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Heightened Tensions in Turkey After Strikes on Kurdish Militants in Iraq

ISTANBUL — As Turkish fighter jets pounded Kurdish militia targets in northern Iraq late Friday, the implications of the attack weighed heavily on Turks and Kurds across the border in Turkey, as they faced the prospect of being drawn back into a bloody civil conflict after years of relative peace.

In 2013, Turkey brokered a historic settlement with the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., vowing to grant the long-suppressed Kurdish minority greater rights and autonomy in exchange for a cease-fire after a three-decade insurgency that had claimed more than 40,000 lives.

The cease-fire brought calm and stability to Turkey’s volatile, predominately Kurdish southeast region. But the peace process sputtered last month, prompting waves of small-scale violence as Kurds grew frustrated over what they saw as the government’s inadequate response to their demands. That sudden shift occurred as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was trying to bolster nationalist support before parliamentary elections in June.

Turkey’s resumption of raids on the P.K.K. in Iraq has heightened tensions even further — and has effectively ended the cease-fire.

“The truce has no meaning anymore after these intense airstrikes by the occupant Turkish army,” the P.K.K. said on its website on Saturday.

The offensive in Iraq was carried out as part of a double-pronged counterterrorism operation that simultaneously attacked Islamic State targets inside Syria. In a major tactical shift last week, Turkey assumed an active role in the United States-led campaign against the Islamic State, plunging into its first direct cross-border confrontations with the militants and granting the Americans access to air bases for carrying out sorties in Syria.

Until now, Turkey, a NATO member and longtime ally of the United States, had resisted intense pressure, and some criticism, from Western allies to assume a more formidable role in the fight against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

Ankara, however, did not want to embolden Syrian Kurdish militias, which have made significant territorial gains through increased cooperation with the American operations against the Islamic State.

The leading Kurdish militia in Syria, known as the People’s Protection Unit, or Y.P.G., is an affiliate of the P.K.K. and considered a national security threat by the Turks.

Although Turkish officials said that large-scale counterterrorism operations had been planned for some time, the measures put into place last week were prompted by a suicide bombing at a cultural center in the border town of Suruc last Monday that killed 32 people and wounded more than 100.

The attack, which targeted a group of pro-Kurdish activists and was carried out by a Turkish citizen with suspected ties to the Islamic State, laid bare a sociopolitical fault line in Turkey, as Kurds accused the government of allowing the Islamic State to operate in the country.

“The conflict in Syria has spilled across the border into Turkey, and the Turkish state has a big part to play in that reality,” said Fatma Edemen, a journalism student at Ankara University who survived the attack. “The government has let ISIS roam freely in Turkey for years.”

Ms. Edemen, 22, is a member of a pro-Kurdish socialist youth group that had gathered at the Amara Culture Center on Monday to discuss rebuilding the war-ravaged Syrian border town of Kobani, which was besieged by Islamic State militants last year in a battle that drew crucial support from the American-led coalition.

The Turkish government’s reluctance to take part in the Kobani campaign inspired violent protests across Turkey, with Kurdish nationalists accusing Ankara of aiding the Islamic State. At least 30 people died in the demonstrations.

Turkey’s lack of response over Kobani also bolstered the Kurdish election campaign in June, after conservative nationalist Kurds, who had previously voted for Mr. Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party, defected to the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, or H.D.P., which won representation in Parliament for the first time by passing a 10 percent threshold in the June 7 election.

The success of the H.D.P. stripped Mr. Erdogan’s party of its majority in Parliament, opening the possibility of a coalition government for the first time in more than a decade.

Earlier this month, Mr. Erdogan gave Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu a mandate to form a government. If the prime minister fails to establish a coalition within 45 days, Mr. Erdogan is likely to call for another election in November.

Selahattin Demirtas, the co-chairman of the H.D.P., has accused the government of supporting the attack in Suruc as part of larger strategy to drag the country into a war — and improve the Justice and Development Party’s election prospects.

Analysts say that Turkey’s campaign to bundle the crackdown on the Islamic State with the P.K.K. could help Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Davutoglu regain the disaffected nationalist voters that they lost in the last election (though probably not the conservative Kurdish voters).

“Erdogan’s strongman image is being restored with the strikes against ISIS and the P.K.K.,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute.

“His persona of someone that gets things done at home and abroad has been shattered by Turkey’s failure in Syria and against the rise of the P.K.K.,” he added. “These strikes have revived that image.”

The greatest risk of Turkey’s new counterterrorism policy, according to analysts, is that it could reignite unrest in the Kurdish southeast.

On Sunday, after a week of violent attacks by the P.K.K., there was a deadly car bombing in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir that killed two soldiers.

Much of Turkey’s immediate political future will be defined through the choices made by the H.D.P. leadership in the coming weeks, analysts say. The party’s leaders must decide whether to lead a national political movement or a more marginalized Kurdish nationalist movement.

“As a man who prefers peaceful civilian means over an armed struggle in a party that is backed by an armed group, Demirtas is between a rock and a hard place,” said Asli Aydintasbas, a Turkish columnist and analyst for CNN Turk. “He has an appeal far beyond the traditional P.K.K. base, but with no ability to influence what the P.K.K. does. He has the votes, but not the power.”

Some analysts say that the Justice and Development Party is now trying to capitalize on that by presenting the P.K.K. as a greater threat while underscoring the H.D.P.’s inability to influence the militants.

“By attacking Erdogan, the P.K.K.-H.D.P. camp is only undermining whatever is left of the solution process,” Ibrahim Kalin, a senior adviser to the president, wrote in a column in the Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah. “This also sends the H.D.P.’s claim to be an all-Turkey party down the drain.”

Turkish government officials say that the P.K.K.’s refusal to disarm and its continuation of terrorist attacks to gain political relevance were the main reasons for the strikes against it last week, which targeted its headquarters in the Qandil Mountains in Iraq.

American officials praised Turkey’s policy shift last week, condemning the attacks by the P.K.K. and acknowledging Turkey’s right to self-defense, while urging both sides to remain committed to the peace process.

“We look forward to intensifying cooperation with Turkey and all of our partners in the global fight against ISIL,” Brett H. McGurk, President Obama’s envoy to the coalition battling the Islamic State, wrote in a Twitter post on Saturday.

“There is no connection between these airstrikes against the P.K.K. and recent understandings to intensify U.S.-Turkey cooperation against ISIL,” he wrote in another post.

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(via NY Times)