The deteriorating conflict in the south east of Turkey, which has already cost more than 500 lives, many of them civilian, is beginning to be noticed in Europe.
The European Union, pre-occupied with its refugee crisis and so far willing to turn a blind eye to Turkey’s eroding democratic credentials, has finally released a statement on 23rd December, calling for a ceasefire and return to the peace process.
Addressing both the Turkish government and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the EU has urged all sides to avoid further escalation.
In London too, the sources closely following developments in Turkey seem to be most concerned about the disproportionate nature of the response by Turkish security forces and the destructive effects on the local population, but very few are prepared to comment publicly. The scenes of urban warfare in Turkey’s cities and towns with an outlawed armed organisation carry an ambiguity for politicians and commentators in a country where memories of political violence with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) are still fresh.
Support for Turkey’s accession to the EU is a longstanding position of British foreign policy. The British media is covering the developments reasonably well and the Turkish/Kurdish community in London is raising concerns loudly on a variety of platforms. Turkey and its conflict are not at the top of the British agenda but it is not ignored altogether either.
Human Rights Watch’s comprehensive documentation of police and military operations in the south east has swayed opinion. Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch said: “The Turkish government should rein in its security forces, immediately stop the abusive and disproportionate use of force, and investigate the deaths and injuries caused by its operations”.
The Kurdish-affiliated HDP’s appeal to the international community, inviting foreign media, non-governmental organisations and delegations to visit Turkey’s south-east to see the rights violations in the conflict zone was also duly noted.
Once the apathy for hard news that comes with the Christmas season is over, the interest in Turkey will inevitably grow.
With the civilian death toll likely to rise in the coming days, both the policing operations of Turkish security forces, and the activities of armed Kurdish groups associated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party adversely impacting on the civilian population, will come under the spotlight.
Visits abroad by Selahattin Demirtas, leader of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), have been watched in Europe with considerable interest.
Mr. Demirtas has plenty of legitimate concerns and issues to raise internationally. In its counterinsurgency campaign against the PKK, the conduct of the Turkish security forces is violating both international and domestic law. Whilst everyone accepts the right of a state to preserve its security and the safety, health and dignity of its citizens, collective punishment of the kind we have seen in the southeast will not go unchallenged.
Equally, as a non-state actor, the PKK is also bound by the rules of international humanitarian law. The somewhat muted western response to spiralling violence in Turkey is partly due to these concerns.
No one in their right mind would accuse Mr Demirtas of treason for visiting Moscow in the middle of a rift between Turkey and Russia. The harsh language used by President Erdogan, Prime Minister Davutoglu and the pro-government media in Turkey towards Mr Demirtas has rightly raised eyebrows abroad.
Still, any impression that the HDP might be seeking Russian patronage is bound to cause unease in European capitals, including London.
Just as the Turkish government’s highly damaging Syria policy did not justify turning a blind eye to al-Assad’s brutality to his own people by some of Turkey’s opposition, sidling up to Russia’s authoritarian leader will not get the Kurdish opposition very far. Not in Europe, anyway.
This post is also available in: Turkish