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Kurdistan - Turkey


The initiation of armed insurrection by the Kurdistan Workers' Party (Partiya Karkere Kurdistan or PKK) in 1984, along with the increasing international media interest in the Kurds of Iraq beginning in the mid-1980s, compelled some members of Turkey's political elite to question government policy toward the country's Kurdish population. Turgut Özal, who became prime minister in 1983 and president in 1989, broke the official taboo on using the term Kurd by referring publicly to the people of eastern Anatolia as Kurds. Subsequently, independent Turkish newspapers began using the term and discussing the political and economic problems in the eleven predominantly Kurdish provinces. In 1991 Özal supported a bill that revoked the ban on the use of Kurdish and possession of materials in Kurdish. However, as of 1995, the use of Kurdish in government institutions such as the courts and schools was still prohibited.

Turkey's other leaders were not as willing as Özal to recognize Kurdish distinctiveness, and only two months after his death in April 1993, the Constitutional Court issued its decision declaring the HEP, an independant Kurdish political party, illegal. In anticipation of this outcome, the Kurdish deputies had resigned from the HEP only days before and formed a new organization, the Democracy Party (Demokrasi Partisi or DEP). The DEP's objective was similar to that of its predecessor: to promote civil rights for all citizens of Turkey. When the DEP was banned in June 1994, Kurdish deputies formed the new People's Democracy Party (Halkin Demokrasi Partisi or HADEP).

The best known and most radical of the Kurdish movements, the PKK, which does not represent the majority of Kurds, sought to establish an independent Marxist state in southeastern Turkey where the Kurdish population predominates. A resurgence of Kurdish attacks attributed to the PKK necessitated the deployment of Turkish army units and elite police forces with the initiation in 1984 by the PKK of armed struggle against the state with attacks on gendarmerie posts in the southeast. Fighting in the mountain terrain favored the insurgents, who could intimidate local Kurdish families and ambush regular troops. The violence steadily mounted after 1991, with PKK guerrillas from camps in Syria, Iran, and Iraq, as well as from inside Turkey itself, attacking Turkish military and police outposts and targeting civilian community leaders and teachers. In 1993, PKK gunmen sought military targets outside the southeastern region. They also conducted coordinated attacks in many West European cities, particularly in Germany where more than 1 million Kurds live, against Turkish diplomatic installations and Turkish businesses, often operated by Kurds. Such attacks on commercial firms could be seen as efforts at intimidation to gain contributions to PKK fundraising.

The PKK's leader, Abdullah Öcalan, formed the group in the late 1970s while a student in Ankara. Prior to the 1980 coup, Öcalan fled to Lebanon, via Syria, where he continued to maintain his headquarters in 1994. Until October 1992, Öcalan's brother, Osman, had supervised PKK training camps in the mountains separating northern Iraq from Turkey's Hakkâri and Mardin provinces. It was from these camps that PKK guerrillas launched their raids into Turkey. The main characteristic of PKK attacks was the use of indiscriminate violence, and PKK guerrillas did not hesitate to kill Kurds whom they considered collaborators. Targeted in particular were the government's paid militia, known as village guards, and schoolteachers accused of promoting forced assimilation. The extreme violence of the PKK's methods enabled the government to portray the PKK as a terrorist organization and to justify its own policies, which included the destruction of about 850 border villages and the forced removal of their populations to western Turkey.

In March 1993, the PKK dropped its declared objective of creating an independent state of Kurdistan in the southeastern provinces that had Kurdish majorities. Its new goal was to resolve the Kurdish problem within a democratic and federal system. The loss of PKK guerrilla camps in northern Iraq in October 1992, following defeat in a major confrontation with Iraqi Kurdish forces supported by Turkish military intervention, probably influenced this tactical change. At the same time, Öcalan announced a unilateral, albeit temporary, cease-fire in the PKK's war with Turkish security forces. The latter decision might also have reflected the influence of Kurdish civilian leaders, who had been urging an end to the violence in order to test Özal's commitment to equal rights. Whether there were realistic prospects in the spring of 1993 for a political solution to the conflict in southeast Turkey may never be known. Özal suffered a fatal heart attack in April 1993, and his successor, Demirel, did not appear inclined to challenge the military, whose position continued to be that elimination of the PKK was the appropriate way to pacify the region. Fighting between security forces and PKK guerrillas, estimated to number as many as 15,000, resumed by June 1993.

Increased numbers of security forces were mobilized in 1994 against the Kurds in a government campaign of mounting intensity. One government strategy was the forced evacuation and in a number of instances burning some 850 Kurdish villages to prevent them from harboring PKK insurgents. Although militarily successful, the evacuations have caused great hardship to the villagers. The government was accused of harassment, destruction of villages, and the slaying of Kurds believed to be sympathetic to the PKK. Its tactics resulted in hundreds of civilian casualties and turned thousands into refugees, who then crowded into major Turkish cities. The insurgents, in turn, targeted villages known to be sympathetic to the government, murdering state officials, teachers, government collaborators, and paramilitary village guards. In an especially cruel incident in May 1993 that ended a two-month cease-fire announced by the PKK, a PKK unit executed thirty unarmed military recruits after ambushing several buses.

As of early 1994, about 160,000 Turkish troops and gendarmerie had been mobilized for operations against the PKK. Some 40,000 civilians formed a village guard of pro-government Kurds. A new mobile security force of about 10,000 troops was undergoing special training in anti-guerrilla operations. The United States Department of State estimated that there were 10,000 to 15,000 full-time PKK guerrillas, 5,000 to 6,000 of whom were in Turkey and the others in Iran, Iraq, and Syria. There were thought to be an additional 60,000 to 75,000 part-time guerrillas. The number of deaths since the war's outbreak in 1984 had risen beyond 12,000 by 1994. According to official figures, more than 1,500 PKK guerrillas were killed and 7,600 captured during the first eleven months of 1993. During the same period, the number of government security personnel killed came to 676. Civilian deaths totaled 1,249, more than double the 1992 total.

The PKK cause was not helped by the Kurds of Iraq, who depended on Turkey to keep their enclave protected from the forces of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. In October 1992, Iraqi Kurds and the Turkish army carried out a joint offensive against PKK bases in Iraqi Kurdistan, forcing the surrender of more than 1,000 PKK fighters. Turkey also enlisted Syria's cooperation in closing the PKK base in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon. The government's flexibility in seeking a negotiated solution to the conflict was limited by the growing anger of the Turkish public over PKK terrorism and the killing of troops in the southeast and by the military's uncompromising anti-Kurdish stance.

The PKK/KADEK/Kongra Gel retained a residual presence in the provinces of southeastern Turkey (Sirnak, Diyarbakir, Van, Siirt, Mus, Mardin, Batman, Bingol, Tunceli, Hakkari, Bitlis, Adana, Adiyaman, Hatay, Elazig, Gaziantep, Kahraman Maras, Kilis, Malatya, Icel, Osmaniye and Sanliurfa). Although the official "State of Emergency" designation had been removed for all provinces of the southeast and no provinces remained officially designated as sensitive areas, the potential for PKK/KADEK/Kongra Gel activity remained.

Turkish Foreign Minister, Esmail Jem in an interview with CNN on 12 October 2001 said: "Turkey intends to make the best of the post-September atmosphere to demonstrate its own stances toward the issue of terrorism." The then Turkish Premier, Bulent Ejvit also on 17 September 2001 stated: "As a victim of terrorism, Turkey will fight along side the US to counter this phenomenon."

Groups such as the DHKP/C, PKK/KADEK/Kongra-Gel, IDBA-C, and others continued to target Turkish officials and various civilian facilities and use terrorist activity to make political statements, particularly in Istanbul and other urban areas of Turkey. In 2002, 2003, and 2004, civilian venues such as courthouses and fast food restaurants have been the targets of minor bomb attacks, which have resulted in small numbers of casualties among bystanders. Similar, random bombings were likely to continue. A roadside explosion caused by a remote controlled land mine in Batman province, nearby Gercus, occurred on 8 March 2004. It was the first such explosion since the late 1990's.

As part of its fight against the PKK, the Government forcibly displaced noncombatants, failed to resolve extrajudicial killings, tortured civilians, and abridged freedom of expression. The PKK committed widespread abuses, including the frequent murder of noncombatants, as part of its terrorism against the Government and civilians, mostly Kurds. Estimates of the total number of villagers forcibly evacuated from their homes since the conflict began vary widely from 330,000 to 2 million. A credible estimate given by a former Member of Parliament from the region was around 560,000.

During the height of the PKK conflict from 1984 to 1990, the Government forcibly displaced a large number of residents from villages in the southeast. Many others left the region on their own. The Government reported that 378,000 residents "migrated" from the southeast during the conflict, with many others departing before the fighting. Various NGOs estimated that there were from 1 to 3 million Internally Displacd Persons (IDPs). Although the Government lifted the state of emergency in the southeast in 2002, it maintained a heavy security presence in the region, including numerous roadway checkpoints. The Government estimated there were 4,500 to 5,000 armed PKK/KADEK/KHK militants across the border in northern Iraq, and another 1,000 in the southeast of the country.

Turkey's Premier, Rajab Tayyeb Erdogan strongly criticized US policies toward the Kurd groups in southeastern Turkey fighting the central government. In an interview published on 3 September 2004, Erdogan reiterated: "The Turkish government is gradually loosing patience as America continues avoiding taking military actions against the Kurd rebels in Turkey who are presently based in Northern Iraq." He said the remarks around the same time made by the US National Security Advisor, Condoleeza Rice on the issue were not convincing. Rice had earlier said the US was trying to contain the Kurdistan Workers Party, PKK through non-military means.

This unusual tone of Erdogan and his criticism of Washington were the harshest by Turkish statesmen in regards the US in the preceeding. One of the factors behind Ankara's dissatisfaction with Washington was the United States' attitude toward the PKK. Erdogan's administration believed that the PKK , by restoring to armed struggle, was seeking separatist objectives and thus it was considered a terrorist group. Turkey hoped that under conditions when the US had apparently put its self-styled campaign against terrorism top on its agenda, it should adopt measures against the PKK within the same framework. For many Turkish officials the US dual policy toward the issue of terrorism was not justifiable under any circumstances. This frustration was further reinforced by the continued precense of the PKK (now referred to by name of the umbrella organization Kongra-Gel) on the official list of US recognized Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs). The PKK had been on the list since at least 2000, pre-dating the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the shift in policy focus to terrorism.

Turkey's ongoing struggle against the Kongra-Gel/PKK was marked by increased violence in 2005 across Turkey. In the Southeast, Turkish security forces were active in the struggle against the Kongra-Gel/PKK. There were a number of bombings and attempted bombings in resort areas in western Turkey and Istanbul, some of which resulted in civilian casualties. A Kurdish separatist group calling itself the Kurdish Freedom Falcons (TAK), widely believed to be affiliated with the Kongra-Gel/PKK, claimed responsibility for many of these attacks.

In the midst of weeks of violence in mid-2007, during which KGK/PKK attacks claimed scores of killed or wounded Turkish soldiers and citizens, the Turkish parliament on 17 October overwhelmingly passed a motion authorizing cross-border military operations against KGK/PKK targets in northern Iraq. Turkish forces carried out extensive operations along the Turkey-Iraq border in the latter part of the year. On November 5th, President Bush committed to provide Turkey "real-time, actionable intelligence" to counter the KGK/PKK in northern Iraq.

Turkey and its Kurdish population have taken a major step toward ending the three-decade conflict that has claimed more than 45,000 lives. On 21 March 2013), Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the banned Kurdish group PKK, called for a ceasefire and urged his armed followers to withdraw from Turkish soil. "Let guns be silenced and politics dominate," Ocalan said in his declaration, which was read by pro-Kurdish politicians to hundreds of thousands of people gathered for the Kurdish New Year celebrations in the predominantly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir in southeast Turkey. "A new door is being opened from the process of armed conflict to democratization and democratic politics, said Ocalan. "It's not the end. It's the start of a new era."

The Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, announced it September 09, 2013 was suspending the withdrawal of its forces from Turkey. The Kurdish rebel group blames the Turkish government for failing to introduce pro-Kurdish reforms, but has pledged it will continue to observe a ceasefire. The PKK announced that it had ended the withdrawal of its forces from Turkey to their bases in neighboring Iraq. The rebel group said it took the move because the Turkish government had failed to introduce democratic reforms as part of the peace process.

Renewed fighting seemed unlikely. The coming winter will make it hard for Kurds to battle. Already mid-October is too late to come back to violence. Newroz [Persian New Year], celebrated every March 21, is the traditional time for the PKK to restart hostilities.

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Page last modified: 05-04-2014 19:17:12 ZULU