Clashes have raged for days near Şemdinli, at the border with northern Iraq. The area has been largely sealed off and some reports suggest many villagers have fled. Yet the Turkish media seems to have more information about the situation in neighboring Syria than it does about the combats taking place on its own territory. There are only sketchy accounts of what is really happening in Hakkari province. On Sunday, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) once again ambushed remote outposts, killing young soldiers while losing some of its own.
The prospect of an autonomous Kurdish entity, has given the Kurdish equation a new dimension, raised the stakes and brought a new sense of urgency to the government’s military efforts. But with each death, on either side, Turkey’s long-term social peace and stability are put at risk a bit more.
This looks like Turkey circa 1992, but it is Turkey in 2012, stuck in the same loop, unable to break the vicious cycle. As expected, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan adopted a tough stance: “Terrorism is, sooner or later, doomed to lose and to go up in smoke in the face of the people’s resolve and determination,” he stated.
He may be determined, but he left the timing suitably vague. In the gap between “sooner” and “later” many lives will be lost unnecessarily. Similar statements have been made on countless occasions over the past three decades by various politicians and military commanders. It seems extraordinary that three years after reaching what appeared at the time to be a watershed with the so-called Kurdish opening of 2009, Turkey should once again find itself caught in the same spiral of violence. Overwhelming military force may, for a time, keep the militants at bay, but in the process enough resentment is likely to be generated to push another generation into radicalism and to drive an ever bigger wedge into the fault lines that crisscross this country, unless a genuine political solution is sought.
Two years ago, Turkey was making great diplomatic strides in the region, boasting of the impact of its soft foreign policy on its vicinity. Today, the country’s internal problems are becoming a key foreign policy issue, and the outside is seeping in as the authorities try to prevent trouble in Syria from fanning internal flames.
But even at the height of Turkey’s diplomatic success in the region, when Ankara felt invincible, the slowing pace of internal reforms and the government’s inability to resolve the Kurdish problem were already opening chinks in the country’s amour. They are now open for all to see. The government will blame developments in Syria for the recent deterioration of the situation in the Southeast. But until Turkey can find some kind of accommodation and compromise with its own Kurds, the Kurdish issue will always remain its Achilles’ heel. The real solution lies in a new, more democratic approach to the Kurdish issue in Ankara.
There have been some reforms over the years, the latest being an attempt to introduce Kurdish language education in universities. But what is given with one hand is taken from the other, through the thousands of arrests of suspected KCK members, the crackdown on demonstrations which left Kurdish parliamentary deputies wounded and the removal from office of elected mayors. How do you convince young Kurds that their votes carry the same weight as those of other electors when they are so blatantly disenfranchised?
Perhaps what is the most disturbing is the virulence of the language used by politicians and some media commentators when they discuss the Kurdish issue. Concern that an independent Kurdish entity might emerge in northern Syria has unleashed the paranoia that always lies latent in this country. Turkey may not match its Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) peers in the teaching of math and science, but where the Turkish education system experiences real, if unfortunate, success, is in the promotion of a historical narrative based on fear.
The sad paradox is that far from protecting the country’s unity, this fear eats at it from the inside, creating and deepening the very divisions it seeks to prevent. It also blocks politicians from seeing that it is precisely the country’s diversity that is its biggest strength, and a truly democratic and inclusive Turkey would be more stable and have a greater reach.