October 13, 2014 / 3:01 PM / in 3 years

Turkey's Kurdish peace process at risk amid fury over Syrian town

DIYARBAKIR Turkey (Reuters) - Windows shattered by looting protesters, the largest city in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast shows plenty of signs of the violence that swept it last week, but optimism over a fragile peace process with Kurdish guerrillas is far harder to find.

Turkish Kurds watch the Syrian town of Kobani from near the Mursitpinar border crossing, on the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province October 13, 2014. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

There are fears that the fate of the border town of Kobani in neighboring Syria could wreck efforts by the Turkish government to end a three decades long insurgency by the militants, and tip Turkey back into a conflict that has cost 40,000 lives.

Many of Turkey’s 15 million Kurds have reacted with fury over the fate of mainly Kurdish Kobani, under assault by Islamic State for nearly a month while Turkish troops look on.

Last week at least 35 people were killed as Kurdish protests in solidarity with Kobani turned violent, with Diyarbakir at the center of the bloodletting.

Kurds say that fury over Ankara’s failure to intervene could spin out of control in spite of efforts by the government or jailed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan to continue with peace talks aimed at ending the uprising.

“If Kobani falls, the peace process will be history. And if Kobani falls, the people will not listen to calls for calm, from whomever they come,” said chain-smoking Ibrahim, 29, in a tea house in Diyarbakir’s poor Baglar district, a PKK hotbed.

Days earlier, the streets of Baglar were filled with tear gas as police clashed with protesters. The area briefly became a no-go zone for security forces, and armored vehicles were deployed to quell the unrest.

A police officer told Reuters the rage of the protesters was like nothing he had seen in 20 years working in the region.

“They attack like they have nothing to lose. There seems to be an immense amount of hate and anger,” he said. “They’re looting. They burn, break, destroy. The state and everything that represents the state seems to be their enemy.”

The unrest is a serious blow to President Tayyip Erdogan, who has invested considerable political capital in repairing Turkey’s relations with its Kurds.

Decades of oppression by nationalist governments in Ankara had aimed to suppress Kurdish culture, prompting a violent response by Kurdish militants and creating deep ethnic wounds within Turkey which Erdogan has vowed to heal.

He has pushed through cultural reforms and abolished laws banning the Kurdish language in Turkey.

Around half of Kurds vote for Erdogan’s ruling AK Party and the peace process has been a major part of his political vision.

But Ankara’s failure to intervene militarily or allow weapons to be sent to Kobani’s defenders has caused mistrust, and fueled rumors that Turkey secretly supports Islamic State.

“SERIOUS GAMBLE”

Denials by Ankara have failed to quell a widespread belief in southeast Turkey that a policy of supporting opposition groups in Syria to bring down Syrian President Bashar al-Assad means they are helping the radical Islamist group.

“It’s not even questioned. If you base your thinking on that, and build on top of all these grievances over the last few years (including Kobani), then you’ve got the makings of fresh conflict,” Aaron Stein, associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, told Reuters.

Stein believes that Turkey calculates that it is better to alienate the Kurds now and patch things up later than be sucked into the Syria conflict over Kobani, and that the Kurds are currently too weak to re-ignite hostilities with Turkey.

But the threat of renewed conflict was underlined at the weekend by senior PKK commander Cemil Bayik, who warned that the group would relaunch its war with Turkey if it fails to intervene in Kobani.

“(Turkish officials) are hoping that they’ll be able to weather the storm, but I think that’s shortsighted, its a serious gamble which could risk the whole peace process,” Stein added.

Ocalan, who has spent the last 15 years in prison, has worked hard to keep the peace process on track amid sporadic violence in the southeast this year.

But many Kurds in Diyarbakir said frustrations at the slow progress of negotiations mean Ocalan’s star is waning, and people are more likely to listen to PKK leaders in the Qandil region of Iraq, who have become disenchanted with the process.

“If Qandil said ‘get ready we will go back to fighting in six months’, the people would not hesitate for a minute,” said Ali, 39, a father of four.

In a sign that he too senses that pressure is mounting, Ocalan warned in his latest comments that the government had until Oct. 15 to take steps to advance the talks, but it may not be enough, according to Ali.

“The peace process has no credibility left,” he said, sipping a glass of tea in one of Diyarbakir’s many tea houses.

“If the process continues in this way … these tensions could result in a civil war. These people are ready to take up arms against this state,” he said.

RETURN TO 1990S VIOLENCE?

The fate of Kobani may be putting fresh strain on peace talks, but they were hardly in the best of health before Islamic State’s brutal advance on Kurdish positions, according to Fadi Hakura, Turkey expert at London think-tank Chatham House.

“Even prior to Kobani the peace process has not produced many substantive concessions. So far it’s been more about the process than the peace,” he told Reuters.

“Kobani will greatly complicate a very delicate process and have a major impact on its durability, particularly as the fight for Kobani has involved fighters closely linked to the PKK.”

Erdogan has made clear that the presence of PKK fighters at the defense of Kobani is a stumbling block to helping the town.

Last week he said he saw no difference between the PKK and Islamic State, and has said Turkey will not aid “terrorists.”

Turkey is also determined not to be sucked into the Syrian civil war without assurances that western partners will help topple Assad, his implacable foe.

Syrian Kurds maintained an ambivalent relationship with Damascus, and they shunned the opposition coalition in return for being largely left alone by Damascus.

The creation of three self-declared autonomous Kurdish “cantons” in Syria last year, one of them at Kobani, further deepened mistrust in Ankara.

Despite all the problems, Erdogan launched an impassioned defense of the peace process over the weekend.

“I have put ... my body, my being into it. No matter what the consequences will be ... to build peace and stability, I will continue to struggle until my last breath,” he said.

There were signs on Monday that the Ankara is aware of the urgency, when a pro-Kurdish MP said his party had received a one page road map on the peace process from the government. No further details were given.

But with record numbers joining the PKK, according to Kurdish officials, and Kobani testing already strained relations, Turkey risks renewed ethnic violence, Ibrahim said.

“If people take to the streets again, it would be much worse than the 1990s. These people are really not afraid to die.”

Additional reporting by Jonny Hogg; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Giles Elgood

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