Where Turkey Is Already at War: Are Kurdish Militants Doing Syria’s Bidding?

As Turkey and Syria trade fire, the one war Turkey is already fighting — its conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party — has become the most violent in more than a decade

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ADEM ALTAN / AFP / Getty Images

A supporter of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party holds a poster of Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, during the party's congress in Ankara on Oct. 14, 2012

The police station in Sirnak, a town of 60,000 in southeastern Turkey, remains almost entirely covered with blue tarp, obscuring the damage done to its edifice nearly two months ago when a group of Kurdish militants — seven or eight of them, according to a sales clerk at a nearby phone shop — blasted the building with rocket-propelled grenades from the surrounding streets. The date of the attack, Aug. 18, was meant to convey a message, the shop clerk explains. On that day 20 years ago, the Turkish army reduced much of Sirnak to rubble after rebels attempted to take control of the town. Dozens died in the fighting.

Anniversaries are a big deal in Sirnak to most of Turkey’s Kurdish-majority southeast — and to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the group held responsible for the August attack. The day before I arrived, shop owners across the city brought down their shutters to mark the passing of 14 years since Turkey browbeat Syrian authorities into expelling Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK’s founder and leader, from his base in Damascus. (Ocalan, captured and tried shortly thereafter, is now serving out a life sentence in a Turkish island prison on the Sea of Marmara.) Most of the shopkeepers close their doors voluntarily and out of sympathy for the Kurdish cause, the phone-store employee says. Those who demur risk seeing their shops firebombed by PKK sympathizers patrolling the streets.

(MORE: Turkey Rattles Its Saber at Syria but Remains Unlikely to Invade)

Over the past year, attacks like the one on the police station in Sirnak have become increasingly common. The most brazen came earlier this summer when the PKK attempted to capture and hold Semdinli, a town tucked between the Iranian and Iraqi borders, as well as surrounding areas. The Turkish army hit back with overwhelming force, deploying artillery, cobra helicopters and tanks, eventually repelling the rebels. By most counts, the clashes claimed over a hundred lives, adding to a grim tally that makes this the bloodiest period in Turkey’s Kurdish conflict since Ocalan’s capture. According to Hugh Pope, head of the Turkey office of the International Crisis Group, which recently published a report on the Kurdish issue, the number of casualties since June 2011 has reached 775, including 262 members of the security forces, 426 PKK militants and 87 civilians. A total of more than 40,000 people have died since the beginning of the conflict, which began with a PKK insurgency in 1984.

Although the PKK rejects being labeled a terrorist organization — by Turkey, the U.S. and the E.U. — and although its recent targets have generally been military outposts, it does have civilian blood on its hands. The militants are widely suspected of having orchestrated an attack that killed 10 people in Gaziantep, close to the Syrian border, in August. (They have denied involvement.) On Oct. 9, according to Turkish media, PKK sympathizers attacked eight schools in Sirnak province with Molotov cocktails and noise bombs, wounding two primary-school students.

To the Turkish government it is no coincidence that the surge in violence should come as the country emerges as a leading advocate of regime change in Syria — and as tensions between the onetime allies escalate into open hostilities. Damascus has begun using the PKK as a proxy, the thinking in Ankara goes. “Assad has given them weapons support,” Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu announced in August. “We have taken necessary measures against this threat.” A ministry official contacted by TIME confirmed that the government was in possession of evidence of Syrian support to the PKK, but declined to go into detail. If Syria’s previous President Hafez Assad harbored the rebels in the 1990s, many Turks reason, his son Bashar has every reason to assist it today — namely, to punish Ankara for its decision to harbor the insurgent Free Syrian Army and cool Turkish enthusiasm for intervention in Syria. (The Syrians’ decision to withdraw from Kurdish controlled areas across from Turkey’s southern border, and to leave their administration to a PKK offshoot, is seen as part of the same game plan.)

(PHOTOS: Syria’s Bloody, Slow-Motion Civil War)

Similar accusations have also been leveled against Iran, which deeply resents Turkey’s backing of antiregime forces in Syria, as well as its earlier decision to host elements of a NATO missile-defense shield. Bulent Arinc, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister, has repeatedly suggested Iranian complicity in the Gaziantep bombing and in the PKK’s operations in and around Semdinli. A month ago, the spat between Ankara and Tehran reached new heights when Turkish TV aired footage of alleged Iranian agents conferring with PKK members about the location of military-and-police targets in Turkey.

If Syria’s and Iran’s strategy is to play the PKK card to make the Turks to think twice about intervention, it may be working, at least partially. Despite their government’s increasingly tough rhetoric — punctuated by artillery volleys against Syrian targets after a shell killed five people in a Turkish border town earlier this month — most Turks oppose military action in Syria. The PKK certainly factors into Ankara’s thinking, says Sinan Ulgen, a Turkish ex-diplomat and head of the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, a think tank. “There is a fear that the government has not yet addressed the situation in the southeast before engaging in a set of actions that may end up threatening its security,” says Ulgen. There is a flip side, however. A Turkish government that suspects Assad of arming the Kurdish militants may be keener than ever to see his regime toppled.

Rather than trying to pin the blame for the new wave of PKK violence on Syria, many Kurds say, the Turkish leadership should take a long, hard look in the mirror. The government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has passed a string of bold reforms over the past decade, cracking down on torture, launching a Kurdish TV station and, most recently, introducing elective courses in Kurdish. But despite secret negotiations with the PKK, which unraveled only last year, Ankara has not met the Kurds’ main demands, which include greater autonomy, political representation, full language rights and Ocalan’s transfer to house arrest.

(MORE: How the Kurds Have Changed Turkey’s Calculations on Syria)

On top of that, the government has cracked down hard on the Kurdish movement as a whole, detaining as many as 8,000 activists, politicians, journalists and students — sometimes on the flimsiest of charges — for alleged links to the PKK. In Sirnak itself, two of the three provincial assembly members from the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) are in jail; another is on the run. In neighboring Cizre, three of the party’s five deputies are behind bars. “There’s only so much more that people here can endure,” says Irfan Enc, a BDP politician from Uludere, a village 48 km east of Sirnak. Uludere has been on everyone’s lips since last December when Turkish fighter jets rained bombs on a group of local gasoline smugglers after mistaking them for PKK militants. The death toll: 34 people, most of them teenagers. Their families still haven’t received a direct apology, says Enc.

Inside the local office of the BDP, amid an unrelenting stream of mustachioed men who pause only to shake hands with everyone present, Ocalan, whose picture hangs from one corner of the room, squares off against Erdogan, whose face beams from the TV set hung from another. As the news rolls in — Erdogan has just announced that public education in the Kurdish language is a nonstarter and criticized a police chief who expressed sympathy for PKK members killed in the recent clashes — Enc shakes his head. “I cry for both sides,” he says, turning his cane in his hands. “Today, no one is safe around here, it’s like the ’90s again. The soldiers and the policemen cannot walk around in peace, and neither can we. If we have to keep living under this kind of pressure, there may be worse things to come.”

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