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Turkey's 'IS' crackdown revives Kurdish conflict

Now that Erdogan has called off the Kurdish peace process, critics worry that the campaign against 'IS' is being eclipsed by the revival of Turkey's war against the PKK. Noah Blaser reports from Istanbul.

In the aftermath of the Suruc suicide bombing last week, Turkey ended its long reluctance to confront the self-declared "Islamic State" (IS), opening a key airbase to US warplanes, cracking down on jihadist militants at home, and unveiling plans to create an IS-free zone along a stretch of border controlled by the extremist group.

Turkey's government had blamed the attack in Suruc on IS forces, but the flight of Turkish F-16s that struck a dozen targets in the mountains of northern Iraq with a barrage of precision-guided missiles were aiming for another foe altogether. The warplanes struck the secluded leadership of the separatist Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK), which has waged a deadly insurgency for self rule in southeastern Turkey for the past three decades.

Critics now worry that Ankara's commitment to its newest war is being eclipsed by the sudden revival of its oldest.

This week, PKK-affiliated groups killed at least seven security officers in Istanbul and the country's southeast, decisively ending a ceasefire announced by jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan announced in early 2013.The PKK has been stirred from dormancy by the war in Syria.

Collaboration

Kurds say Ankara's leniency toward Islamist groups is evidence of a covert alliance against Syrian-Kurdish militias in the country's north, and accused Turkish police of 'collaborating' with IS in last week's suicide attack. The blast targeted a group of pro-Kurdish activists.

In theory, the NATO-member's bolstered anti-IS stance might have rejuvenated ties between Ankara and its largest minority. But mutual distrust has been strengthened by a crackdown targeting Kurdish as well as pro-IS networks.

"If anything, the police are focused more on Kurds than on IS right now," said Ertugrul Kurkcu, a deputy of the Kurdish-rooted Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP). Kurkcu said that 627 HDP members had been detained in anti-terror raids as of June 26. "This includes 30 party administrators. 395 of our members are still in custody, and 19 have been [formally] charged with crimes," he said.

A DW survey of Turkish media found 94 IS-related detentions over the same time period.The HDP, which shares the PKK's nationalist roots but formally disavows violence, found itself excluded this week from anti-terror briefings that Turkey's Defense Ministry plans to hold with the country's opposition parties.

Those steps have blinded Kurds to Ankara's parallel crackdown on IS. Last month, a Turkish court formally arrested Halis Bayancuk, long known as Ebu Hanzala and considered Turkey's most influential pro-IS ideologue.

Turkish authorities have also blocked scores of jihadist websites and social media accounts while deporting "at least 1,300 IS suspects since the start of 2015," according to a Turkish official.

"If there have been more detentions of PKK members, it is because the group has a much deeper presence in Turkey," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has vowed to continue a crackdown against both groups, promising to "target any who target Turkey."

Disbelief

protest scene on street photo: OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images

The Kurds' distrust is growing again

But Davutoglu's anti-terror message was met with disbelief on a recent day in the Istanbul district of Gazi, where anti-government activists have waged pitched battles against Turkish security forces in recent days.

"Is this what you call an operation against IS?" said Yunus Rende, who ducked behind his shop counter as a Turkish riot vehicle sprayed its water cannon at a crowd of rock-throwing protesters. Gazi, a stronghold of anti-government sentiment, was home to three activists killed in the Suruc bombing.

Over the weekend, a PKK youth group killed a policeman in the district, while anti-terror teams detained dozens.

As distrust for the state fuels further Kurdish violence, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Paty (AKP) has found space to reassert itself after a crippling election defeat in June, said Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey expert at St. Lawrence University in New York state.

"By cracking down, Erdogan is showing that he is the guarantor of security and the protector of the state," said Eissenstat.

For the first time in its decade-plus rule, the AKP lost its parliamentary majority during elections in June. Negotiations for a coalition government have since idled, increasing the possibility of snap elections in autumn.

Ankara's strong-arm stance against Kurdish separatist may "succeed in attracting back nationalist voters who were frustrated with Erdogan's sultanic posturing," said Eissenstat.

While that may equate to smart politics for Turkey's president, "we are spiraling further and further into a conflict that has already unlocked so much hatred," said the HDP's Kurkcu. "It took years to convince people to put those hatreds aside. With this violence, it feels like people are losing the ability to trust each other ever again."

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