMES: Iran also faces an insurgency by Kurds.
ACHILOV: Yes, keep in mind that last July, a very similar comprehensive military assault was launched by Iran against The Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK) -- a militant Marxist Kurdish nationalist organization and a sister party of the PKK, which has long been attacking western Iran.
The Iranian military acted decisively and won a major victory against PJAK – whereby a large number of PJAK camps and hideouts were destroyed.
Right now, Turkey and Iran are apparently working together to fight both PKK and PJAK. Yet, we can hardly call this as a “genuine cooperation” between Iran and Turkey since both sides have their own strategic ambitions.
IBTIMES: The Turkish public is demanding action against the PKK – what will Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan do now? Give up negotiations with Kurdish nationalists?
ACHILOV: I think we should expect to see a more committed military engagement that will extend beyond the Turkish border. It may boil down to a familiar rhetoric used by George W. Bush –“Either you are with us or with terrorist” in the war against terror. I think Turkey will seek broader measures to fight PKK. Using sophisticated drone attacks, which proved to be highly effective for the U.S. military (in Afghanistan and Pakistan), will be utilized more extensively.
In fact, Erdogan specifically asked for Predator drones from President Obama during their meeting in New York last September.
In addition, Turkey will seriously consider reforming its military. Adopting paid military service (professional army), and curbing mandatory military service (drafting), will probably get more traction in months to come.
IBTIMES: Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, has been making threats of launching a “big war” against the Turkish state unless they start to negotiate with him on ending the insurgency. Can Ocalan still dictate PKK policy from jail? How can he possibly direct the action of fighters who are hiding hundreds of miles away in the mountains of Iraq?
ACHILOV: I do not think that Ocalan is directing PKK operations from his jail cell -- but he can still get his messages out, through his lawyers for instance. Ocalan is more of an inspirational symbol for the PKK and its sympathizers than an operational brain for the network.
In a real sense, Ocalan has very limited powers or control over PKK actions in this context.
IBTIMES: What portion of Kurds in Turkey support the PKK?
ACHILOV: We need to distinguish between the following three important domains of the Kurdish problem in Turkey: (1) Turkish-Kurdish relations, (2) PKK-Kurdish relations, and (3) Turkish-PKK relations.
The media often mixes and confuses the PKK-Turkish relationship with the Turkish-Kurdish dilemma. They are not the same.
There is an evident Kurdish problem in Turkey, which demands attention. For many years, the Kurdish minority was denied a voice in Turkey, thanks to the 1980 military coup-sponsored constitution and widespread abuse by security forces in southeast Turkey, which brewed a lot of discontent and conflict over many years.
Nevertheless, since 2000, the social and political polices of Ankara started to shift in the proper direction in terms of giving more basic civil and political rights to Kurds. The most recent European Union (EU) report and a report by U.S. State Department on Human Rights both praised Turkey for its efforts to expand civil liberties in the country.
Yet, there is a lot more to be done in this domain.
IBTIMES: There is thus a clear distinction to be made between the PKK and the ordinary Kurd.
ACHILOV: Yes, the PKK-Kurdish relations need to be evaluated separately from larger Kurdish issue in Turkey. There is an apparent problem involving Kurdish minority rights, integration and re-conciliation in the country. I think the new constitution, which is now in the works, will fundamentally address the outstanding Kurdish issue.
However, the PKK does not fully represent the Kurds in the country. The Marxists ideology of PKK is in direct conflict with the highly conservative (religious) Kurdish minority. Moreover, the PKK is notorious for kidnapping young Kurds and forcing them to become fighters against the Turkish government.
Indeed, in early October, the PKK killed three Kurdish girls, between the ages of 16-18, which prompted an outrage among the Kurdish population in Turkey.
Even though the idea of Kurdistan (a Kurdish homeland) may resonate with ethnic Kurds, the vast majority of Kurdish people largely detest the tactics, strategies and agnostic ideology of PKK.
Furthermore, when we look at the demographics reports on PKK casualties, we find that at least 60 percent to 70 percent of PKK fighters are not from Turkey. Most are Iranian- and Syrian-born Kurdish fighters. This suggests that the PKK has been losing support from Turkish-born Kurdish nationalists.
Meanwhile, the new constitution in Turkey is expected to replace the coup-sponsored constitution of 1980 by extending minority rights in the country.
There is very little doubt that the PKK is targeting this new change in particular. The PKK knows well that if the new constitution passes, it will lose the ability to recruit new members in the long run.
Ironically, the PKK wants the political marginalization of Kurds to continue so that it can serve its ideology to recruit new members and attack the Turkish government.
IBTIMES: Are Ocalan and the PKK still popular among the Kurdish Diaspora?
ACHILOV: There is a significant portion of Kurdish youth, primarily in the southeastern Turkey, who sympathize with Ocalan and PKK fighters. But the level of sympathy has been decreasing in the recent years.
But we still see riots in different parts of the country on his birthday. The level of support is nowhere near as it used to be. Still, the PKK is relatively strong and alive.
While the PKK still has a base of support among ethnic Kurds, the number of recruits has plummeted in recent years. It is also important to highlight that numerous Kurdish civil society organizations condemned the recent killings of the Turkish soldiers.
IBTIMES: Ocalan was originally facing a death sentence -- but Turkey later commuted that to life imprisonment. Why did they do this? Because of EU pressure? Or did they want to prevent Ocalan from becoming a “martyr” and perhaps spurring more attacks by the PKK?
ACHILOV: A death sentence on Ocalan would jeopardize Turkey’s bid to join the EU. The Turkish government was also under pressure from the families of victims slain by PKK to carry out the death sentence.
At the same time, the killing of Ocalan would have spurred a wave of violence and further attacks as well.
Even though the EU bid was the principal reason, pragmatically, Turkey would gain more by keeping Ocalan alive in its war against the PKK.
IBTIMES: Does the Turkish government have any direct talks with Ocalan?
ACHILOV: Ocalan is in custody and it is normal for Turkish officials to interrogate him often on many issues and occasions. The government officials are not vocal in their handling of Ocalan (and would like to keep this a low profile – away from public discourse), however, because it is a very sensitive issue given that the families of slain victim’s still demand the death sentence. And this call for Ocalan’s execution is often renewed at the news of more deaths perpetrated by the PKK.
IBTIMES: What impact will the PKK recent offensive have on the mainstream Kurdish political parties in Turkey?
ACHILOV: The Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) is known to be under the substantial influence of the PKK. Indeed, after news of the killings of Turkish troops by the PKK, the BPD did not immediately issue a condemnation on PKK’s violence.
In response, Turkey’s nationalist MHP party condemned BPD for its silence. This incident was a major setback for BDP.
In addition, last week, Turkish police discovered dozens of ready-to-use Molotov Cocktails, widely used in anti-government protests, inside BDP offices. I think we should expect to see tougher governmental scrutiny of BDP members and investigations of the possible links of BDP members with the militant PKK.
The BDP will have to prove that it is genuinely on the side of peace and non-violence in solving the Turkish-Kurdish dilemma.
IBTIMES: What role, if any, does Russia play in the Turkish-Kurd conflict?
ACHILOV: It is hard to tell. Overall, Russia is interested in keeping good relations with Turkey. Travel visas were mutually lifted by both countries to boost trade, tourism and investment. I don’t think that Russia would risk harming its relations with Turkey.
However, we know that the PKK received significant volumes of Russian arms -- AK-47s to rocket-propelled grenades. This does not necessarily mean that Russians are behind the PKK -- the black market for arms is a complex web of underground networks, which is not quite simple to decode.
Syria, on the other hand, could well be seeking out to assist the PKK in order to penalize Ankara for its harsh stance against Damascus during the ongoing revolt against Bashar al-Assad.
Syria has a proven record of PKK collaboration against Turkey. Ankara is probably more wary of Syrian meddling than Russian involvement.
IBTIMES: What impact, if any, might the earthquake have on Turkish-Kurd relations?
ACHILOV: The earthquake was a big tragedy for Turkish people. At the same time, the earthquake in Van, the largest city for the Kurdish minority, was a call for solidarity. The whole country mobilized to ease the pains of Van and speed up the rescue operations. This event, albeit very sad, perhaps could be a time for a reflection to deepen the roots of solidarity and unity in the country.
The tragedy of this scale could help unite people against terror and violence. Social mobilization, especially by Kurds, against terror will be key to win this war.