Even after Turkey coup, no end in sight for PKK bloodshed

Turkish security forces and Kurdish militants are locked in a grinding conflict with no end in sight even after the botched coup.

AFP| Last Updated: Jul 20, 2016, 15:54 PM IST

Istanbul: Turkish security forces and Kurdish militants are locked in a grinding conflict with no end in sight even after the botched coup, following a year of renewed fighting that has sown death and devastation in Turkey`s southeast.

The coup bid on Friday to unseat President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was staged by disgruntled members of the Turkish army, which has taken the lead role in the conflict and borne the brunt of the losses on the Turkish side.

By late Tuesday, four days after the failed putsch, Turkish F-16s were back in the air to launch their first strikes against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) since the coup attempt, bombing its bases in northern Iraq.

Until a year ago, a largely respected two-and-a-half year truce had sparked hopes of a final peace deal to end Turkey`s three-decade conflict with the PKK.

But the fighting resumed last July and an accord now seems further away than ever.

In a bloody sequence of events, 34 people pro-Kurdish activists were killed on July 20 last year close to the Syrian border in a bombing blamed on Islamic State group (IS) jihadists.

Accusing Turkey of collaborating with IS -- a claim Ankara fiercely denies -- the PKK then killed two police as they slept in what it called an act of revenge a day later.

The PKK then tore up the truce it had declared in March 2013 and resumed attacks on security forces, which retaliated with relentless operations in Kurdish urban centres and air raids in the mountains of southeast Turkey and against PKK bases in northern Iraq.

The latest raids appear to be a sign that Erdogan has regained full control of the military to persue his battle against the PKK.

"The two actors were ready for the resumption of the conflict and that explains why the escalation has been so serious," said Yohanan Benhaim of the Paris 1-Pantheon Sorbonne University.

But the resumption of violence "has been disastrous for the actors as well as the civilian population," he added.Founded by radical leftist students led by Abdullah Ocalan in the 1970s, the PKK formally launched its insurrection against the Turkish state in 1984.

Initially it sought independence for Turkey`s Kurdish minority -- making up around 20 percent of the population -- although over the years the emphasis switched to greater rights and self-rule.

Existing tensions were fuelled by the conflict in neighbouring Syria, where Kurdish militias were battling to stop the advance of IS.

The Kurds accused Turkey of encouraging the rise of the Islamists but Ankara saw the Kurdish People`s Protection Units (YPG) militia as simply the Syrian branch of the PKK.

According to Turkish authorities, at least 483 members of the security forces have been killed in attacks since the truce collapsed last year. They also say over 7,000 members of the PKK have been eliminated, a figure that is impossible to independently verify.

With the fighting reducing parts of some towns to rubble, some 355,000 people have been internally displaced, according to Human Rights Watch, which has also denounced "widespread unlawful destruction of private property".

One shift in the conflict has been attempts by the PKK to establish themselves in Turkish urban centres, away from their remote mountain strongholds, with militants launching patrols and setting up barricades.

The army responded by launching crushing military operations backed by curfews to root out PKK in almost two dozen towns which activists say took a heavy toll on civilians.

Images from the targeted areas showed the scale of the violence, like in the historic Sur district of Diyarbakir or the town of Cizre which could easily have been mistaken for areas in Homs or Aleppo -- both of which have been devastated by five years of war in neighbouring Syria.

"The government could not allow the PKK to obtain territorial control in urban areas," said Sinan Ulgen, director of the Edam think tank, adding that the violence had risen to a level "never before seen". But for all the human suffering, analysts question where the fighting has taken either side, with the PKK no closer to achieving its goals but the Turkish government also no closer to defeating the group.

"After a year since the start of this tragedy, there is no sign that the cycle of violence is going to end," said Ulgen.

"The PKK failed in its aim of launching its own governance model in the southeast of Turkey due to the lack of popular support that it had been counting on. It strengthened itself in Syria, but not in Turkey."

Ocalan, jailed for life on a prison island off Istanbul, is cut off and silent, with more belligerent PKK figures taking the lead. Meanwhile, Turkish leaders warn there will be no let-up in the "anti-terror fight".

"Neither of the two actors have an interest in the end of the conflict," said Benhaim. "The security forces have managed to reimpose control on towns, but at what price?"