After three decades of fighting for self-rule, Turkey’s Kurdish separatists seem as far away as ever from a final peace deal with Ankara after a fragile truce collapsed this weekend.
More than 40,000 people have died since the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) launched its armed struggle for an independent Kurdish state in southeastern Anatolia — home to most of the country’s 13 to 19 million Kurds — in 1984.
Turkey has the world’s biggest community of Kurds, many of whom have been displaced by the conflict. Another 25 to 35 million Kurds are scattered across Iraq, Iran and Syria.
Secret talks in Norway between Turkish government representatives and members of the PKK starting in 2009 sparked hopes for an end to the years of violence.
But the talks collapsed in acrimony two years later after deadly clashes between militants and Turkey’s army.
Clandestine discussions resumed in late 2012 between Turkish intelligence officials and the group’s jailed founder Abdullah Ocalan at his island prison in the Sea of Marmara, where for years he was the only inmate.
His capture in Nairobi in 1999 was a major blow to the PKK, which has been branded as a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.
Ocalan was later sentenced to death for treason, but the sentence was commuted to life in prison in 2002.
After months of secret talks, Ocalan called on his fighters to lay down their arms in March 2013 and withdraw to their mountain bases in northern Iraq.
– Haven in Iraq –
The creation of a Kurdish autonomous administration in northern Iraq after the Gulf War in 1991 provided PKK militants not only with a haven, but an important political counterweight to Ankara. The group’s military command is believed to be based there, while its political leadership operates mainly out of European capitals.
Over the years, the PKK’s demands have evolved from outright independence along Marxist-Leninist lines to autonomy, with cultural and language rights.
It also developed a network of mayors and other local officials.
The Kurdish cause won a political victory in June, when the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) won 80 seats in Turkish parliamentary elections, after winning the backing of many non-Kurdish voters.
But tensions flared again in recent months.
– ‘Electoral agenda’ –
A severe blow came last week when the PKK shot dead two Turkish police in their beds, after an Daesh bombing in the town of Suruc near the Syrian border that killed 32 activists, mostly Kurds.
Kurdish groups have long accused the Turkish government of secretly colluding with the jihadists, claims Ankara vehemently denies.
Turkey has launched air attacks in recent days against both the secular PKK and the IS group, who are themselves bitter foes, with Kurdish forces dealing the jihadists some of their more significant defeats.
Turkey’s latest strikes against PKK bases in northern Iraq marked the fiercest aerial bombardment since August 2011, when PKK targets were pounded in six days of air strikes.
Kurdish rebels said the conditions for observing the truce had been “eliminated”.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday that Ankara could not continue the peace process with the Kurds in the wake of the PKK attacks on security forces and vowed to press ahead with strikes against the militants.
The breakdown of the truce comes hot on the heels of the June parliamentary elections, in which the HDP’s score wrecked the ruling AKP’s hopes of a big majority and Erdogan’s plans to create a presidential system.
HDP co-leader Selahattin Demirtas insists the main objective of the air strikes is to “harm the HDP” if another snap election is called.
Turkish police have also rounded up more than 1,000 people with suspected links to the PKK, Daesh and far-left groups in an anti-terrorism crackdown. Kurdish activists say most of the detainees are Kurds.