HAMLET & ÖCALAN : Turkey, Syria and the Kurds: South by south-east / THE ECONOMIST

20.10.2012 – NUSAYBIN AND SENYUR,— The fiercely anti-Assad stance Turkey is taking in Syria is aggravating long-running troubles with its own 14m-odd Kurds. A giant Kurdish flag undulating atop a raised plateau inside Syria (western Kurdistan) faces the town of Senyurt in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish south-east (northern Kurdistan). At the local headquarters of the ruling Justice and Development (AK) party, a grey slab engraved with Ataturk’s aphorism “Happy is he who calls himself a Turk” gathers dust under a stairwell. Across the street at the gendarmerie, another slogan—“Loyalty to the army is our honour”—glints through barbed wire.

The scene encapsulates Turkey’s Kurdish (and Syrian) impasse. The Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has long called for Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, to go. Turkey now hosts over 100,000 refugees from Syria. Tensions between the two countries have almost tipped into open war. Yet there is no sign of an early end to the Syrian conflict. And the withdrawal of Syrian forces from mainly Kurdish towns along the border has raised the stakes in the Turkish state’s 28-year battle with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

The towns are now run by the PKK’s Syrian franchise, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). As well as setting up Kurdish-language schools and Kurdish outfits, the PYD is busily arming itself, forming three battalions so far. It claims this is to defend against the chaos that may ensue after Mr Assad’s fall. But in the eyes of an increasingly hawkish Mr Erdogan, the PYD is the PKK—and its main enemy is Turkey. The Kurds fear they, not Mr Assad’s forces, are the target of Turkish troops and tanks deployed along the border. They think a bill just adopted by the Turkish parliament to authorise the army to intervene abroad is aimed at them. This is overwrought. Yet Turkey is clearly rattled by the prospect of a quasi-independent Syrian-Kurdish entity emerging beside the Iraqi-Kurdish statelet in northern Iraq (southern Kurdistan).

In Nusaybin, farther along the border, the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) mayor, Ayse Gokkan, gestures at the Syrian town of Qamishli, partly under PYD control. When the Kurdish flag was raised over Qamishli, thousands of locals took to the streets in celebration. “These borders are artificial, for centuries we lived as one, our hearts are one, our aims are one, our suffering is one,” she sighs. At the BDP-run Mitanni cultural centre, young Kurds are making up for lost time, performing dramas and songs in the most widely spoken Kurdish dialect, Kurmanji. “Independent maybe, autonomy definitely,” grins a teenager playing the role of Hamlet.

The PKK often seems less concerned with Kurdish rights than with undermining the AK party. The rebels have escalated their violent campaign inside Turkey, killing scores of soldiers and policemen. And right across the south-east, the PKK has embarked on a terrorist spree, burning government buildings, raiding schools, wounding children and kidnapping teachers to weaken the state’s grip.

The fiercest fighting has been in the mountains around Semdinli, a town wedged between Iran and Iraq. Cemil Oter, leader of the powerful Jirki tribe, which has fought on the side of the army against the PKK, suggests that Turkish rule over Semdinli has become a polite fiction. Mr Oter, once an ardent supporter of Mr Erdogan, used to tell his people to vote AK. “He gave us more hope than any other Turkish leader,” acknowledges Mr Oter. But “now he has become just like the others, we won’t vote for him again.”

AK is the BDP’s sole rival in the region. It swept up half the Kurdish votes in the south-east in 2007. In 2009 Mr Erdogan came tantalisingly close to peace, first by taming Turkey’s meddlesome generals and then by introducing reforms that gave the Kurds greater linguistic and cultural freedoms. He also began secret talks with the imprisoned PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, in hopes of ending an insurgency that has cost nearly 50,000 lives. But Mr Erdogan’s 2009 “Kurdish opening” was closed after he was re-elected last year.

Critics claim that Mr Erdogan ditched the Kurdish opening in a cynical bid to court nationalist votes that may carry him to the presidency when it becomes free in 2014. They also say his promises of a new democratic constitution will come to nothing. The government retorts that, by stepping up its terrorist attacks, the PKK has made it impossible to get the Turkish public on board. Even as Turkish fighter jets rained bombs on PKK camps in northern Iraq this week, the government was unveiling textbooks for Kurmanji classes in state schools. An official Kurdish-Turkish dictionary is in the works, and defendants will be allowed to speak Kurdish in court. Yet with each new concession, the PKK keeps raising the bar. The rebels now insist they will not resume talks unless Mr Ocalan is moved out of solitary confinement and placed under “humane conditions” (ie, house arrest). Hundreds of PKK prisoners have gone on indefinite hunger strike to this end. Mr Ocalan, who is revered by Kurds, could yet be the key to peace. But after 13 years of solitary confinement his health is waning and so is his grip.

Indeed, as the PYK consolidates its hold in Syria, a solution seems to be slipping out of Turkey’s hands. Many believe that Mr Erdogan’s Syrian policy, especially his support for the opposition Free Syrian Army, is to blame. “They freed the border from Assad, only for the PKK to step in,” says one opposition MP. Moreover, by seeking to oust Mr Assad, Turkey has antagonised his chief allies, Iran and Iraq, prompting them to rekindle their alliances with the PKK. The economic cost is also rising. Turkey has lost an estimated $3 billion in annual trade. Nusaybin, a former hub for suitcase traders, has been hit hard since its border with Syria was sealed in December. Shuttered shops line the streets. Unemployment, says Mrs Gokkan, has rocketed to 90%. With few prospects, Nusaybin’s youths are natural recruits for the PKK.