Turks Hope For Lasting Cease-Fire With Kurds

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The summer in Turkey has been marked by violent attacks and reprisals between Kurdish separatist rebels and Turkish security forces, marking the apparent demise of the government's efforts to move toward peace talks with the Kurds. But a Ramadan cease-fire has some Turks hoping that the two sides can return the long-running conflict to a nonviolent path.

Turks had grown used to a year of relative peace and quiet, as the government pushed forward with cultural and social reforms for the Kurdish minority. But the efforts foundered amid pressure from hardliners on both sides. In June, rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, declared the cease-fire over. Since then, newscasts have once again featured a steady diet of spilt Turkish and Kurdish blood.

The return to violence brought the dispute no closer to resolution, and some are wondering where it could lead.

Henri Barkey, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in a recent posting that after a "summer of senseless violence" Turkey is "slowly moving toward a crisis point." Barkey pointed out that since the 1990s young Kurds have spread across Turkey, including to shantytowns on the outskirts of Istanbul where they represent what he calls "a combustible addition to the country's fragile ethnic mix," which includes disaffected Turkish youth under the sway of ultra-nationalists.

Similar concerns may be prompting Turkish officials and Kurdish political leaders to consider ways to recapture last year's positive momentum. A cease-fire for the holy month of Ramadan has professor Emrullah Uslu at Istanbul's Yeditepe University hopeful that cooler heads can find a way to at least keep the truce going past the mid-September end of Ramadan.

"At least for the moment it means a delay for killing people," he said. "If it could save one or two young boys during this cease-fire it is a win."

If Turkey could solve its Kurdish problem, the benefits would be significant both at home and abroad. But the Turkish political landscape is heavily mined. Analysts say Turkey may be making headlines for its moves away from the West and toward Arab and Iranian interests, but on the Kurdish question Turkey lines up squarely with Washington and Tel Aviv, as a state locked in a deadly battle with terrorists. The PKK is listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the U.N., the United States and European Union.

Turkish nationalists, having beaten back the government's "Kurdish opening" last year with waves of criticism, are pressing their advantage, calling for no compromise with the Kurds. With elections coming up next year, Prime Minister Recep Tayyep Erdogan has returned to strong nationalist rhetoric on the Kurdish question.

Analyst Gareth Jenkins says the current cease-fire comes at a propitious moment for the government, which is focused on winning approval for a package of constitutional reforms in a Sept. 12 referendum. But he believes a return to negotiations with the Kurds, especially the PKK, will be problematic for the ruling AK Party in the coming election season.

"Certainly nothing's going to happen before the referendum, and I think certainly nothing's going to happen before the next election either," he said. "Because the AKP, it has more to lose electorally by entering into negotiations with the PKK than it has to gain."

If that view is correct, then Turkey may be in for more bloodshed once this cease-fire ends.

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