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Turkey has 'too much to lose'

Martin Kuebler, BrusselsJuly 27, 2015

Turkish airstrikes against the PKK Kurdish minority have jeopardized a 2013 ceasefire with the group. EU lawmaker Kati Piri told DW the Turkish response has been "disproportionate." Martin Kuebler reports from Brussels.

Turkish Air Force's F-16 fighter jet
Image: picture-alliance/AA/Veli Gurgah

In the wake of last Monday's suicide attack in the town of Suruc, in which an "Islamic State" ("IS") militant killed 32 Turkish citizens, Ankara has stepped up its campaign against the group in an attempt to create what it has called "a safe zone" across its southeastern border with Syria.

But the Turkish government has come under criticism - including from Germany - for also launching airstrikes against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in Iraq, jeopardizing a 2013 ceasefire with the outlawed group, which has led a decades-long insurgency in support of Kurdish rights and autonomy.

Turkey has called for an emergency meeting with its NATO allies to discuss the fighting.

Kati Piri, a Dutch lawmaker with the Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament and responsible for EU-Turkey relations, told DW that Turkey's strikes have put the Kurdish peace process at risk.

DW: What do you make of the Turkish response to last week's terrorist attack in Suruc?

Kati Piri: While Turkey, in the view of many in the international coalition against ISIL [another term for the "Islamic State" group], was a bit reluctant to enter full scale into the coalition, it was also left with no other choice after this attack in which 32 of its citizens died.

On the other hand, after the PKK attacked and killed two police officers [on Wednesday], Turkey started a new spiral of violence also against the PKK. That, to say the least, is very worrying.

Türkei Explosion in Suruc
The IS suicide attack killed 32 people, mainly Kurds, in the Turkish town of SurucImage: picture-alliance/AA/R. Maltas

So you believe that Turkey's response has been disproportionate?

It's not just an attack on an organization [the PKK] with, in this case, camps in another country, northern Iraq. We're also talking here about millions of Kurdish people living in Turkey, with whom there was a peace process, although very fragile, during the last two years. There was a truce, a ceasefire agreement between both the PKK and the government. In my view, if [the Turkish government] wants to keep the peace process with the Kurds alive, this full-size attack on the PKK looks a bit, to be honest, disproportionate. What's been happening over the last three days has once again put the peace process very much into question. Is it dead? I hope not, but it doesn't look very alive either. It's very damaging.

Did last week's attack in Suruc simply give Turkey an excuse to relaunch its campaign against the PKK?

Let's not forget: Turkey does have the right to self defense. When its officers are killed by an organization which is also included on the European terrorist list, this is totally unacceptable. No one is saying that Turkey should just leave this alone and pretend that nothing has happened. On the other hand, knowing that there is such a delicate peace process going on, then you need to have a proportionate response as well.

What is much more dangerous to me now is that some politicians from the [ruling Justice and Development party] AKP, along with some politicians from the more right-wing party, MHP, are framing this pro-Kurdish party HDP [People's Democratic Party] now as being directly linked to the PKK, which it is not. [The HDP] has also decried the violence, and [the government] is actually framing the 6 million people who voted for this party as potential terrorists, or terrorist supporters. And this rhetoric is very dangerous for a country which has gone through such a circle of violence.

On Saturday, EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini spoke with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and HDP head Selahattin Demirtas, stressing the "fundamental importance" of keeping the peace process with the Kurdish people "alive and on track." Has the EU response been sufficient?

I think she [called both men] on purpose, to show that this is not just a fight against terrorism, that this is about keeping the peace process on the table…and giving the Kurdish people the rights they deserve as citizens of Turkey. And for me, the signal that Mogherini gave over the weekend shows that the EU has a very strong commitment to the peace process.

To what extent will Turkey's recent strikes on IS and the PKK affect its ongoing cooperation with the EU when it comes to counterterrorism operations?

The EU's main focus is on ISIL, as a threat to our society. And this is where Turkey now seems to be stepping up its commitment, by opening its airspace, by opening its air base in Incirlik also to the American forces. On the one hand, it's a positive development: we have been pushing Turkey for many months to commit much more to this international coalition. On the other hand, it's also worrying to see [the disproportionate response], that they are not just focusing on ISIL but also focusing on the PKK.

Left-wing militants wave red flags during clashes with Turkish police officers on July 25, 2015 at Gazi district in Istanbul
Turkey's bombing campaign has sparked nightly protests in Istanbul and other Turkish citiesImage: Getty Images/AFP/Y. Akgul

Turkey has called for a meeting with its NATO partners in Brussels on Tuesday. How do think the ongoing peace process with the PKK will factor into NATO's decision to intervene?

Turkey will want to inform its partners about the threat it perceives, and tell them more in detail about its reaction. But we've already seen some statements [from Turkey's partners] that the attacks on the PKK were not a part of the agreement that Turkey reached with the international coalition against ISIL. In diplomatic words, I think we'll see the same kind of message coming out of the NATO debate.

In essence: We support you in the fight against terrorism, but be careful not to let things get out of control?

Exactly. And in the fight against terrorism, all countries in the world have in some way been faced with that. For Turkey, we know that many, many lives have been lost [in clashes with the PKK]. But after how far they've come in two years, with no severe violence happening in the country, with a democratic representation of Kurds being elected to the national parliament for the first time, having seen the level Turkey has reached coming close to peace, there's too much to lose now. And I think that, even if not formally, all NATO partners will certainly pass on this message to the Turkish government.

Kati Piri is a Dutch MEP with the Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament and responsible for EU-Turkey relations.