In Turkey / Türkiye

By Sukru Kucuksahin, Al-Monitor, Sept 12, 2016

While Ankara’s post-putsch crackdown on Gulenists is being increasingly called into question — most recently by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself — the purges are now expanding to Kurdish quarters accused of backing the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a designated terrorist group.

Days after some 11,000 teachers were suspended with a single decree last week, the government ousted two dozen elected Kurdish mayors, raising the specter also of company seizures and property confiscations. Such measures may have largely subdued the Gulenists, now labeled by Ankara the ‘Fethullah Gulen Terror Organization’ (FETO), but can they produce the same results against the PKK and the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which Ankara sees as the PKK’s political extension? Is the government fanning tensions at a time when bloodshed in the Kurdish-majority southeast is already a daily occurrence?

When it comes to the rule of law, Turkey’s record has never been spotless, but the measures employed since the July 15 coup attempt have sparked an alarm that compares to no other period in the past.

Armed with emergency-rule powers, the authorities have put tens of thousands of people behind bars, including hundreds of businesspeople who saw their properties confiscated, and dismissed more than 60,000 public servants, with the stated aim of dismantling FETO [sic], which stands accused of carrying out the putsch.

The frenzy and severity of the purge seems to have irked even its standard-bearer, Erdogan, who last week grumbled that “irrelevant” people were being targeted. Then, addressing governors, he said, “I don’t want you to compete with each other on who gets more public servants dismissed. I want you to be fair.”

Many are now worried that a similar crackdown on suspected PKK supporters will open irrecoverable wounds.

A retired Turkish diplomat with ample experience on the Kurdish issue told Al-Monitor that luring PKK sympathizers to legitimate politics was crucial, and warned that the purge of teachers posed serious risks for the future. “When struggling with a separatist terrorist organization, drawing its proponents and supporters to a legitimate ground is extremely important. So constantly pushing the HDP [People’s Democratic Party] around, trying to push it to a wall is wrong. Though the HDP’s bond with the PKK is known, the state should seize every opportunity to force a party with more than 10 per cent of the vote into the legitimate realm,” he said on condition of anonymity.

According to the diplomat, a major opportunity to lure the HDP away from PKK influence was squandered after the June 7, 2015, elections, in which the party won 13% of the vote, drawing support also from ethnic Turks. The election aftermath saw the resumption of armed conflict between the PKK and the security forces, which, according to the diplomat, was a sign that neither the Turkish state nor the PKK wanted a stronger HDP.

“Everyone should think why the PKK doesn’t want to see a strong HDP,” he said. “And all procedures and actions today should be conducted accordingly. Thus, the dismissal of the teachers is not a sensible act and could pose great risks for the future.”

The first signal of a clampdown on Kurdish public employees came Sept. 2 when Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said thousands of teachers would be removed from schools in the mainly Kurdish southeast and reappointed elsewhere on the grounds they worked to advance the PKK’s agenda. In an even more ominous warning two days later, he said, “They will face what FETO has faced, and this is not limited to teachers only. Terrorism is present within the state and local administrations as well. All public servants who rub shoulders with terrorism will be dealt with and weeded out one by one.”

His statement drew harsh reactions from top officials of both the HDP and the main opposition Republican People’s Party, which questioned how the targeted teachers were found to be PKK backers without any due legal process. Despite the outcry, the Education Ministry suspended 11,285 teachers Sept. 8, all of them members of the leftist Education and Science Laborers Union (Egitim Sen), which is popular with the Kurds.

For Egitim Sen Chairman Kamuran Karaca, the move confirms the government’s intention to disable all its political opponents. Fresh from a meeting with Education Ministry officials, he told Al-Monitor the criteria used to single out the targeted teachers was their participation in a one-day strike on Dec. 29, called to protest the twin suicide attack that killed more than 100 people in downtown Ankara on Oct. 10 ahead of a rally for a peaceful solution to the Kurdish conflict. “Nine months have passed since the strike, and no administrative or judicial investigation had been launched against those teachers,” he said.

Karaca believes the teachers had already been blacklisted as government opponents, with the help of a pro-government trade union. “Our trade union advocates democratic, scientific and secular education. If any teacher has been seen digging trenches or taking part in armed clashes [along with PKK militants], then all necessary measures should be taken, but that’s not what’s going on,” he said. “They want to purge all their opponents, now that the law is suspended under the state of emergency. This will have a heavy cost and polarize people, leading to serious consequences.”

Veli Demir, the head of the social democratic Education and Science Functionaries Trade Union, voiced similar misgivings, warning also that secular education was in danger. “More than 1,000 FETO schools were seized, and the prime minister had said they would continue to operate in the fields they used to operate before July 15,” Demir told Al-Monitor, recalling the seizure of hundreds of Gulenist schools soon after the putsch. “But now, those schools are being converted to imam-hatip schools,” he said, referring to schools that provide Quranic education.

Demir mentioned instances in which both spouses of middle-aged teacher couples had been suspended, stripped from their livelihood and retirement rights. “This shows the goal is to destroy, to annihilate,” he said. “This measure will serve nothing but resentment, enmity and chaos.”

In a parliamentary question to Yildirim, HDP parliamentary whip Idris Baluken said the scale of the purge meant that almost no native teachers would be left in schools in the southeast. “Is the purge of Kurdish teachers meant as the beginning of a new assimilation process in the region?” he asked.

The suspensions also raise the question of how safe the replacement teachers will be in the region as they are likely to face a hostile environment. Moreover, the PKK may call for a boycott of schools altogether, making the problem even more inextricable.

And beyond the field of education, Ankara ousted 24 elected Kurdish mayors Sept. 11, replacing them with trustees, mostly governors and district prefects. Four other municipalities met the same fate for alleged links with FETO. “No democratic state can or will allow mayors and members of parliament to use municipality resources to finance terrorist organizations,” Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said on Twitter. “Being an elected official is not a license to commit crimes.” In a defiant response, the HDP said it viewed the decision as “null and void,” warning that the move “will deepen existing problems in Kurdish cities and make the Kurdish problem an unresolvable one.”

Sukru Kucuksahin has been a journalist for 35 years. He has worked for Ankara Ekspres, Gunaydin, Sabah, CNBC-e/NTV and Hurriyet as correspondent to the parliament, Prime Ministry and Presidency. From 2003 to 2016, he served as deputy Ankara representative and columnist for Hurriyet, one of Turkey’s leading newspapers. He is also a frequent TV commentator on domestic political affairs.


Ankara hardening anti-PKK strategy

By Metin Gurcan, Al-Monitor, Sept 12, 2016

Turkey’s strategy against the Gulen movement has worked so well, Ankara looks to be extending it to eradicate the Kurdistan Workers Party as well.

It appears Ankara has decided not to bother with deterring the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and will instead go straight to eliminating the designated terrorist [sic] group.

Turkey is taking advantage of its new powers under the state of emergency declared after the failed coup July 15. The new “solution process” is much simpler than previous efforts. This time, it plans to totally wipe out the PKK and all its auxiliaries.

In March 2013 — not too long ago in the context of the solution process — Turkey launched a three-phase plan with the PKK: The PKK would withdraw from Turkey and give up its arms, and that action would be followed by normalization and full democracy.

But with the developments in northern Syria of the past two years, growing polarization in domestic politics and the violence that resumed in July 2015, the solution process was shelved. Urban warfare in southeast towns such as Diyarbakir, Cizre and Sirnak between October 2015 and March 2016 shifted back to rural areas after the PKK abandoned its trenches-barriers strategy in towns. Now almost daily we wake up to news of heavy clashes, terror acts and martyrs in the southeast.

I had concluded in my May 16 column for Al-Monitor that Turkey versus PKK clashes were quickly heading toward a destructive military stalemate.

But with the current state of emergency — which does not require legislative oversight — Ankara feels it can end the deadlock and totally eliminate the PKK. It is now obvious that the legal measures Ankara applied against the Gulenists after July 15 are being adapted to the struggle against the PKK with intensified talk of “Gulenist-PKK links.”

First, the government modified its lexicon and changed “Kurdish issue” to “the PKK issue of the Kurds.” In this new narrative, the PKK is no longer the interlocutor in the Kurdish issue but is the problem itself. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, during his Sept. 4 visit to Diyarbakir, had sarcastically declared that there is “no solution or anything” and that the government will pursue kinetic methods until the very end to annihilate the PKK.

What are the details of his new strategy to combat the PKK?

Encouraged by what it sees as success in the struggle against the Gulenists, Ankara wants to apply the same approach against the PKK. This new strategy can be described as total eradication of the PKK and all its auxiliaries, not only in the military sphere but also in political, socio-cultural and economic arenas.

Military combat is divided into rural and urban terrains. Yildirim described the basis of the rural terrain struggle as “from now on security forces will not be on the defensive but in the offensive.”

The military strategy in the rural areas will no longer be based on static, permanent outposts, but will employ mobile offensive units. Ankara relies heavily on advanced military technology of target acquisition and precise hits. The latest publicized hits were the killing of five PKK militants at Cukurca and later four others at Hakkari by Turkish-made TB2 Bayraktar drones.

High command has adapted the technology-intensive concept of “search-find-destroy” through a special forces/drones/F-16 triad. Officials are determined to pursue this concept with uninterrupted tempo in all weather conditions.

An important element of technology-intensive military offensive in rural terrain is to provide close air support. Ankara is confident that the T129 ATAK assault helicopters, the 14th of which was delivered last week, will make a significant difference in taking on the PKK on rural terrain.

Another feature of the combat in rural terrain is the government-sponsored village guards, made up of pro-government, armed Kurds who know the terrain well. With a recently issued decree under the state of emergency, the village guards — now about 90,000 strong — will be deployed not only in their home provinces but all over the southeast.

Urban terrain security will be based on police and gendarmerie special operations teams. Ankara, aware that the destruction inflicted in towns by military forces had tarnished Turkey’s international reputation, now wants to handle security in towns by putting up permanent outposts in critical entry-exit points and by increasing the number of police and gendarmerie special operation teams. New Minister of Interior Suleyman Soylu said 10,000 new people will be recruited and given crash courses in police special operations.

With another state of emergency decree, new police personnel can be recruited solely by oral interviews instead of going through the cumbersome central public service examination process. This means those with basic qualifications will be recruited to serve in police special operation teams after a simple interview and seven months of condensed training. Many young people see this as the simplest and quickest shortcut to acquire civil servant status.

Ankara plans to install in cities a “neighborhood guard” system, similar to village guards, by arming pro-state Kurdish youth in neighborhoods of critical towns. But armed strife has already begun between neighborhood guards and PKK urban militants. One such neighborhood guard was recently executed in Mardin. He was one of 624 neighborhood guards hired by the state.

The intention is to mobilize the security forces both in urban and rural terrains to exert round-the-clock pressure on the PKK and immobilize it.

There are many innovations in the civilian aspects of this new strategy. Ankara has realized that since 1984, when the PKK launched its military actions, the state’s response has never been properly coordinated between military and civilian officials, and this benefited the PKK. Now Ankara plans a “three-dimensional” strategy to eradicate the PKK from political, socio-cultural and economic arenas.

The moves in the political arena will start with national measures. Legal proceedings have been initiated against the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) deputies and officials whose direct links with the PKK have been proved. In the latest move approved through a state of emergency decree, 24 elected Democratic Regions Party mayors were removed from office and replaced by government-appointed administrators. (In apparent retaliation for that action, a car bomb was remotely detonated Sept. 12 in Van, injuring dozens of people, Reuters reported.)

Ankara also replaced three other mayors elected from the Justice and Development Party and one from the opposition Nationalist Action Party, all accused of collusion with the Gulen movement.

Now cyberspace may well be the next arena of the confrontation. On Sept. 11, Turkey woke up to wide-scale internet outages in all urban areas where clashes are frequent.

In short, Ankara is pressuring the HDP and municipalities with HDP mayors to distance their politics from the PKK. Other government steps are similar to ones used against Gulenists such as clamping down on media organs, putting pressure on civil society and prosecuting private businesses that pay protection money to the PKK. Another prominent field of action by the government is to dismiss civil servants deemed PKK sympathizers, as it has done with thousands of Gulen sympathizers. On Sept. 8, the government suspended more than 11,000 teachers whose relationships with the PKK allegedly were established.

Sources in Ankara say this number could increase and dismissals could spread to other public bodies.

Regionally, Ankara aims to isolate the PKK by strengthening ties with the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq, cooperating more closely with Iran on border security and undermining the Kurdish nationalist Democratic Union Party domination of northern Syria.

One key question in terrorism is this: Can a nonstate, armed actor that resorts to terror be deterred or should it be exterminated? Ankara seems to have decided not to deter the PKK and instead marginalize it with the new powers granted by the state of emergency.

But it may not be too easy to alter the rules of the game with an organization such as the PKK, which has become regional in more than 40 years of struggle. The PKK has recently acquired increased international visibility and legitimacy because of its fight against the Islamic State, can use hybrid tactics, has strong public support and is a quick learner.

Most important to note is that the PKK is patient. It knows it is running a marathon, while Ankara sees the struggle as a 100-meter dash. Then we have to ask: How long can Ankara sustain these extraordinary measures, and can the PKK really be eradicated?

Metin Gurcan is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Turkey Pulse. He served in Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Iraq as a Turkish military adviser between 2002-2008. Resigned from the military, he is now  an Istanbul-based independent security analyst. Gurcan obtained his PhD in May 2016, with a dissertation on changes in the Turkish military over the last decade. He has been published extensively in Turkish and foreign academic journals and has a book forthcoming in August 2016 titled “What Went Wrong in Afghanistan: Understanding Counterinsurgency in Tribalized, Rural, Muslim Environments.” On Twitter: @Metin4020

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