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Why has Turkey suddenly become so violent?

Nationalists have praised the AKP for bombing Kurdish rebels inside Turkey and in their strongholds in northern Iraq

Mahir Zeynalov

Published: Updated:

Two months ago, soft-spoken Kurdish leader Selahattin Demirtas made headlines after the strong electoral showing of his Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) dealt a heavy blow to the rule of Turkey’s Islamist-rooted party.

In the run-up to the elections on June 7, when his party garnered 13 percent of the vote, Demirtas adjusted his rhetoric, forsaking a narrow Kurdish-oriented discourse and rallying for other minorities. He gained the crucial backing of liberals and disillusioned youths. His charm appealed to many, due to his efforts to distance himself from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is very unpopular among many segments of Turkish society.

As talks to form a coalition government remain at a stalemate, the government seeks to defame Demirtas as part of its strategy to regain its lost majority in parliament in possible snap elections. With violence escalating, he finds himself between a rock and hard place, and needs to walk a fine line to preserve his image.

Punching bag

With scores dead in armed skirmishes across the country, Turkish pro-government newspapers decorate their front pages with articles and photos portraying Demirtas as the PKK’s pawn in parliament. However, he has so far succeeded in staying calm in the face of this smear campaign.

He called on the PKK to take its finger off the trigger, and even visited the mourning family of a Turkish soldier. The latest poll published on Wednesday shows that the HDP’s vote remains unchanged, while the ruling AK Party (AKP) gained 2 percent since June.

There is no doubt that the PKK desperately wants to resume peace talks, which allowed it to expand its activities in Turkey and send more fighters to Syria

Mahir Zeynalov

Nationalists have praised the AKP for bombing Kurdish rebels inside Turkey and in their strongholds in northern Iraq. The AKP’s war against Kurdish insurgents, however, is deeply unpopular in the West. Many newspaper editorials said Ankara’s declared intention to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is an excuse to crack down on Kurds.

American officials have so far been supportive of what they say is Turkey’s “right to self-defense.” They highlight the incident that triggered the latest bout of violence, when two Turkish servicemen were murdered by PKK militants. This line of argument, however, is unconvincing.

Not self-defense

Similar incidents, even more outrageous ones, took place in the past two years of relative peace. In Hakkari, for example, three Turkish soldiers were gunned down in broad daylight on Oct. 25 last year. Three days later, a Turkish soldier was killed in Diyarbakir, another Kurdish-populated city. The army chose to exercise restraint then. Starting a vicious cycle of violence that helps neither party is hardly self-defense, but a calculated political strategy.

The U.S.-led coalition tacitly approved Ankara’s bombing of PKK camps in Iraq, claiming that the Syrian Kurdish fight against ISIS is separate from the cause of the PKK, which is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States. However, no matter how Washington interprets the war on the PKK, there is little distinction between the Kurdish YPG militias in Syria and the PKK.

Thousands of Kurdish fighters have crossed into Syria from Turkey to fight alongside the YPG, which celebrates jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan as its leader. Turkey’s crackdown on the PKK undeniably hurts coalition efforts to defeat ISIS. Kurdish militants can hardly fight a two-front war, especially if one of them is the largest army in the region.

The current pace of violence has not been seen since 2011, when dozens of Turkish soldiers were killed in massive operations against the PKK. Violence was sparked when then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sought nationalist votes by sharpening his tone against the Kurds.

The Turkish state-run news agency reported Sunday that at least 400 PKK militants have been killed in month-long operations, while nearly 40 members of the security services have been killed in PKK violence. Only on Tuesday, the army said it hit 17 PKK targets in southeastern Turkey.

Violence unsustainable

The PKK is using various tactics to terrorize civilians and stage ambush-style attacks against Turkish security services. Police stations are being attacked with rockets almost every day. Hardly a day passes without a Turkish casualty. Beside security strains, this is a tremendous emotional burden on society.

The current pace of violence is unsustainable for both sides. Turkey, after decades of armed conflict, understands that there is no military solution to this lingering problem. The PKK, which has garnered international sympathy for holding peace talks with the Turkish state and fighting ISIS, is wary of mounting anger over its attacks against security forces.

There is no doubt that the PKK desperately wants to resume peace talks, which allowed it to expand its activities in Turkey and send more fighters to Syria. The Union for Kurdistan Communities (KCK), the political umbrella group of the PKK, called on the Turkish state this week to resume negotiations. “The talks are in the refrigerator,” Erdogan responded a day later. Critics say the war will continue until the AKP reclaim its parliamentary majority.

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Mahir Zeynalov is a journalist with Turkish English-language daily Today's Zaman. He is also the managing editor of the Caucasus International magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @MahirZeynalov

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.