Turkish politics : The battle of Semdinli

Aug 3rd 2012, by A.Z. | ANKARA – The Economist – ALONG Turkey’s southern border, in a far-flung corner of the country that is wedged between Iraq and Iran, separatist rebels of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) have been waging one of the fiercest battles in recent years against the Turkish army. For nearly two weeks, PKK rebels entrenched around the township of Semdinli in the Hakkari province have resisted an onslaught by Turkish helicopters and fighter jets that have been pounding the mountainous terrain, setting fire to forests and forcing hundreds of villagers to flee. The battle is said to have spread to the outskirts of Semdinli, an impoverished town of 19,500 where sympathy for the PKK runs strong

Sedat Tore, Semdinli’s mayor from the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) says the din of artillery and bombs “is terrorising our people”. Plumes of smoke have enveloped the town. “We are in a circle of fire,” implores Mr Tore.

Details of the clashes remains sketchy because the combat zone has remained sealed off by the army ever since the battle started on July 24th. The army moved in following reports that PKK militants had set up checkpoints along a road connecting Semdinli to the northern town of Derecik and blown up several small bridges. The PKK claims to have killed as many as 49 Turkish soldiers and that it is controlling the areas surrounding Semdinli. The army denies the claims saying it has lost only two men and that it has killed at least 37 PKK rebels. “We really don’t know what is happening because the government won’t allow us to go in [to the combat zone]” said Esat Canan, a BDP MP in Semdinli, who expressed concern for villagers caught in the conflict.The shroud of mystery thickened after Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, told a group of journalists this week that he knew what was happening in Semdinli but that “I won’t tell you.” Turkish officials claim that the army has foiled PKK plans to spark an “Arab Spring” type uprising in the region but have failed to explain why the fighting has gone on for so long. A PKK affiliated website claimed on August 3rd that the rebels had launched a separate attack in the township of Eruh further west killing at least 11 soldiers. Turkish officials acknowledged that two soldiers died in the attack.

The rebels are expected to further escalate the violence before August 15th, which marks the 28th anniversary of their campaign for an independent Kurdish state uniting some 30m Kurds, scattered across Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. They have been emboldened by recent gains by Syrian Kurds, led by a sister group in the Democratic Union Party (known by its Kurdish initials PYD), which has wrested control of a string of Kurdish majority Syrian towns along the Turkish border.

Turkey has responded by beefing up its troops and ordinance along the border and threatening to intervene should the PKK use Syria as a launching pad for its operations. Amid all the chest-pounding there are some hopeful signs that Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development (AK) party has not abandoned reforms in favour of an all out (and long tested) “military solution” to the Kurdish problem. Even as the Turkish jets continued to rain bombs around Semdinli, AK MPs in Ankara gathered with opposition members in the Turkish parliament to thrash out the draft of a new constitution that the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has promised to deliver.

The wording is expected to pave the way for the Kurds’ long-standing demands to educate their children in their long-banned mother tongue and to shelve references to Turkish ethnicity in relation to citizenship. But there is a hitch. According to the drafting committee’s own rules there needs to be unanimity among members for any new article to be approved. The far-right Nationalist Action Party, which denies there is a Kurdish problem, is pushing back. To his credit Mr Erdogan has done more than any of his predecessors to improve the Kurds’ lot. But unless he resumes talks with the rebels that broke down last year, the scenes in Semdinli are likely to be repeated.