Turkey Faces Threat of Growing Unrest

Mob violence followed deadly attacks by Kurdish militant group, sowing fear in country’s largest ethnic minority 

ANKARA—As mobs blazed through his neighborhood in the Turkish capital, attacking Kurdish political party offices, shops and associations, Sulhattin Atas watched them torch his two fruit trucks.
“We’ve lived in Ankara for 35 years and never experienced anything like this,” said the 54-year-old Kurdish resident of Altindag, an ethnically mixed working-class district. “Next, it may be our house that gets burnt, or us.”
Throngs of young people driving around the neighborhood in cars draped with Turkish flags at night fired occasional shots in the air. Amid concern that attacks and vandalism could spark clashes as Kurdish residents complained of delayed police responses, authorities deployed riot squads in Altindag.
“We just watched this havoc for two days, but if they come again, we will defend ourselves,” said Cumali Tastan, chairman of a local Kurdish businessmen’s association. Its office was destroyed and looted by the unidentified attackers.
Public fury has been rising across Turkey amid mounting attacks by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which killed 30 soldiers and policemen in the span of 48 hours this week. The government has responded to PKK assaults with airstrikes, military raids and curfews in the country’s southeast, where emergency measures and alleged civilian deaths are fueling anger at the state in the majority Kurdish regions.
“We don’t want a military operation, we want a massacre,” chanted thousands marching in central Istanbul. “Martyrs don’t die, the homeland is indivisible.”
As a resurgent conflict between Turkey and the PKK erodes the prospect of resuming three-year-old peace talks, mounting unrest is tearing at the nation’s delicate social fabric, threatening broad civil unrest just before early elections in November.
With nationalists’ ire now turned to the country’s largest ethnic minority, both Turks and Kurds fear a re-emergence of tensions that have periodically plagued Turkey, plunging it into bouts of violence, derailing its economy and demolishing reconciliation efforts across a diverse society.
People held Turkish flags and pictures of dead soldiers during a demonstration against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party on Monday in Istanbul. ENLARGE
People held Turkish flags and pictures of dead soldiers during a demonstration against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party on Monday in Istanbul. Photo: Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
Most of this week’s attacks were aimed at the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, or HDP, but various media organizations were also targeted as government supporters and critics blamed each other for the resumption of hostilities that have killed 40,000 people in the past three decades.
“It is becoming impossible to hold an election given the security situation,” said Selahattin Demirtas, leader of the HDP.
Government officials have pledged to carry out free and fair elections, and to overcome any security challenge.
Mr. Demirtas has been trying to reach Cizre on the Syrian border since Wednesday, but security forces have barred the lawmaker’s delegation from marching to the majority Kurdish town. Under a weeklong curfew and blockade, and with the HDP and human rights advocates alleging two dozen civilian deaths amid a security clampdown, Cizre threatens to become yet another flash point stoking ethnic mistrust and recriminations.
Turkish officials denied that there have been civilian deaths. Officials also said the curfew would lift Saturday morning, amid mounting concerns from rights activists and the European Union, which Ankara seeks to join.
The domestic turbulence highlights Turkey’s social fault-lines and adds to challenges facing a key North Atlantic Treaty Organization member as it fights a two-front war against Kurdish insurgents and Islamic State.
Already, the interim government is grappling with a leadership vacuum roiling Turkey since the HDP entered parliament for the first time after June polls, ending the 13-year Justice and Development Party (AKP) government and curbing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s push to expand his powers.
“The current escalation in conflict is extremely worrying and shows no sign of abating,” said Anthony Skinner, who covers Turkey at U.K.-based political-risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft. “Erdogan appears to be hell-bent on magnifying social cleavages and exacerbating conflict in a bid to weaken the political opposition in the upcoming elections.”
While the arrival of Kurdish lawmakers as a major bloc in parliament upended Turkey’s political landscape, it also prompted the PKK to level demands on the government, which were rejected. Subsequently, Kurdish insurgents ended their truce with the state, unleashing roadside bombings, assassinations and attacks that have killed more than 100 security forces since July.
Turkish officials claim to have killed more than 1,000 PKK members in widespread ground offensives and hundreds of airstrikes—most recently on Friday.
Meanwhile, Mr. Erdogan and his AKP allies have increasingly targeted Kurdish lawmakers, accusing the HDP of being complicit in the recent bout of violence by linking the party with the PKK—listed as a terrorist organization by Ankara, Washington and Brussels.
“Make your choice: democracy or terror,” Mr. Erdogan said Wednesday, accusing Kurdish lawmakers of leaning on the PKK to secure political leverage. “If you line-up next to terrorism, you will accept to pay the cost.”
The HDP rejects the charges and accuses the president and government officials of seeking to undermine its support to regain power in snap polls. Mr. Demirtas has repeatedly called on both the state and the PKK to halt attacks and return to peace negotiations, a plea that neither side has heeded.
Meanwhile, a prosecutor has unveiled a probe into whether Mr. Demirtas has been spreading “terrorist propaganda,” feeding suspicion among Kurds that the state is seeking to erode their political gains. Mr. Demirtas dismissed the investigation as a politically motivated move orchestrated by the president to undermine his party.
With back-to-back funerals of security officials dominating the airwaves over the past month, the mounting death toll from PKK attacks, and endless political bickering, attacks on Kurds have been on the rise.
Mobs set fire to the HDP headquarters in Ankara and have attacked some 100 branches of Turkey’s fourth biggest political movement since Monday, according to the HDP. A man was almost lynched after posting a photo on social media wearing the uniform of the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces, according to local television broadcasts, while throngs shown riding along beach resorts on the western Mediterranean coast torched Kurdish-owned businesses for not hanging Turkish flags.
“Terrorism aims to damage our unshakable brotherhood,” said Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, the president’s handpicked successor and ally in parliament. “We will not allow fighting among brothers.”
Yet despite calls for calm from the premier and opposition parties, since Monday there have been more than 850 demonstrations in 72 of 81 provinces in Turkey, where two civilians have been killed and 51 wounded, while 310 people have been detained, Interior Minister Selami Altinok said.
Amid the state crackdown in Cizre, Kurdish lawmakers warned that Turkey is “drifting into a civil war.”
Mr. Davutoglu has dismissed such warnings, saying “Turkey is no Syria.”
In a television program on Thursday, he said the HDP was trying to stir unrest and an atmosphere of panic.
In Ankara’s Altindag neighborhood, 54-year-old Arif Yilmaz crouched in the corridor of his apartment with his wife as mobs targeted the building for housing an HDP election office, on the night of a devastating PKK attack that killed more than a dozen security forces.
“They are upset because of our martyred soldiers,” said Mr. Yilmaz, a Turk. “But we’re afraid too, and we’re not enemies of the Kurds.”

Source: http://www.wsj.com/articles/turkey-faces-threat-of-growing-unrest-1442050203


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