- - Wednesday, February 15, 2012

ISTANBUL — Turkey’s regional status as a democratic role model is being threatened by the Muslim country’s 30-year conflict with Kurds, which now is pushing Turkey toward violent upheaval.

Turkish warplanes on Sunday bombed suspected Kurdish rebel targets in northern Iraq in the second cross-border airstrike in less than a week.

Emma Sinclair-Webb of Human Rights Watch in Istanbul said Turkey’s actions are undermining its prestige.

“Unless Turkey can really tackle the Kurdish issue in a more constructive way and guarantee minority rights, it will always be compromised internationally,” she said. “Its regional role cannot be as a model, while there are those very burning issues.”

Turkey’s political, economic and cultural progress over the past decade has inspired emerging governments in the Middle East.

A poll conducted in 16 Arab countries by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation, Turkey’s leading think tank, found that 78 percent of respondents regarded Turkey as a role model for the coexistence of religion and democracy.

That view often is echoed by leaders in Europe and Washington. Turkey, a NATO member, is a key U.S. ally and crucial strategic partner in the region.

Turkey’s popularity abroad belies a brutal interethnic struggle that some say is pushing the country toward renewed conflict in its predominantly Kurdish southeastern provinces and home of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known by its Turkish acronym PKK.

Increasing violence

An underground organization designated as a terrorist group by the United States and Europe, the PKK has fought a guerrilla war against the Turkish military for the past 28 years. Its aim is autonomy and political and cultural rights for the Kurdish people.

After years of relative quiet, last year was one of the bloodiest in the recent history of the Kurdish-Turkish conflict, analysts say.

Over recent months, hundreds have been killed in clashes between Kurdish rebels and government troops in Turkey’s southeast and during cross-border raids into northern Iraq. The upsurge in violence has shattered hopes for a peaceful solution that has been in the works for the past seven years.

The broad support for the PKK among Turkey’s Kurds, who represent about 20 percent of the population, stems from the government’s pursuit of a strict assimilation policy for decades. It has cracked down on Kurds for using their own language, listening to Kurdish music or wearing traditional Kurdish garb.

Since 2005, the ruling Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish acronym AKP, had been making concessions to the Kurds, slowly acknowledging their ethnic identity. In late 2009, the government launched a “Kurdish opening” aimed at resolving the conflict through political means.

It opened a 24-hour state-run Kurdish-language television channel and promised other reforms to end discrimination. A second initiative, started in 2010, included secret talks with PKK leaders in a groundbreaking and bold step, analysts say.

The moves toward reconciliation came to a halt after PKK militants began launching strikes in mid-2011 on Turkish soldiers and police.

“There is not a single party you can blame for the uptick in violence,” said Henri Barkey, who specializes in Turkish affairs at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.

“Whenever there was a step taken toward a political solution, a spectacular PKK attack undermined this process. The initiative of 2009 was mismanaged by the government. It did not prepare the public, and it did not consult the Kurdish leaders, so it was bound to collapse.”

A new peace initiative now would be even more difficult to implement, said Fuat Keyman, director of the Istanbul Policy Center at Turkey’s Sabanci University.

“The government has adopted an increasingly hard-line and condescending stance toward the Kurds,” he said. “The AKP has lost support even in the parts of the Kurdish population that used to vote for it.”

Mr. Keyman referred to attacks such as the Dec. 29 airstrike by the Turkish army in the Uludere district near the Iraqi border. The raid was aimed at suspected PKK militants, but killed 34 Kurdish villagers, including 17 children.

Political repression

Turkey’s ruling party described the bombing as an “unfortunate operational accident.” Amnesty International has expressed concern over the lack of an investigation.

Eren Keskin, a Turkish-Kurdish lawyer and human rights activist, said Turkey’s failure to provide justice in the Uludere case is characteristic of the state’s treatment of minorities.

“The Uludere bombing killed 34 young, innocent Kurds in one go,” she said.

“The incident occurred two days before New Year’s Eve. If it had been Turkish soldiers who died, all celebrations would have been canceled and national mourning would have been declared. But the victims were Kurds, so life went on as usual.”

Last year, the sharp escalation in violence was accompanied by growing political repression, including a massive crackdown on pro-Kurdish media and arbitrary arrests of thousands of Kurdish activists, intellectuals and politicians.

Ongoing operations against suspected members of the Union of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK), an illegal political organization with direct links to the PKK, are troubling human rights observers who say that people are being arrested for their political opinions and personal connections rather than on any evidence of providing logistical or material support to the rebels.

“What has emerged in the last year is a serious clampdown on legal Kurdish politics,” said Human Rights Watch’s Ms. Sinclair-Webb.

“Turkish law, as it stands, allows people to be prosecuted under terrorism laws because of their networks of association. It’s a witch hunt against particular political circles.”

Critics of the AKP say that in attacking Kurdish civil society, the administration is repeating mistakes made by the government in the 1990s, an especially violent and repressive era in Turkish history.

The situation is bleaker than ever, said Ms. Keskin, who has defended minority rights in Turkey for almost 25 years and has been jailed several times for her criticism of the army and the government.

“I have witnessed terrible things in Turkey in the past 25 years: political assassinations, armed assaults and torture in prisons,” she said.

“But in all these years, I have never seen rows of people being arrested on such arbitrary and weak charges as today.”

Ms. Keskin said she thinks the Turkish leadership lacks the will to solve the conflict and protect minority rights. Turkey’s Western allies need to be more critical of Turkey’s democratic record, she said.

Turkey needs much more political pressure if it isn’t to move away even further from democracy,” she said.