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Turkey and the PKK: How to deal with Syria’s Kurds 4 octobre 2014

Posted by Acturca in Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie.
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The Economist (UK) no. 950

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The emergence of another Kurdish entity on its borders unsettles the government.

A senior commander of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a rebel group that has been fighting for Kurdish self-rule inside Turkey since 1984, declared on September 21st that the Ankara government had until October 1st to meet several conditions. « Otherwise we may resume our war, » said Cemil Bayik at the PKK’s headquarters in the Qandil mountains in northern Iraq. On October 1st the government duly issued a directive that lets unspecified observers monitor its peace talks with Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned PKK leader (pictured on the flag). A long-running PKK demand was thus fulfilled and an 18-month-old, mutually observed, ceasefire salvaged. But for how long?

The question is gaining urgency as fighters calling themselves Islamic State (IS) continue their onslaught against Ain al-Arab (known as Kobane in Kurdish), a Syrian town with a majority Kurdish population on the Turkish border. Kobane and a cluster of villages is one of the three enclaves governed by Syria’s Kurds. Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, ceded them to a group known as the Democratic Unity Party (PYD) so that he could concentrate his fight against rebels elsewhere. The PYD and its armed wing, the People’s Defence Units (YPG), are closely linked to the PKK.

Mr Bayik insists that Turkey is backing IS fighters and that this is because they want to « crush » the Syrian Kurds’ fledgling autonomy. Turkey denies these claims. It supported the American-led coalition against IS, albeit only after the group released 46 Turkish hostages, seized at the Turkish consulate in Mosul on June 10th. As The Economist went to press, parliament was poised to pass a vaguely worded bill that allows Turkish troops to intervene against « terrorist groups » inside Iraq and Syria. It also allows foreign troops to use Turkish bases in the fight against the jihadists, a move that is bound to stir controversy among pro-secular Turks and the pious base of the ruling Justice and Development party (AK).

Turkey is deeply unnerved by the emergence of yet another Kurdish entity on its frontier. Making matters worse is that, unlike Iraqi Kurdistan, which is now Turkey’s biggest regional ally and trading partner, the Syrian Kurdish region, known as Rojava in Kurdish, is dominated by Turkey’s biggest foe, the PKK.

This unforeseen twist shoved Turkey’s long-festering Kurdish problem beyond its borders, propelling a panic-stricken AK to resume peace talks with Mr Ocalan. « Rojava’s fate and the peace process in Turkey are inseparable, » argues Arzu Yilmaz, an academic. Turkey’s plan, she adds, is to keep the ceasefire running until next summer’s parliamentary elections by throwing titbits at the Kurds.

These were supposed to include the introduction of optional Kurdish-language lessons in state run schools. But the scheme has not taken off. « For the past three years my children have been trying to sign up for Kurdish classes but they either tell us that there are no teachers or not enough demand, » complains Altan Tan, an MP for the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party. The Kurds have attempted to set up informal Kurdish-language schools of their own, but these were promptly shut by the police last month. A group calling itself the PKK’s youth wing responded by torching more than 30 government schools in the Kurdish region, provoking a barrage of outrage among ordinary citizens, Kurds included.

Yet even though the PKK moans about the lack of progress in Turkey, much of their horse-trading with the AK currently revolves around Syria’s Kurds. Turkey is pressing the PYD to end its undeclared non-aggression pact with Mr Assad and to join the rebels seeking to overthrow him. At the same time they are being told to share power with rival Syrian Kurdish groups. More implausibly still, Turkey also wants the PYD to sever ties with the PKK and perhaps even to cede control over Kobane, which would become part of a planned « safe pocket » to park refugees and to train and equip the rebels.

In fact, Turkey has made many conciliatory gestures. It has opened its doors to tens of thousands of Kurdish refugees fleeing the violence in Kobane and is allowing wounded YPG fighters to be treated in Turkish hospitals, a first. Turkey’s friends in the West continue to single out the peace talks with the PKK as the AK’s great achievement.

Nuray Mert of Istanbul University warns that the government risks denting Mr Ocalan’s credibility by « overloading » him with demands, including getting the PKK to disarm, with little to show for his co-operation. This may weaken Mr Ocalan’s grip over the PKK. And « the nightmare result », says a senior AK party official, would be « Turkey fighting IS and the PKK at the same time ».

Might Turkey be pre-empting the jihadists by taking the battle to them first? That is how pundits interpret a recent unconfirmed story in Yeni Safak, a pro-AK daily, that dozens of Turkish soldiers guarding the tomb of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of the first Ottoman ruler Osman, 20 kilometres (12 miles) south of the Turkish border, near Kobane, have been encircled by IS fighters. Either way, Turkey may well use its men’s safety as a pretext to intervene in Syria. The question remains: would its main target be IS or the Kurds?

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