Law enforcement or repression in Turkey?

ISTANBUL — In a new chapter of an old conflict, Turkey has intensified its decades-long political and military fight against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, known as the PKK.

Just as Ankara began a renewed push to enhance ties with the Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq, Turkish security forces last month initiated a series of operations across Turkey targeting the PKK.

Labeled a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union, the PKK has been fighting for Kurdish rule in the country's southeast since the early 1980s. The conflict has cost about 40,000 lives and has left its mark on political and economic development in the country.

But the largest of the recent security operations, launched in the early morning of April 14, targeted the pro-Kurdish Kurdistan Society Party (DTP), which is represented in parliament, in addition to the PKK. Of the more than 100 people arrested, 80 have been charged, including senior members of the DTP and the mayors of a number of provinces.

Security force officials often accuse the DTP of being a front for the PKK, a charge denied by the party.

Ahmet Turk, who leads the DTP, angrily denounced the raids, casting them as a reaction by the ruling party to unfavorable results in the March local elections, and as being against the law and principles of democracy.

The DTP easily defeated the ruling AK Party in the elections in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of the country, a region that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had high hopes of winning.

The recent raids inflamed tensions in the southeast, triggering large-scale protests. DTP deputies staged a sit-in at the parliament followed by a two-day hunger strike.

DTP leader Ahmet Turk said several Kurdish-origin lawmakers and mayors are taking part in the protest that began in the southeastern province of Diyarbakir.

“The operations might have been justified but they have also been widened to include DTP senior officials being arrested or detained,” said Lale Sariibrahimoglu, a columnist at the Turkish daily, Today’s Zaman. “This has created a question mark about whether they were meant to sabotage a peaceful solution to the Kurdish question.”

The arrests of DTP officials are not the party's only concern: Turkey’s constitutional court is currently deliberating a case demanding the closure of the DTP for being the “focal point of separatist acts” and for "alleged ties to the PKK." The party has 21 legislators in Turkey’s 550-seat parliament.

“It can be argued that these operations are impeding a peaceful solution ... and it is a valid statement in the short-run,” said Serkan Yolacan, the project officer for the Kurdish question at the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation.

“But what matters in the long run is the extent and content of the backstage negotiations between the Turkish state and the PKK ... and there are some signals that groundwork is being laid for an eventual rapprochement.”

Turkish security operations have increased since April 14, and have targeted a variety of extremist groups including Al Qaeda, Devrimci Karargah, Vasat, the PKK and the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party. In one instance, the Istanbul police exchanged gunfire with a militant for more than six hours, leaving three dead and at least seven wounded.

Attacks against the Turkish military and state have also increased since the operations began. On April 29, nine Turkish soldiers were killed in a bomb explosion in the mainly Kurdish southeast — the deadliest attack on security forces in months.

In a separate attack, a woman posing as a student detonated a bomb at an Ankara university during a visit by a former justice minister, wounding no one.

The recent attacks have taken place during a unilateral cease-fire by the PKK, which had declared it in early March.

The rising political tensions and fiery rhetoric is a far cry from the beginning of the year when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan proudly launched a state-run Kurdish-language TV channel. The new broadcast was seen as groundbreaking, considering the strict controls on the use of the Kurdish language in Turkey.

On the diplomatic front, Ankara has begun to establish dialogue with the Kurdish regional government (KRG), after years of antagonism also involving federal representatives of neighboring Iraq. This is an important shift in Turkish policy.

Following the end of the first Gulf War, the U.S. and the West established what is now Iraqi Kurdistan as a safe haven for the Kurds. Following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the KRG’s three provinces of Erbil, Sulaimani and Duhok have been constitutionally authorized as a federal region of Iraq.

Turkey has always been against this Kurdish achievement, fearing that its territorial integrity might be jeopardized by the aspiration of its own Kurds. Even more problematic, Turkey has accused the KRG of tolerating or even aiding the PKK, which has a strong presence in the Qandil mountains of Kurdistan.

Lately, relations between Ankara and the Kurdish "capital" of Erbil have been warming. Challenged by the Iraqi Arabs, threatened by Iran, and feeling abandoned by the United States, the Iraqi Kurds have turned to the remaining regional power: Turkey.

Essential to the friendship was the establishment in January by Turkey, Iraq and the United States of the joint command center in northern Iraq. The center is tasked with gathering intelligence to fight Kurdish PKK rebels in the region.

Turkey has long complained to Iraqi and U.S. authorities about PKK guerrillas, who have carried out deadly cross-border attacks from camps in mountain areas of Iraq near the Turkish border.

According to Cengiz Candar, a columnist of the Turkish daily Referan: “Gradually, by the passing of time, Turkey has started to transform and digest Iraqi federalism. Now it has come to a conclusion that the federal Kurdish entity here in the northern part of Iraq is in Turkey’s national interest.”

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