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Fresh Violence Strains Reforms For Turkish Kurds

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Turkish soldiers, artillery and military aircraft are engaged in their biggest military operation in a decade after a raid last week by the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, killed 24 soldiers and wounded more than 100. The operation comes as Turkish politicians begin to debate a new constitution that many hope will grant Turkey's Kurdish population long-sought civil rights.

The abrupt escalation in violence by the PKK — listed as a terrorist group by Turkey, the U.S and European Union — has some Turks searching for an explanation. The Turkish government's efforts to enact pro-Kurdish reforms have so far been seen as inadequate. But the proposed new constitution was expected to be the Kurds' best chance to make advances in education, language and other basic rights they have long been denied.

Now, those reforms will be more difficult, in the face of fresh popular outrage at the latest PKK attacks.

Turkish officials have raised a new, troubling warning as well: that "outside powers" — meaning Syria and possibly Iran — are encouraging the PKK attacks, perhaps in retaliation for Ankara's shift away from the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after his brutal crackdown on dissent in recent months.

Turkish analyst and columnist Yavuz Baydar says Kurdish media and websites are suggesting that the PKK is getting closer to Damascus at the same time it launches fresh attacks in Turkey. He says the PKK is clearly warming up to Assad's regime.

"It's sort of a change in the tactics, a desperate act at this phase," Baydar says.

Ibrahim Dogus, editor of a London-based Kurdish newspaper, told Al-Jazeera's English channel that it's only natural for the PKK to try to exploit the diplomatic rift between Ankara and Damascus.

"It will be plausible for PKK to take advantage of deteriorating relations between Syria and Turkey, between Iran and Turkey," Dogus says. "But the best thing that the Turkish government could come up with is a resolution to the Kurdish question within Turkey."

Dogus says Turkey tries to deal with the Palestinians, Somalia and the rest of the world, but when it comes to Kurdish politics, it always looks to other countries to blame.

At the moment, however, it is PKK violence that's posing a major obstacle to reforms that would benefit Turkey's Kurdish minority. Some analysts question the notion that the PKK is morphing into a proxy for Syria or Iran, similar to Lebanon's Hezbollah, not least because both Tehran and Damascus have long repressed their own Kurdish populations.

Author and columnist Mustafa Akyol says another possibility is that hardliners within the PKK leadership are resorting to bloodshed because they don't want the government's reforms to succeed. That would drain popular Kurdish support away from the militant group, a trend that has been noticed in the last two elections.

"That's the thing ... PKK is not only about Kurdish rights now. PKK's main political target is to create an autonomous Kurdistan within Turkey and be its sole master," Akyol says. "PKK is more interested in carving a political entity for itself and being the only political party there."

But both Kurds and Turks agree that whether the PKK's star is rising or falling, it's up to Turkey's government to move ahead with reforms if it wants to break the cycle of violence that is threatening to send this long-running conflict into another extended period of bloodshed.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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