Turkey's war on the Kurds

Turkey's war on the Kurds

By Kevin McKiernan
March/April 1999 pp. 26-37 (vol. 55, no. 02) © 1999 Bulletin of the
Atomic Scientists

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ehind army lines in the Turkish province of Siirt, scores of frightened
refugees were on the run. They were Kurdish families, fleeing a village
that had recently been burned by the Turkish army. When I caught up to
them, they were fording the Tigris River, guiding a long line of
donkeys laden with refrigerators and other goods.

In the village, most of the houses were in ashes. Only a handful of
residents had returned to scavenge some of their belongings. The local
mayor told me that an army commander, accompanied by a group of
government-armed village guards, had arrived and given residents 24
hours to get out of town. Some quickly dug holes in the outlying fields
to bury valuables; others just gathered up what they could carry and
abandoned the rest.

I walked through the rubble, taking pictures. The destruction was
fresh, maybe a couple of days old, and some of it was still smoldering.
I heard an army helicopter overhead. It was American-made, a Sikorsky
Black Hawk, the type the Turkish army uses to land troops in the
villages. But it was high in the air, on a different mission. I
finished my work and moved on.

Roots run deep
At 25 million, the Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world
without their own state. With a similar language, religion, and
culture, the Kurds have lived for thousands of years in an area that is
now part of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and the former Soviet Union.
Today, the 15 million Kurds who live in Turkey constitute about 25
percent of that country's population.

After World War I, Kurds hoped to create a homeland from the wreckage
of the Ottoman Empire, but those dreams vanished with the birth of the
Turkish Republic in 1923. Riding a wave of nationalism, Mustafa
Kemal--known as Ataturk, "the Father of the Turks"--imposed a single
identity on the multicultural population of Turkmans, Armenians,
Assyrians, Kurds, and others. Most minorities were forcibly
assimilated; everyone became a Turk. (The Kurds were called "Mountain
Turks" until after the Gulf War in 1991.)

In the first 25 years of the Turkish Republic there were dozens of
Kurdish uprisings. All were crushed, but discontent continued. In 1984,
a Marxist-led group called the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers Party, began
an armed struggle against the government.

The war in Turkey represents the single largest use of U.S. weapons
anywhere in the world by non-U.S. forces, according to Bill Hartung of
the World Policy Institute. "I can think of no instance since the
Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982," he said, "where American weaponry
has been put to this concentrated a use." In 15 years of fighting in
Turkey nearly 40,000 lives have been lost, more than in the conflicts
on the West Bank and in Northern Ireland combined. The two million
refugees produced by the war in Kurdistan are roughly the number of
homeless created by the widely reported war in Bosnia, where U.S.
weapons were not a factor. In contrast, 75 percent of the Turkish
arsenal was made in the United States, according to estimates.

Despite these statistics, the civil strife in Turkey has received
comparatively little coverage in the U.S. media. Television news rarely
mentions the Kurds, unless the story relates to the Iraqi Kurds. It is
almost as though there are two sets of Kurds--the Kurds in Iraq, who
seem to be viewed as the "good" Kurds because they oppose Saddam, and
the Kurds in Turkey, who are "bad" because they oppose a U.S. ally. It
doesn't seem to matter that there are four times as many Kurds in
Turkey, or that both populations have suffered repression from their
respective governments.

Until 1991, Kurdish music and language, dress, associations, and
newspapers were banned by the Turkish government. After the Gulf War,
Kurdish printing was legalized, but in the intervening years numerous
Kurdish newspaper offices have been bombed and closed. More than a
dozen Kurdish journalists, as well as numerous politicians and
activists, have been killed by death squads (human rights groups list
more that 4,000 extrajudicial killings during the period). Despite 15
years of fighting the PKK, Turkey today has no POWs; most rebels,
according to the government, have been "captured dead." But there are
large numbers of civilian Kurds in Turkish prisons where, according to
organizations like Amnesty International, the use of torture is

Kurdish TV and radio are still illegal in Turkey, although the
government has promised to soften the ban. The Kurdish language still
may not be taught in schools or used by merchants on storefronts or in
advertising. It is illegal in Turkey for parents to give their child a
Kurdish name.

Shepherds and soldiers
In June 1995, the army commander from the city of Mardin informed
residents of the village of Alimlikoy--called Bilalya by the
Kurds--that they would have to go on the payroll of the state as
village guards. The villagers were reluctant to become guards because
that would put them in the middle of the war with the PKK rebels. They
were shepherds who spent long, isolated hours in the mountains with
their flocks; they feared that if they accepted weapons from the
government, they would become targets for the guerrillas. The Turkish
officer gave them two weeks to think about it. When no answer was
forthcoming, he arrested the "muhtar," or village elder. The shepherd
who walked me into Alimlikoy--overland, around the blockaded road--told
me the muhtar had been kept in jail for several days. He had been
beaten, according to the shepherd, "but not badly."

On the day the muhtar was released, which was shortly before my
arrival, the villagers hired trucks to haul away household goods and as
much of the ripening harvest of lentils and barley as they could carry.
I arrived in time to see some of the harvests, piled in heaps by the
side of the road. The Kurds were pouring salvaged grain into plastic
bags, which they hoped to sell at the market. On a hillside, a giant
sign read: "Happy is He Who Can Call Himself a Turk."

Back in Alimlikoy, I asked the shepherd why he hadn't just agreed to
become a guard. "Why would we?" he asked. "We have our fields and our
animals. We have an income.

"Besides," he said with some emphasis, "why should we try to do a job
that not even the state can accomplish?"

U.S. arms and human rights
Since 1980 the United States has sold or given Turkey--a NATO ally--$15
billion worth of weapons. In the last decade the Turkish army has
leveled, burned, or forcibly evacuated more than 3,000 Kurdish
villages. That is roughly three-quarters the number of Kurdish
settlements destroyed in Iraq in the 1980s during Saddam Hussein's
infamous "Anfal" campaign, when the West was arming Iraq and turning a
blind eye to widespread human rights violations.

Most of the destruction in Turkey took place between 1992 and 1995,
during the Clinton administration's first term. In 1995 the
administration acknowledged that American arms had been used by the
Turkish government in domestic military operations "during which human
rights abuses have occurred." In a report ordered by Congress, the
State Department admitted that the abuses included the use of U.S.
Cobra helicopters, armored personnel carriers, and F-16 fighter
bombers. In some instances, critics say, entire Kurdish villages were
obliterated from the air.

The administration conceded that the Turkish policy had forced more
than two million Kurds from their homes. Some of the villages were
evacuated and burned, bombed, or shelled by government forces to
deprive the PKK of a "logistical base of operations," according to the
State Department report, while others were targeted because their
inhabitants refused to join the "village guards," a brutal military
tactic--patterned on the Vietnam-era "model villages" program--that
requires civilian Kurds to fight Kurdish guerrillas.

Human Rights Watch, the New York-based watchdog group, said the State
Department had issued only "half conclusions" in its report, so as to
avoid offending the Turkish government. Human Rights Watch, which has
also criticized the PKK rebels for serious rights violations, said the
U.S.-supplied Turkish army was "responsible for the majority of forced
evacuation and destruction of villages."

In a 1998 interview, John Shattuck, the assistant secretary of state
for human rights, defended U.S. arms deliveries to Turkey. Shattuck, a
one-time professor at Harvard and a former member of the advisory board
at Amnesty International, said that although abuses against Kurds were
"a matter of grave concern" to the United States, Turkey's human rights
record was improving. And in any case, he added, "I don't think the
United States is responsible for Turkey's internal policies."

Some members of Congress strongly disagree. Cong. Cynthia McKinney, a
Democrat from Georgia, believes that human rights, democracy, and
nonaggression criteria should be applied before American weapons are
sold or given to countries like Turkey. "If they are going to be our
ally and they are also going to receive our weapons," McKinney said,
"the least that we can do is to suggest to them that they not use the
weapons against their own people." McKinney led the fight in 1997 for a
code of conduct, which would have mandated congressional review of such
transfers. The code, which was opposed by the White House, passed in
the House but did not receive adequate support in the Senate, where it
died in conference committee.

Last September the code was reintroduced with 80 co-sponsors in the
House, but the session adjourned before a vote could be taken. Congress
did pass a less comprehensive measure, an amendment introduced by Sen.
Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, which prohibits U.S. military aid to
foreign security units that the State Department has found to have
"committed gross violations of human rights." The so-called "Leahy
Amendment" also bars funding for military training programs if a member
of a unit has been found to have committed "gross human rights

Many Europeans are also uneasy with Turkey's current policies. Turkey
has been angling for admission to the European Union for years, but the
EU, citing the lack of freedom of expression, the jailing and torture
of dissidents, and the state of emergency in Kurdish areas, has locked
the door. The Kurdish problem, according to Hugo Paeman, the EU's
ambassador to the United States, "is only a reflection of the fact that
we don't have the type of government [in Turkey] which we would feel
comfortable with within the European Union."

Paeman, a Belgian, said it was difficult for the EU to negotiate in
good faith with the civilian government in Ankara when the army
generals behind the scenes held the real power. "Do you feel that you
are actually not talking to the people who are running Turkey?" I asked
him. "Up to a certain point, yes," he responded.

In view of that, I asked, is Turkish democracy merely a façade?
Ambassador Paeman paused to make eye contact with his aide, a Danish
official, before answering. "One can say that," he replied.

Feeding the spirit
When I met Ali in 1996, he was drinking tea and playing cards in
Midyat, one of dozens of Kurdish towns overflowing with refugees. Ali
and his wife and nine kids had all fled Shehkir, a farming village
known for its sweet cherries. Long ago the Turks had changed the name
of the place to Kocasirt, which is how it appeared on the map. But Ali,
like others who had lived there, still called it Shekhir.

Having agreed to take me to the village, Ali drove gingerly down a hill
toward his old home, carefully scanning the rock-studded road for signs
of surface digging. He said the army often mines access to abandoned
Kurdish villages. The week before, on the road to another vacated
settlement, a man and a woman were badly injured when a land mine
exploded under their donkey. "I have seen President Clinton on
television," he told me in a trusting tone. "I don't think he would
permit these bad things to happen if he knew about them."

Ali said that in the summer of 1994, 16 army tanks rolled through his
village searching for Kurdish guerrillas. Some of the tanks had rubber
wheels, like the kind the Germans sell to Turkey; the others were track
vehicles, like the M-48 and M-60 tanks made in the United States.

Even though no rebels were found, the soldiers returned a few months
later and delivered an ultimatum to the people: Become village guards
or abandon your homes. The 70-year-old muhtar insisted the villagers
had never fed or otherwise assisted the rebels; they just wanted to
grow their crops. He told the soldiers that the people chose to be left
alone. It was the wrong choice.

A few nights later, the muhtar was dragged from his home and shot. The
townspeople still refused to take arms from the government. Instead,
they gathered their furniture and household belongings and moved away.

Whatever Kocasirt had been before, it was now a collection of deserted,
burned, and dynamited houses. It was a ghost town, except for the
cemetery. There we encountered an old woman who had just returned to
the village by foot. She was wailing softly and sprinkling red cherries
on a tombstone. She said she was "feeding the spirit" of her dead
brother. My guide recognized her: She was the sister of the muhtar.
Reaching for a weed in the overgrown graveyard, the woman made a
sweeping motion with one hand. "They just plucked him like a flower,"
she said.

The Washington-Ankara alliance
Because of its strategic location in the Middle East, between the
Balkans and the southern republics of the former Soviet Union, Turkey
has served as a major U.S. ally for more than 50 years. The low point
in the alliance came in 1974, when in response to the invasion of
northern Cyprus by Turkey's U.S.-equipped armed forces, Congress placed
a total embargo on U.S. arms transfers to Turkey. The invasion, which
has been condemned by numerous U.N. resolutions, might have permanently
altered the U.S.-Turkish relationship--had it not been for the fall of
the U.S.-backed regime in Iran in 1979.

For the United States, a decades-old strategy in the Gulf collapsed
with the demise of the Shah. Not only was its Cold War containment
strategy threatened, the United States now regarded Islam, stretching
from North Africa through the Gulf to southwest Asia, as the single
biggest threat to U.S. interests in the region. Turkey, like Israel and
Egypt, would form the cornerstone of the new policy to contain Iran and
the further spread of Islamic fundamentalism.

Good relations between the United States and Turkey weathered a 1980
coup, in which Turkish army generals overthrew the country's
democratically elected leaders. (Almost 20 years later the army's power
over the constitution and other Turkish laws is unquestioned.) Within
months of the coup, the United States and Turkey signed the Defense and
Economic Cooperation Agreement, a treaty which gave the United States
the right to locate military bases in Turkey, which borders both Iran
and Iraq, in exchange for a promise to modernize Turkey's armed forces.

The agreement proved vital to U.S. strategy against Saddam Hussein in
the Gulf War. The Allies flew hundreds of bombing missions against
Iraqi targets from Turkish air space. The Turks also agreed to shut
down the Iraqi pipeline where it entered Turkey's southeast border.
That decision, made at considerable cost to Turkish interests, was key
to the post-war embargo of Iraq.

Turkey's value to U.S. policy-makers today is more than just its
proximity to Iran and Iraq or the perceived need to contain the spread
of Islam. There is also the issue of petroleum. The Caspian Sea to the
east is thought to contain more than 100 billion barrels of oil.
Capturing the deposits is a mammoth project, the stakes are high, and
the parties play hardball. The agreement signed by a consortium of
global companies to recover the oil represents the most lucrative
contract of any kind in the twentieth century.

No one yet knows how the crude oil will be transported to the West, but
the United States is pushing for a pipeline to be built through Turkey
to the Mediterranean Sea. Amoco and British Petroleum, the largest
companies in the consortium, want to build a shorter pipeline through
Georgia and then ship the oil by tanker through the Black Sea. But both
companies are currently involved in other projects in Turkey, and
Turkey has threatened to revoke their operating permits if they fail to
support the Turkish route for Caspian oil. As it turns out, such a
route would pass through the center of Kurdistan. Kurdish guerrillas,
who already have blown up sections of the Iraqi pipeline and Turkish
oil fields in the southeast, have vowed to block the project.

Kurds v. Kurds
In 1994, when I last visited Gorumlu--a settlement tucked into the base
of a mountain on the Turkish side of the Iraqi border--the village
showed signs of support for the rebels, and the area was often the
scene of firefights with the army. But today the local Kurds are on the
government payroll. The village guards in Gorumlu had joined the
widespread program of rural pacification, the army strategy introduced
in 1985. In this area the guards were especially valuable because they
knew the PKK trails along the border; they had served as scouts for
soldiers in several incursions into Iraq in search of rebel base camps.

Because of their decision, the villagers were able to keep their homes.
The state was giving them weapons, bullets, U.S.-made Motorola radios,
and a salary of $250 a month--far more than they could make as farmers.
With their help, the Turkish army had driven the guerrillas deep into
the mountains, and clashes in the village had become less frequent. But
Gorumlu's switchover was not without cost.

The PKK, many of whose local members had been recruited from Gorumlu,
views both the guards and their families as Turkish collaborators, and
claims that both are legitimate military targets. Soon after one army
incursion into nearby Iraq, the guerrillas launched a coordinated
attack against the village and the nearby army garrison, resulting in
civilian deaths.

During the battle, the army commander told me he had intercepted a
radio transmission, which he said came from a PKK superior, urging his
fighters to "hit the little mice as well as the big mice." According to
the Turkish officer and several villagers, four children were killed
and several adults were injured when the PKK threw a grenade through a
window of one of the houses. For its part, the PKK has denied
responsibility for the attack, blaming instead the Kontra
Gerilla--death squads they say are linked to the Turkish security

Buyers and suppliers
Today, the United States has several intelligence-gathering posts in
Turkey, including a radar installation in Mardin, a largely Kurdish
city. The Mardin facility was built by gm Hughes of El Segundo,
California, the parent company of Delco Systems. The radar site is said
to be capable of "seeing" deep into Iraq, Iran, and south central Asia.

NATO has major installations in Turkey, the most prominent of which is
at Incirlik, near the city of Adana. U.S. intelligence planes,
including the giant AWACS, take off daily from Incirlik for flights
over northern Iraq, monitoring traffic both in Iraq and Iran. U.S.
F-15s and F-16s, as well as British aircraft, make regular sorties into
northern Iraq, patrolling the "no-fly" zone for violations by Saddam
Hussein's air force.

Turkey's war with the Kurds draws on weaponry from dozens of American
companies, including McDonnell Douglas, General Dynamics, Hughes,
Boeing, Raytheon, and Bell Textron. Kurdish refugees driven into
northern Iraq from destroyed villages in Turkey rarely know any
English, but in recounting the rocketing of their settlements, they
regularly use the words "Cobra" and "Sikorsky," the U.S.-made
helicopters used to clear Kurdish villages.

The "King Cobra," the gunship produced by Bell Textron in Texas, is a
strong contender for a new Turkish arms contract worth almost $4
billion. In 1997 the State Department granted market licenses to Bell
and to Boeing Aircraft for attack helicopters (Boeing makes the
"Apache" gunship), but future sales by either company could be delayed
if human rights concerns are raised again in Congress. In 1996 Turkey
canceled the purchase of 10 Super Cobra helicopters when Congress
delayed that deal to consider whether Turkey was using the Cobra
against Kurdish civilians. If that happens again, Turkey could buy
attack helicopters from France or could turn to a version of the weapon
built jointly by Russia and Israel, without strings attached. In fact,
the burgeoning relationship between Ankara and Jerusalem--which
includes Israeli upgrades of Turkey's F-4, F-5, and F-16 fighters; the
development of medium-range missiles; and the conduct of joint military
exercises--has increasingly allowed Turkey to circumvent U.S. and
European embargoes.

The giant helicopter sale is one of two prospective U.S. arms transfers
that have generated strong opposition from human rights groups. The
other is a $45 million sale by av Technologies in Michigan for 140
armored personnel carriers (APCs) to Turkey. Turkey already has an
estimated 2,800 U.S.-made APCs (most of which were made in California
by FMC--the Food Machinery Corporation).

The new APCs are intended for use by Turkey's "anti-terror" police
units. Amnesty International USA conducted a three-year study on these
police groups, which it sent to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright
in an effort to block the transfer. The report provides examples of
identified "anti-terror" units torturing children, sexually assaulting
prisoners, using electric shock torture, beating, burning, and the
near-drowning of suspects, as well as other gross violations. Among 280
victims of the "anti-terror" units mentioned in the report were
"infants, children, and the elderly." But last December, despite such
evidence, the State Department OK'd the arms deal. Because of the
recently enacted Leahy Amendment, some restrictions were placed on the
use of U.S. loans for APCs destined for areas of conflict, but the
export license for all 140 vehicles to the "anti-terror" police was

That was consistent with past practices, in which arms deals involving
Turkey have moved along expeditiously. In 1992 and 1993 the Pentagon
quietly facilitated a mammoth military shipment to Turkey at no cost.
According to the U.N. arms registry, the U.S. government turned over
1,509 tanks, 54 fighter planes, and 28 heavily armed attack helicopters
to Turkey. The weapons were slated for reduction after the Cold War
under a 1990 treaty on conventional forces in Europe. Instead of
scrapping them, the United States simply gave them away. There was no
congressional oversight or public debate about the transfer, nor was
there much question about the purpose of the unprecedented arms
shipment. As Jane's Defence Weekly revealed as early as 1993, "a high
proportion of defense equipment supplied to Turkey is being used in
operations against the PKK."

Military assistance to Turkey has even included the use of American
soldiers. Last year, according to the Washington Post, a special
operations team authorized by the Joint Combined Exchange Training Act,
a little-known law passed by Congress, conducted its first mission to
Turkey. The U.S. team was sent to train the Turkish Mountain Commandos,
"a unit whose chief function is to fight Kurdish guerrillas."

Turkey also benefits from the International Military Education and
Training program, a Pentagon program funded through the foreign aid
budget. From 1984, when the PKK's uprising began, to 1997, about 2,500
Turkish officers received training. Bill Hartung of the World Policy
Institute says that much of the training of the Turkish military
focuses on how to use weapons already purchased from American
companies. Hartung estimates U.S. taxpayers have already paid "tens of
millions of dollars" to train Turkish forces to fight the Kurds.

Cleaning up
Çizre has been "cleaned," the Turkish policeman said proudly. And in
one sense he was right. The largely Kurdish town of 25,000, located
about 50 miles north of the Iraqi border, was firmly under the control
of the Turkish security forces.

When I was there in 1994, Çizre was a hotbed of PKK resistance. That
memory was still fresh as I rented my old room at the ratty Kadioglu,
where an intermittently lit sign said "Turistik Hotel." The room had an
outdoor balcony, which overlooked the sign, and from there I used to
watch the exchange of tracer fire after dark, the surreal streams of
yellow lighting up the intersection below. In 1992, during "Newroz,"
the Kurdish new year, the Turkish army shot and killed a
photojournalist near the Kadioglu. Since my last visit, someone had
repaired the concrete balcony by my room, patching over the
bullet-pocked walls.

The reception clerk told me he was getting tired of it all--tired of
the war and tired of all the unpaid tasks he was forced to perform. He
was still cooperative with the police, and he had no use for the
rebels. But, like many accommodating Kurds, he was growing
progressively alienated. It was true that the guerrillas had been
driven into the tops of the mountains, their logistical base disrupted
by deforestation and the widespread destruction of villages. But the
government seemed to be losing the battle for the hearts and minds of
ordinary Kurds.

The hotel clerk complained that he had to inform the police of all
movements by reporters: "When you get up, when you go out, and when you
return. It's incredible," he said. "We have to telephone three
different places each time: the Army, MIT (military intelligence), and
the regular police. Why can't we just call one place, and let them
handle the rest?" What he really wanted was a sort of clearinghouse for
the surveillance of the press, and we got to joking about it. In jest,
I asked him to notify the police that I had used a hotel toilet at 6
a.m. that day, and again at 7:30.

He smiled, shrugging his shoulders and rolling his eyes. "What can we
do?" he said.

Internationalizing the conflict
The case of PKK leader Abdullah Oçalan has raised the profile of the
Kurds in recent months. Oçalan--widely known as Apo--was arrested in
November 1998 in the Rome airport after arriving from Moscow. After a
decade of directing PKK activities from Damascus, Oçalan and other PKK
officials had been expelled from Syria a month earlier when Turkish
troops began massing on the border, threatening to escalate a
long-running political feud between Turkey and Syria.

Turkish officials were jubilant when Oçalan was detained, but their
euphoria soon turned to outrage. The Kurdish leader, whom the
government charged with "tens of thousands of murders" in the
15-year-old uprising, would have faced execution if returned to Turkey.
But the Italian constitution bars extradition to countries where the
death penalty is in force. Within days Italy announced it would not
extradite, and Oçalan was released.

Turkish politicians unleashed a firestorm of protest. Across Turkey the
police reacted by staging raids on the offices of HADEP, the legal
Kurdish party. More than 3,000 HADEP members were jailed within a few
days. According to human rights groups, a number of party members were
subjected to torture; two died in custody.

In Istanbul, the nation's top business lobbies urged a total boycott of
Italian goods (Italy ranks as the world's second largest exporter to
Turkey). But the European Union immediately threatened Turkey with
economic sanctions if it followed through with the boycott.

Turkey's harsh attacks on EU-member Italy seemed especially
inflammatory, considering Turkey's persistent efforts to be accepted
for membership in the EU. But the Oçalan affair was shaping up to be
the nastiest row in memory between NATO members, and the dispute was

Massimo D'Alema, Italy's prime minister, called on the Kurdish leader
to renounce violence, a minimum requirement to be considered for
political asylum. Oçalan responded by saying: "I am ready to do my
part to halt terrorism." He called for a political solution to the war,
a demand that Turkey had repeatedly rejected. The disavowal of violence
was welcomed by D'Alema, but the Italian leader further angered Turkey
by declaring that the struggle of the Kurdish people was an ancient and
complex problem that could not be regarded solely in the context of

The PKK leader likened his cause to that of the PLO, the IRA, and
Basque separatists, movements that sought to make a transition from
warfare to diplomacy. He asserted that he had come to Italy to launch
the political phase of the Kurdish struggle. Meanwhile, 40,000 Kurds
from across Europe gathered in Germany to demonstrate on Oçalan's

Others condemned the Kurdish leader. Human Rights Watch, which had
repeatedly attacked Turkey for abuses against the Kurds, sent a letter
to D'Alema charging Oçalan's PKK with massacres in Turkey's southeast,
primarily in the early 1990s. The majority of the victims were village
guards and their families and Turkish teachers who were targeted by the
guerrillas as state collaborators. Opposing extradition to Turkey,
Human Rights Watch called instead for Oçalan to be tried under
international law in Italy or another EU country.

In January, Oçalan left Italy of his own accord, reportedly aboard an
Italian secret service airplane to Moscow, from which he transited to
an undisclosed location. His brief appearance on the European
stage--and the diplomatic tornado it whipped up--had received more
publicity in two months than he or the PKK had generated in 15 years of
guerrilla warfare. But it was increasingly clear that he would not be
awarded political asylum and, with relations deteriorating with Turkey,
Italy warned Oçalan that if he stayed in the country, he might be
brought to trial on terror charges. Ironically, such a trial could also
have been Turkey's worst nightmare if it had exposed state terror as
well as rebel terror and if it had sparked an international review of
the long-standing civil war in that country.

Until now, Turkey has been able to ignore Western demands for dialogue
with the Kurds. The brutal scorched earth campaign in the southeast has
been a military success. The deforestation and village burnings have
been accomplished with little press attention, a minimum of public
debate, and no censure from the United Nations. And the PKK, though
still a force to be reckoned with, recently has been beset by internal
conflicts and beleaguered by defections. Oçalan's arrest, in Turkey's
eyes, could have finished the rebels once and for all. But now his
fate, the "Kurdish question," and Turkey's suitability as a member of
the European Union have once again been postponed.

In early February, two months in advance of the increasingly important
national elections, Turkey took steps to ban the HADEP party. Officials
said that some members of HADEP, which has more than 3,000 registered
members, had shown sympathy for the guerrillas by participating in
hunger strikes and other non-violent activity following Oçalan's
arrest in Rome.

HADEP represents the Kurds' only potential interlocutor with the
government other than the rebels. The bid to outlaw the party, which
would deny the Kurds any representation in the Turkish parliament,
startled the United States and its allies, alienated moderate Kurds,
and further undermined the country's fragile democracy.

For all the military assistance the United States has provided its ally
over the years, Turkey remains politically unstable. The ruling
coalition in Ankara recently collapsed in a corruption-related scandal,
and the Islamic party, the scourge of the Turkish army, is stronger
today than at any time in history. While still a minority party, it is
widely expected to win the national elections this spring. The country
is unstable economically as well, and inflation is rampant, a
reflection of the fact that $100 billion has been spent, just since
1991, to defeat the rebels.

On the surface, very little seems to have changed. The government still
has 300,000 security forces in the southeast, and Apo is underground
once again. Notwithstanding recent events, the battleground has yet to
shift from the Turkish-Iraqi mountains to the political salons of the
Continent. Turkey still boasts the largest army in NATO (after the
United States), but the path to diplomatic acceptance in
Europe--despite dogged U.S. efforts--will be clouded by the Kurds for
some time to come.