After two months of violent clashes between armed separatists and security forces, a divide has opened among Kurds in Turkey – between the political leaders who achieved success in parliamentary elections earlier this year and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, which has ended a two-year cease-fire with the Turkish government.
Since early July, the fighters for the party, known by its Kurdish initials as the PKK, have killed 111 Turkish security personnel, according to the pro-government newspaper Sabah. Turkish forces claim to have killed 967 PKK fighters. In addition, 23 civilians have died either in crossfire or under direct attack by PKK militants, Sabah said.
Over the last six weeks, the Turkish government has launched scores of bombing attacks on PKK positions in northern Iraq, where the group is based, and this week it sent more than 100 special forces into Iraq, the first such incursion since 2011.
The country’s dominant Kurdish political party, the People’s Democratic Party, is warning that the country is drifting into a civil war.
On Thursday, the People’s Democratic Party said that severe clashes had taken place in six mostly Kurdish cities and that civilians have been killed in Cizre, a mainly Kurdish town of more than 120,000 on the Iraqi border that the Turkish military has cut off from all communication. The People’s Democratic Party said the civilian death toll was 21; other reports put the number between two and eight.
The rise in violence comes after Turkey’s Kurdish political party won seats in Parliament and denied President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of an absolute majority.
The People’s Democratic Party, which holds two cabinet seats in Turkey’s caretaker government that will rule until elections in November, has been highly critical of the PKK military actions and has tried to separate itself from the militia, saying it was “not a part of the violence-based war-oriented policies.”
It urged the PKK and the Turkish government to end the conflict. Neither seemed about to follow the plea.
Meanwhile, the rising violence has done serious damage to Turkey’s political institutions in advance of the Nov. 1 vote.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, which lost its absolute majority in Parliament in June when the People’s Democratic Party captured 13 percent of the vote, now routinely demonizes the Kurdish party and its charismatic leader, Selahattin Demirtas, and alleges that it’s intimately linked with the PKK offensive.
After Kurdish guerrillas killed 16 soldiers and 14 police officers this week, mobs, apparently inspired by rhetoric from Erdogan’s party, sacked the People’s Democratic Party’s Ankara headquarters and attacked more than 100 other party offices around the country, often as police stood by watching.
Mobs also twice attacked the offices of Hurriyet, a newspaper that is often critical of Erdogan.
Demirtas himself is in the cross-hairs. Yeni Safak, a daily close to Erdogan’s party, ran a headline Wednesday calling Demirtas a “murderer – to be liquidated.”
The U.S. State Department on Wednesday condemned violence against political parties, ethnic groups and media outlets.
For two years, there was a cease-fire. Then a Kurdish umbrella group declared the cease-fire over and began attacking construction vehicles. Two weeks later, the Turkish government retaliated, and the war was on.
“It is critically important that Turkish law enforcement provide equal protection to all segments of society, political parties and media outlets,” said spokesman John Kirby. “There is no place in a democracy for violent protests, particularly those motivated by partisanship or ethnic animosity.”
But the U.S. is also being criticized for stirring the pot, by virtue of its military support for the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, the Syrian affiliate of the PKK, as part of its air war against the Islamic State.
Turkey views the two organizations as intimately linked terror groups. The U.S. makes a distinction between the PKK, which is on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations, and the YPG, which is not.
Gareth Jenkins, a longtime observer of Turkish politics, said U.S. support for the YPG, which has been the most effective anti-Islamic State fighting group in Syria, gave a “huge boost” to the confidence of the PKK. “They began to see themselves not just as the saviors of the Kurds . . . but the saviors of the Middle East,” he said. They had a sense “that the world is moving in our direction,” he said.
The PKK had engaged in a guerrilla war against Turkey for three decades until 2013, when Erdogan and jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan agreed to a cease-fire and negotiations for a long-term peace that would grant Turkey’s Kurds – as much as 20 percent of the 78 million population – cultural and language rights.
But as parliamentary elections approached, and with signs that the Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party would lose its absolute majority, the talks stalled this past spring.
Just a month after the People’s Democratic Party won enough votes to enter Parliament as an independent party for the first time – the threshhold under Turkish law is 10 percent of the vote – the PKK announced it was ending the cease-fire. A statement by the Kurdistan Communities Union, a PKK umbrella group, on July 11 said that guerrillas would target all dams being built in southeast Turkey, alleging they were part of a government project to prevent PKK forces from moving freely in Turkey.
Subsequently the PKK began blocking roads and attacking construction vehicles. But the Turkish military did not respond until July 27, after the militia claimed credit for killing two policemen in southern Turkey, allegedly in retaliation for an attack by Islamic State extremists on Turkish volunteers.
At almost every turn, Demirtas publicly pleaded with the PKK to abandon the armed struggle, only to meet with repeated rebuffs. “It’s true that tension is high,” he said July 14. “But it’s not the day to draw swords. I say this both to the (Kurdistan Communities Union) and to the government. No one should think of increasing the tension.”
On Aug. 2, he made a still stronger plea. “The PKK has to immediately silence their arms and remove their hands from the trigger. In this respect, the government has to state that the operations have halted and that they will open the way for dialogue to prevent deaths,” he said.
The PKK and the Kurdish political party “are out of step with each other,” said analyst Jenkins. “Demirtas has moved the (People’s Democratic Party ) away from the PKK and into the mainstream, and there’s a lot of resentment from the PKK.”
McClatchy special correspondent Duygu Guvenc contributed from Ankara.
Roy Gutman: @roygutmanmcc