Setting Turkey firmly on a new course in its Middle East policy, new Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel has launched a two-pronged initiative in an attempt to resolve one of his most important problems, the region’s 20 million Kurds.
In Turkey’s Kurdish southeast, Demirel has promised a new era of respect for human rights and cultural freedoms for a 12-million-strong minority whose existence the Turkish republic refused to acknowledge for more than 65 years.
“Turkey has recognized the Kurdish reality, and this is one of the most important events of the last year,” Demirel told reporters during a weekend trip to some of Turkey’s most fiercely nationalist Kurdish strongholds.
And over the border in northern Iraq, Demirel said, Turkey would stand firm as protector of the 3.5 million Kurds there if the Iraqi regime tried to repeat attacks that led to the mass exodus of refugees in March.
“Turkey’s new policy is to protect the Kurds of Iraq. . . . If there is any more barbarity in northern Iraq, we will not stand aside and watch,” said Demirel, who later added that this would be done with international cooperation.
Demirel has hinted that he will also extend beyond Dec. 28 the mandate of a 48-warplane U.S.-led force based in Turkey that is the West’s main deterrent against renewed attacks on the Kurds by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s regime.
These policies were largely inaugurated by the previous Turkish administration dominated by President Turgut Ozal, whose often single-handed rule was effectively ended by Demirel’s victory in parliamentary elections in October.
But their formal adoption over the past week shows that they have now become national policy, a far cry from the days when Ankara and Baghdad frequently cooperated in suppressing the Kurdish national movement.
Demirel’s new approach is a brave departure for a man whose electoral base is among the four-fifths of Turkey’s 57 million people who speak Turkish, many of them of nationalist leanings.
His strategy has many reasons, chief among them the need to sideline the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), the separatist rebels who have steadily gained popularity as the only serious force opposing Turkish suppression of Kurdish nationalism.
More than 3,300 people have been killed since the PKK launched an armed struggle for a separate state in 1984, growing to a guerrilla force of 5,000 men and women based in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran, Turkish officials
Demirel has ruled out direct talks with what he calls a “killer organization,” but PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan has appealed for a cease-fire and talks, hinting that he will drop demands for an independent state.
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Hikmet Cetin, a moderate Kurd, said that the government plans to allow Kurdish publications and the study of Kurdish language and issues.
Demirel makes it clear that he has no intention of ceding political autonomy to the Kurds--although, he says, as before, anyone who accepts and obeys Turkish laws has equal rights.
To prove good faith to Turkey’s wary Kurds, the new government’s first priority must be to fulfill a promise to the whole country to clean up the state’s bad human rights record regarding dissidents.
The Diyarbakir Human Rights Assn. has alleged that in the last six months, 29 Kurdish activists have been killed by what the association calls the Turkish police equivalent of Latin American death squads.
Demirel has carefully kept a bridge to Kurdish radicals by encouraging the presence of 22 radical Kurdish deputies among his Social Democrat coalition, many of them PKK sympathizers openly backed by the guerrillas.