Istanbul, 8 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- NATO strikes against Yugoslavia and the expulsion of a large segment of Kosovo's ethnic Albanians and Turks have raised an important question among some opponents of the air strikes. They ask whether NATO is setting a double standard by intervening in Kosovo but not in Turkey's troubled southeastern Anatolia region, the home of much of its Kurdish community.
Turkey has been fighting a war with Kurdish insurgents for nearly 15 years. The U.S. has sold and donated military equipment and technology to Ankara, which has used the weapons to strengthen its ongoing armed suppression of the banned Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) and its supporters.
The PKK has been fighting a war with Turkey in a bid for autonomy for the Kurdish-inhabited southeast, including respect for the Kurdish language and identity. The Turkish military has restored its control over the area although it continues to engage in mopping up operations on both sides of the Turkish-Iraqi border. These operations, Western diplomats say, no longer result in the capture of prisoners. They say that PKK tactics when under attack are now to fight to the last man rather than flee and regroup or surrender. Western journalists who have been invited by the Turkish military to witness their operations in the southeast report that Turkish troops make no effort to take prisoners.
In the course of the Kurdish insurrection, some 30,000 people have been killed, including Turkish soldiers and police, PKK rebels, Kurdish village guards and civilians. The PKK has also targeted fellow Kurds who refused to cooperate, including leading members of the PKK who differed with the party's leader, Abdullah Ocalan.
Turkey is a NATO ally, of course, and hosts a U.S. air base at Incirlik, near Adana. In an effort to protect Iraq's Kurdish population, the base is used for daily air patrols in the "no-fly zone" of northern Iraq. This, however, does not exempt Turkey from criticism by the U.S. State Department.
The recently released State Department human-rights report on Turkey says that, since the conflict began, the number of villagers forcibly evacuated from their homes as part of the Turkish government's fight against the PKK "is credibly estimated to be approximately 560,000." The report accuses the Turkish government of having long denied the Kurdish population basic political, cultural and linguistic rights.
In contrast to Kosovo, this massive movement of Kurds did not happen overnight, but rather over several years, and it took several forms. Nevertheless, Turkish forces did burn down Kurdish villages suspected of harboring or supporting the PKK, a fact Turkish authorities no longer deny. Turkish authorities also resettled some Kurds in new, more secure communities. But large numbers of Kurds out of necessity settled in cities in the southeast region, such as Diyarbakir, and many more headed west to Turkey's big cities. That movement has made Istanbul and Izmir the largest Kurdish communities in the country.
In an interview on Qatar television (Space Channel), Turkish President Suleyman Demirel this week rejected a comparison between Turkey's Kurds and Kosovo's Albanians. In Demirel's words, "there is no comparison between the Kosovars and the Kurds, because the Kurds are compatriots." He insisted that Turkey does not differentiate between citizens on the basis of race or origin and noted that 150 of the 550 members of Turkey's parliament are of Kurdish origin.
Demirel went on to say that "there is no Kurdish problem --there is [only] a terrorism problem inside Turkey." He described the Kurds as "indigenous natives of this country," adding that "there is a difference between that and a terrorist movement, which seeks to divide and dismember Turkey".
Istanbul political scientist Nilufer Narli of Marmara University also rejects comparisons between Kosovo and the Kurdish question. She says that in Kosovo, NATO decided to organize air strikes "just to prevent ethnic cleansing." But she says the plight of the Kurds is quite different:
"I think the main difference is that there is no ethnic cleansing in the southeastern part of Turkey, but clashes between the PKK and the security forces, and of course it affected civilians because when the village people cooperated with the PKK --these people faced brutality from the security forces, but no ethnic cleansing and no grand master plan to eliminate the Kurds living in the southeast. Secondly, Kurds in Turkey have been very much integrated into the Turkish population."
Narli says that those who make comparisons between Kosovars and Kurds do so in an attempt to keep Turkey from joining the European Union. But Marmara University professor of international law Hakan Baykal warns that NATO intervention in Kosovo, which includes Turkey's active participation, could set a precedent that in the future could come home to haunt Turkey.
"Turkey supports NATO's air strikes because there is ethnic cleansing in Kosovo --the ethnic Albanians are being brutally killed by Serbs. So from the humanitarian point of view, Turkey supports these operations. But in the far future it will be dangerous also for Turkey. They will ask some questions --we will have to be careful on this issue [although] at this point we support NATO's operations."
Turkey has joined the NATO mission against Yugoslavia, supplying 11 F-16 planes and one frigate, and has declared its willingness to accept 20,000 Kosovar refugees. Some of them have already arrived.
In Turkey's fourth largest city, Adana, the mayoral candidate for the mainly Kurdish People's Democracy Party (HADEP), Suleyman Kilic, who is an ethnic Arab, says his party does not support NATO intervention in Kosovo and does not believe that the intervention benefits the civilian population there.
"The Serbian conflict in Kosovo, when seen in the context of the Kurdish situation in southeastern Turkey, is much less serious. NATO countries led by the United States have engaged the Serbs in warfare over the fate of Kosovo's Albanians. But the United States and other countries have ignored what has been going on in southeastern Turkey for the last 15 years."
Kilic says his party, HADEP, in addition to not supporting the U.S. intervention in Yugoslavia, also would not want the U.S. to behave similarly towards Turkey.
"Turkey is conducting a war against the Kurds with U.S. technological assistance, including the supply of military aircraft. On the one hand, the U.S. supports the right of the Kurdish people to remain in southeastern Anatolia. But on the other hand, the United States behaves differently towards the Serb and Kosovo people. This is a great conflict showing the tendency of the United States taking one side or another depending on the state or military situation."
In Kosovo, Kilic says, NATO sought a political solution that was in the interest of the U.S. and the EU. Now, he says, the U.S. and Europe should press Turkey on the political situation of the Kurds in order, as he puts it, "to resolve the human rights problems of the Kurdish people and enable them to determine their identity in the region."
For its part the PKK, despite being all but defeated in the southeast, has expanded its field of operations and sought civilian targets across the country, including marketplaces, stores, schools and city squares. These latest operations have killed and maimed passers-by, including foreign tourists.
The PKK has also been able to operate from bases in Syria. It is believed to be funded by the Kurdish Diaspora, by drug trafficking through southeastern Anatolia as well as by the support of Turkey's neighbors --Greece, Syria, Iraq and possibly Iran.
In contrast, the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) --which surfaced in 1997 as a shadowy group that launched attacks on Serbian police in the province while refraining from targeting civilians-- now rejects autonomy for the province and demands independence. Its funding has been almost solely from the Albanian Diaspora in Western Europe and North America. The UCK has refrained from targeting civilians and is now fighting for its survival.
In an interview on Albanian TV last night, UCK spokesman Jakup Krasniqi said that "from the beginning the UCK's war has had a defensive character." He said the UCK's mode of fighting is "more in the nature of guerrilla warfare." But he added that "sometimes the UCK is forced into a frontal war...to defend the civilian population." Krasniqi also claimed the UCK now "enjoys the support of the international community and NATO, and the other countries" that he says are "helping the people and their just war".
The spokesman confirmed that the Albanian Diaspora has been a key source of support for the UCK.
No single supreme leader, charismatic or otherwise, has emerged from UCK ranks to date. In contrast, the PKK is led by a charismatic figure, Ocalan, currently awaiting trial on the Imrali prison island southwest of Istanbul. Ironically, his reputation among many Turkish Kurds has only risen further as a result of his capture and detention. In the words of one Kurdish HADEP candidate, "Ocalan is our leader as long as he remains in prison."