Turkey's Detente With Kurdish Militants On Verge Of Collapse

As Turkey continues to pursue a hawkish approach to the Syrian conflict, analysts say one of Prime Minister Erdogan's biggest peace initiatives at home is foundering. Although militants from the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers Party, have partially withdrawn to northern Iraq, the withdrawal has stalled as the government failed to enact long-awaited reforms. With Syrian Kurds emboldened and newly empowered in northeastern Syria, ending Turkey's decades-long battle with its Kurdish minority is more crucial than ever. But with local elections looming in Turkey, observers say the peacemaking effort may have to wait.

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The conflict in Syria is causing problems for its neighbors beyond the violence that's spilling over their borders. In Turkey, which has strongly backed Syrian rebels, one of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's most important political efforts is in danger of collapsing.

NPR's Peter Kenyon reports on dimming hopes for a peace process between Turkey and its Kurdish minority.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: In the Turkish border village of Ceylanpinar, the sounds of Syrian-Kurdish militants fighting Islamist rebel units can be heard nightly. But it isn't just stray mortars and bullets that worry these Turks. At a sidewalk cafe in this largely Kurdish village, men are talking about Syria, of course. With four dead and scores wounded since July by stray fire, the conflict has been a disaster here.

But as Kurds, these men are also talking about what could have been Prime Minister Erdogan's lasting legacy: peace with Turkey's Kurdish minority. Mehmet Sardonlu says there's no question the Syrian conflict and the rise in power of Syrian Kurds that has been one result have badly strained an already difficult peace process.

MEHMET SARDONLU: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: Yes. We can see the harm it's done already, he says. In Syria, the Kurds are getting more autonomy since the war began, power they never had before. But here in Turkey, all we have is another failed peace process.

Fifty-year-old Ceylan Coldu, sitting next to him, shrugs fatalistically, a gesture familiar to Kurds who have had their hopes raised in the past.

CEYLAN COLDU: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: In all the world, it's the ethnic minority that gets hurt the worst, he says. In Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, it's always the Kurds that get it in the end.

Portions of Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq are claimed by the Kurds as their traditional homeland. Today, Kurds control northern Iraq, from where the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, launched deadly attacks in Turkey until this year. That's when the PKK agreed to lay down weapons and withdraw from Turkey in exchange for new minority rights from the government.

Analyst and columnist Yavuz Baydar says with the peace process bogged down and the PKK withdrawal halted as the government drags its feet on reforms, many worry that the violence that killed some 35,000 people may return.

YAVUZ BAYDAR: Well, it looks in a limbo. Both sides were unable to build trust, confidence is lacking. Neither side would move forward, which means that expectations on the government are much higher now, and the delays are frustrating the PKK.

KENYON: On the other hand, Baydar says there's still a slim hope that Turks and Kurds are getting used to peace. He says if the government can do enough to keep the ceasefire through local elections coming up this fall, that will give the biggest Kurdish party, the BDP, a chance to run as the party of peace.

BAYDAR: Of course, the hopes are held high again from the BDP side, that they will be in as many municipalities as possible, show of strength, which will mean, of course, a lot for the continuation of the peace process. But it is a key moment for Turkey's democratization and also internal, peaceful co-existence.

KENYON: That's what BDP lawmaker Nursel Aydogan is thinking as well. She's disappointed that the elections scared the ruling party away from pushing hard for the peace process. But while Erdogan's party is busy defending itself against nationalist charges of negotiating with terrorists, Aydogan says the BDP will be putting its faith in opinion polls that show solid majorities across Turkey backing the peace process.

NURSEL AYDOGAN: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: Yes, exactly. We see these elections as nothing less than a referendum on peace, she says. Our slogan is every vote you give is a vote for democracy, solving the Kurdish issue and peace. So the number of municipalities the BDP wins will show us the popularity of continuing the peace process.

Aydogan also says Kurds will strive to keep the ceasefire as long as possible because, as the PKK's jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan has said, if violence begins again, it will be very hard to stop it. Peter Kenyon, NPR news, Istanbul.

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