Lice is a small and remote town in the eastern Turkish province of Diyarbakir. It has a population of just over ten thousand, most of whom are Kurds. Lice is considered a home to the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) whose military wing has battled with Turkey for Kurdish independence for the best part of thirty years. Last week to mark the 30th anniversary of the group's first attacks on its overlords, local PKK supporters erected a statue of the organisation's founder Musham Korkmaz. The statue enraged Turkish nationalists who saw it as an incitement and a promotion of terrorism; the PKK are considered a terrorist organisation by the European Union and the United States as well as Turkey. A court in Lice agreed and ordered the statue's removal and destruction. Security forces were drafted in to carry out the order. They were met by protestors and the situation quickly turned nasty. Demonstrators threw rocks and Molotov cocktails and the army responded by firing bullets into the crowd. According to Turkish newspaper, Hurriyet, a 24-year-old man, Mehdi Taskin, was shot in the head and died. Two others were seriously injured.
This is not the first time that the Turkish armed forces have been heavy handed in their dealings with the citizens of Lice. In October 1993, at least thirty civilians were killed during a three-day massacre carried out in retaliation for the killing of a Turkish general by the PKK. Hundreds more were wounded, an estimated four-hundred houses were burnt to the ground and businesses were destroyed. Thousands abandoned Lice and for the best part of a decade it was a ghost town but gradually the Kurdish population returned and brought with them memories and resentment.
The death of Mehdi Taskin has sparked rioting in other parts of the region. In a show of solidarity with Lice, the town of Nusaybin, which sits on the border with Syria, has declared its intention to erect a statue of its own to Korkmaz. Further east in the mountainous Hakkari region a statue of Turkey's first president, Ataturk, was vandalised and removed by youths. On the same day, a lieutenant from the Turkish army was shot dead in the eastern province of Van on the Iranian border while on a routine patrol for smuggling. The incidents are not thought to be related but it is thought his assassins were members of the PKK.
The timing of the incident in Lice is unfortunate.
In recent months talks between the Turkish government and the PKK have made progress. Ten days ago, it was announced that a roadmap to reconciliation would be ready by September. Both the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip ErdoÄŸan and Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed leader of the PKK, have said that Turkey was on the brink of historic developments.
For his part, ErdoÄŸan is offering the minority more recognition. Kurds will be allowed control over education in their region and will be offered a state run television station.
In return the PKK has (officially at least) moved its troops out of Turkey and into its base in northern Iraq.
The recent rise in tension could have a destabilising effect on the country's tentative steps to peace and both sides have acknowledged as much.
The Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), an affiliate of the PKK, released a statement in which it said that the statue's removal "undermined the atmosphere of peace."
In reply, Turkey's Deputy Prime Minister, BeÅŸir Atalay, said that the erection of the statue and subsequent riots were an act of provocation to sabotage the reconciliation process.
While it is to be hoped - and it does seem unlikely - that the incident in Lice will not lead to the re-emergence of hostilities between the Turkish government and the PKK, it is indicative of the strong sense of simmering nationalism among Turkey's Kurds.
The PKK may well have moved their soldiers out of Turkey but many are still fighting for Kurdish independence; albeit on another front. Within the so-called Kurdish nation there are of course divergent ideologies and down the years those ideologies have led to infighting. But as well as their shared language and culture, the dream of a nation has always held Kurds together and as it moves closer to reality old rivalries are, for the moment at least, being put on hold. Many PKK members have taken the apparent ending of hostilities in Turkey as an opportunity to fight with their ethnic brothers and sisters in northern Iraq. With northern Iraq in disarray and Baghdad in apparent turmoil, the United States, France and Britain have armed the peshmerga; soldiers of an increasingly autonomous oil-rich region that the West apparently trusts. Should the peshmerga prevail, they will surely want something in return. A fully independent state can’t be far from their minds.
For now Iraqi Kurdistan is politically bound to Baghdad but the links are becoming more tenuous. According to a recent report in The Guardian, the Iraqi flag is rarely if ever seen flying over government buildings in Erbil.
Speaking in the Kurdish Parliament on July 3rd President of the Kurdish Regional Government, Masoud Barzani, said he no longer felt bound by the Iraqi constitution and asked parliamentarians to prepare for a vote on going it alone.
"The time has come to determine our fate,” Barzani told MPs. “We should not wait for other people to determine it for us."
Would Turkey endorse such a state? Recently, and after years of tension, relations between Ankara and Iraqi-Kurds have improved due mainly to the Iraqi region’s oil reserves and Turkey’s willingness to invest. Pragmatism has replaced antagonism and in 2011 ErdoÄŸan paid an official state visit to Erbil. But could Turkey tolerate a new neighbour populated by many who support, arm and offer refuge to a group that is trying to remove itself from Ankara's clutches?
Relations between Turkey and Iraqi-Kurdistan might be better than they have been for years but as Syrian leader Bashir Al-Assad and former domestic ally Fetullah Gulen know only too well, ErdoÄŸan is a fickle friend used to getting his way. After nearly eleven years as Prime Minister, ErdoÄŸan became the first directly elected President of Turkey earlier this month and seems intent on holding on to power. His dealings with opposition have become increasingly alarming. Since July he has arrested nearly two-hundred police in relation to what he calls a coup attempt directed by the exiled Gulen. Most of those arrested had been involved in a corruption case involving him and his colleagues. Earlier this year he banned twitter in the country and vowed to “wipe it out”. It returned after two weeks. Last year protests over a park in Istanbul spiralled into wider demonstrations against his policies. Police dealt with protestors brutally and several people died as a result. ErdoÄŸan does not tolerate dissent. As the saying goes, if it walks like a despot and quacks like a despot...
Were Iraqi-Kurds to determine that independence was the way forward and given that it's hard to see how Turkey's Kurds would not push to join them, how would ErdoÄŸan react?
Already those in the corridors of Turkish power must be raising the occasional eyebrow at the U.S., British and French willingness to arm Iraqi Kurds, even if they are fully aware there is little choice.
Reports suggest that separatist sentiment and rhetoric are at an all-time high in Erbil. The fact that PKK soldiers are fighting with peshmerga would indicate they feel there is something in doing so for them. And while peace talks between the PKK and the Turkish government are imminent, events might just take over; sparked by something like a statue in the wrong place at the wrong time.
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