The Middle East conflict you may not be following

By Naz Masraff

With civil war in Syria, turmoil in Gaza, Arab Spring aftershocks, and the still simmering conflict over Iran's nuclear program competing for headlines, it's easy for outsiders to overlook another of the region's most intractable ethnic conflicts-Turkey's internal battle with Kurdish separatists. This story deserves attention, because it remains the primary security threat inside the region's most politically modern and economically dynamic country.

First, some background. In 2010, Turkey began secret talks with the Kurdistan Workers' Party, a militant group better known by its acronym PKK. But in the run-up to June 2011 elections, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan brought them to a halt. Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) won those elections, securing nearly half the popular vote and a third successive term in power, and the newly emboldened prime minister has since adopted a relentlessly hardline attitude on Kurdish questions with a pledge to use Turkey's military to crush the PKK.

Since the beginning of 2011, several thousand Kurdish nationalists have been arrested on charges of PKK membership. In October, public prosecutors in Ankara launched a judicial investigation into the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP).

In July, the PKK launched a new phase in its 28-year insurgency, intensifying attacks on Turkey's security forces and working to create "no go" zones in designated areas in the mountains near Turkey's border with Iraq. The stated goal is to intensify pressure on Turkey's government to introduce greater Kurdish language rights and to cede many of the powers of the central government to local Kurdish authorities in southeast Turkey in a process Kurdish nationalists call ‘democratic autonomy.'

The PKK scored territorial gains in August and early September and have held on to some of them, and it's clear that the PKK is now stronger than at any time since the 1990s.

Military activity has slowed since mid-October when the mountain passes along its main infiltration and supply routes became blocked with snow. But the PKK then continued its progress by launching a series of hunger strikes inside Turkish prisons, beginning in September with 63 Kurdish inmates. The number of hunger strikers quickly grew to nearly 700 people, including seven members of parliament. Strikers demanded an end to the ban on the use of Kurdish language in courts and as the primary language used by teachers in schools in the predominantly Kurdish southeast. They also called for respect for Kurds' democratic rights and an end to the isolation of PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan, who has been incarcerated on the prison island of Imrali since 1999. In late October, Kurdish nationalist organizations began staging protest rallies across the country, triggering clashes between demonstrators and police, and fights between ethnic Kurds and Turkish ultranationalists in western Turkey. Turkish media, wary of antagonizing the government, downplayed the growing violence-though a few incidents injured too many people to ignore. 

Turkey's government was slow to react, at least publicly, and downplayed the strikes. Speaking in October during a visit to Germany, Erdogan insisted that only one of the hunger strikes was authentic and that others were mainly "for show."

Behind the scenes, however, Turkish officials knew they had a growing problem to contain. The PKK now appears to have won concessions on the right of Kurds to defend themselves in court in their native language-that's expected to be adopted in parliament soon-and a step has been taken to eliminate  Ocalan's isolation, in part by granting his family a visit. This brought an appeal from Ocalan to halt the hunger strikes, and on Sunday, they came to an end.

Yet, the risk of violence continues, and the turmoil in Syria has complicated matters further. Syrian forces have withdrawn from Kurdish areas in northern Syria, creating a de facto autonomous Kurdish regime over the past few months, and PKK leaders can exploit this power vacuum. For the moment, Turkish authorities want to avoid direct military involvement in Syria's troubles, but a sustained wave of PKK attacks on Turkey's security forces from inside Syria might still change their minds.

If the longer-term underlying issues fueling Kurdish separatism can be resolved, it is only with a comprehensive political process. Yet, Turkey's government -- like governments around the world -- is unwilling to negotiate with militants while they continue to launch attacks. This is particularly the case as Turks may go to the polls as many as four times in the next three years, including for a referendum on the constitution, as well as for local, presidential, and parliamentary elections. On the eve of these polls, the government is likely to adopt increasingly nationalistic rhetoric, shying away from taking steps to resolve the Kurdish issue through democratic means.

In short, the hunger strikes have ended, and the protests may die down. But there will be no peace in Turkey's southeast until the two sides can compromise their way toward a lasting political settlement.

Naz Masraff is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Europe practice.