The Turkish military casts itself as a defender of the nation against internal threats as well as external ones, and describes soldiers who die in combat with Kurdish rebels as martyrs. Now a government plan to deploy elite police squads in the fight could undercut the traditional role of the armed forces, even as civilian leaders move forcefully to reduce its political power.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan chaired a military meeting in Ankara, the capital, after the nation's top four commanders quit last week to protest the arrests of retired and active-duty officers accused of plotting a coup. In eastern Turkey, meanwhile, security forces combed a rural area where three soldiers were killed a day earlier by suspected Kurdish militants.
The Ankara meeting, which started Monday, will select new commanders in a process aimed at sealing civilian authority over the generals, whose predecessors once staged coups in the name of stability or secularism. But discussions about handing more power to the police in domestic security matters such as the Kurdish conflict could reduce the military's operational clout.
Erdogan, whose roots in political Islam unsettled hardline secularists in the military, raised the police idea after suspected rebels killed 13 soldiers on July 14 in the Silvan district of southeast Turkey.
The attack was especially bold because it happened in daylight; media reports said rebels threw a grenade from a speeding car, and then opened fire on soldiers standing beside armored vehicles at a checkpoint. The assailants quickly withdrew.
The seeming lack of military preparedness and intelligence sharpened criticism of a largely conscripted force that has struggled to tamp down guerrilla activity even though the Kurdish rebel group PKK lacks the power it enjoyed at its 1990s peak. Many rebel leaders are based across the border in northern Iraq.
The government says it has no intention of forcing the military, which has jets and other heavy weaponry at its disposal, out of the fight altogether. Instead, it is urging the generals to initially deploy 5,000 professional soldiers with commando-style training.
"The military police and police forces will be integrated at the highest level," Erdogan said in late July. "The (military) Land Forces will intervene if the governors deem it necessary. We want to withdraw conscripts from the border units."
He said a government study has concluded that counter-terror police units should deploy not just in rural areas, but also towns and cities, and that he hoped for "maximum results in this struggle in the shortest period."
The rebels, who seek autonomy and other rights, have escalated attacks in recent weeks, apparently dissatisfied with government pledges to follow through on reconciliation efforts after June elections. The clashes also left about 10 rebels dead.
Ethnic Kurds represent up to 20 percent of Turkey's 75 million people. They have long been a target of discrimination by the state, which has traditionally viewed minority demands as a threat to national unity. Pro-Kurdish activists are troubled by the conservative nationalism of the government, even though it granted some cultural rights to Kurds in line with Turkey's bid to join the European Union.
The use of elite police in operations against Kurdish rebels, dubbed terrorists by the Turkish state and its Western allies, would elevate the standing of an agency seen as possessing strong intelligence-gathering abilities and close ties to the ruling Justice and Development Party. Police answer to the Interior Ministry, which is officially outside the authority of the military.
So-called Special Operations Police were widely used between 1990 and 1993, at the peak of a conflict in which large numbers of villagers were forced to relocate and both sides committed abuses. They were forced to hand over heavy weapons, including some mortars and rockets, to the military in 1997 when the generals pressured the Islamist premier, Necmettin Erbakan, to step down.
The police force was tainted with allegations of corruption and extrajudicial killings, especially during the tenure of Prime Minister Tansu Ciller in the mid-1990s.
Government officials have clarified that special police units would not replace the military in the fight against rebels, and the date and other specifics of their mobilization have not been announced. Still, Kurdish militants condemned the idea.
"This announcement reminds Kurds of the '90s, when these special units ravaged the region, committing executions and torture, leading the country into a dark period," the rebel group said in a statement sent by email to The Associated Press.
Nearly 150,000 soldiers serve in the east and southeast, where most of the Kurdish rebel violence occurs. The PKK has been fighting since 1984, and tens of thousands of people have died. State officials have held exploratory talks with jailed rebel chief Abdullah Ocalan, but key questions such as the autonomy debate and a possible amnesty for rebel fighters have yet to be addressed.
Selcan Hacaoglu contributed from Ankara, Turkey.