ISTANBUL/ANKARA (Reuters) - A spate of killings, a looming general election and war next door in Syria are complicating efforts to end the 30-year Kurdish insurgency in Turkey just as a breakthrough in peace talks looks close.
Jailed militant leader Abdullah Ocalan may call an end to his Kurdistan Workers Party’s (PKK) armed struggle in Turkey by March, some close to the process say. But some also say unrest in the mainly Kurdish southeast suggests the PKK is flexing its muscles as it looks to stamp its authority in the region.
Four months after broad-based, deadly riots that were provoked by Kurds’ anger at Ankara’s reluctance to help defend their kin in Syria, fresh unrest has broken out in the town of Cizre near the Syrian and Iraqi frontiers between security forces, PKK supporters and Kurdish Islamists. A 12-year-old boy shot dead in the street last week was the sixth person killed.
The violence has added pressure on EU candidate Turkey to speed up peace talks, launched with Ocalan more than two years ago to end a conflict which has killed 40,000 people, stunted development in one of Turkey’s poorest regions and undermined its democratic progress and human rights record.
“I think there will be a positive statement in the spring but the government is moving slowly. This slowness has annoyed people,” Huseyin Yayman, a professor at Ankara’s Gazi University who recently visited Cizre, told Reuters.
“The government is behaving like this both because an election is coming and it fears Turkey’s division,” he said.
As in the worst days of violence in the 1990s, Cizre locals are rushing home before nightfall. Surveillance cameras have been destroyed and ditches dug around districts to keep out security forces.
Yayman described the town as a pilot project for PKK plans to create zones under its authority in southeast Turkey along the lines of the “cantons” which its close ally, the PYD, has forged in northern Syria.
Turkey’s army is worried that the peace process has strengthened the PKK, while Islamist Kurds are using the unrest to push for their own role in the talks, Yayman said.
Deputy Prime Minister Yalcin Akdogan, a key figure in the process, is upbeat. “The light at the end of the tunnel can be seen more than ever,” he said in an interview last week.
Ocalan, jailed on the island of Imrali south of Istanbul since 1999, also appears as committed as ever to the process.
But PKK commanders at bases in the mountains of northern Iraq remain hawkish. They described violence in Cizre as “state terror” and dismissed Ankara’s “fake and two-faced policy”.
“No attack in Kurdistan can remain unanswered. Our people must respond against every attack, developing their self-defense and legitimate and democratic right to resist,” they said in a statement after the killing of the boy.
Even a major figure close to the peace process, co-leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) Selahattin Demirtas, told CNN Turk on Sunday it was unrealistic to expect a deal with this government “even if you negotiated for 50 years”.
The latest violence has revived memories of the riots in October which killed dozens and nearly scuppered the peace process as Kurds in Turkey raged at what they see as Ankara’s support for Islamic State militants fighting Kurds in Syria.
The government responded with legislation tightening public security, fearing the loss of support for a peace process in which President Tayyip Erdogan has invested political capital.
“We will not take any step that society cannot accept,” Yalcin Akdogan vowed in an interview with TV channel Haberturk.
HDP lawmaker Hasip Kaplan said the government needed to bite the bullet and put a peace deal framework in place.
“Because there is an election process ahead of us and the timetable is limited, we are in a period requiring important decisions on concepts, institutions and conditions,” Kaplan told Reuters, forecasting “important announcements” by March.
Those involved in talks remain tight-lipped on details, fearful of undermining prospects for a final deal. Kurds have been pushing for Ocalan’s release, an amnesty for fighters and steps towards autonomy.
Ankara’s hopes of a complete end to the PKK as an armed group have been frustrated by the role it has carved out for itself fighting along with allies in Syria and Iraq against Islamic State.
“The PKK is not giving up armed struggle. It is putting down weapons in Turkey and withdrawing its fighters to Syria and Iraq,” columnist Abdulkadir Selvi wrote in the pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper. Events in Cizre showed the group was also strengthening its urban wing and maintaining its autonomy goal, he said.
Some see last week’s shooting as a swipe - by opponents of the peace process on one side or the other - at the authority of Ocalan, who publicly launched the peace process in March 2013 declaring the time for armed struggle was over. The boy was killed as thousands peacefully dispersed in Cizre following an appeal for calm by Ocalan, read out at a public meeting.
“If there is just a millimeter of hope in peace I will not get up from this table. I will continue talks,” he said in the appeal.
Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Peter Graff