By Andrew Leech
At 9.20am local time last Thursday, emergency services rushed to the police headquarters in Elazığ, Eastern Turkey. They were called after a massive explosion tore through the building where officers desperately searched through the debris for their colleagues. Three officers were reported killed by the blast with 146 injured (1). The attack was quickly accredited to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Kurdish armed group who have been battling the Turkish state for decades, and it wasn’t the first time the group has struck that week. The night before they had bombed the ruling AK Party’s provincial headquarters in Van, claiming a further three lives and leaving 71 wounded while another of their bombs outside a police station in Çınar, Diyarbakır province on Monday killed eight (2). With two further PKK attacks in Bitlis province, mere hours after that in Elazığ, fears that the group would take advantage of the weakened state Turkey’s army is in after the July 15th coup attempt to further their campaign of violence in Turkey’s East appear to have been confirmed (3).
In the aftermath of the attacks, President Erdoğan was keen to stress a link between the PKK, ISIS and FETÖ (Fethullah Terror Organisation) – the acronym Turkish officials are increasingly using to describe the followers of Fethullah Gülen, the US-based cleric suspected of masterminding the July 15th coup attempt. Shortly after the blast in Elazığ, Erdoğan stressed that “ FETÖ is behind the recent PKK attacks in terms of planning and intelligence sharing” (4). Later, he would argue that there is “no difference between the PKK, the FETÖ or [ISIS]” (5).
However, while the PKK has mainly attacked hard targets such as police and military installations, ISIS has tended to focus its terrorism against soft targets, such as the Kurdish wedding in Gaziantep which was attacked on Saturday. Over 50 people were killed in the wedding ceremony which the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP) claimed had been targeted as many of its members were in attendance, including the newly-weds (6).
One explanation for the increase in PKK attacks came from Mark Toner, spokesperson for the US State Department, who raised concerns that PKK violence is being legitimised by the de-legitimisation of genuine outlets of democracy in Turkey (7). Toner was referring to the closure of pro-Kurdish publication Özgür Gündem, ordered by Turkish courts on Tuesday. The newspaper, which enjoyed a circulation of around 7,500, was charged with disseminating terrorist propaganda and acting as the PKK’s “de facto news outlet” (8). Also under fire last week was Figen Yüksekdağ whom the Şanlıurfa district attorney claimed should be charged with 15 years imprisonment for supporting terrorism, this time for supporting the YPG’s campaign against ISIS in Syria (9). It is important to note here that officially Turkey sees no distinction between the YPG and the PKK.
While Turkish officials have stressed that the action taken against Özgür Gündem was not related to the current state of emergency in Turkey, it is difficult to see the closure of the newspaper as separate from the purge of anti-government dissidents – largely aimed at alleged Gülenists – that has taken place in Turkey since July’s coup attempt. In fact, this week marked a month since that coup attempt and the purge is showing little sign of losing pace. Last week attentions were turned on Turkey’s business sector as investigations were mounted against bank inspectors and financiers suspected of links to Gülen with the stated aim of cutting funding to terrorist organisations (10).
Meanwhile, on Wednesday Bekir Bozdağ, Turkey’s justice minister announced that 38,000 people would be released from prison to make way for those who would be charged with involvement in the coup attempt (11). This is a huge number accounting for roughly one fifth of those currently incarcerated in Turkey, though only those who had fewer than two years left of their sentence to serve will be eligible and perpetrators of certain crimes like murder, domestic and sexual abuse, and crimes against the state are exempt. This move signifies that Turkey’s prison system is being over stretched by the purge which has so far seen 28,000 detained and 8,000 under investigation(12).
Both the Turkish government’s response to the failed coup and the rising violence from terror organisations within Turkey have been a cause of alarm among international observers. In particular, anger in Turkey at NATO’s perceived apathy towards last month’s coup attempt has been matched by growing calls from politicians and the public within other NATO countries to expel Turkey from the organisation (13). On Thursday, reports emerged claiming that the US was moving its nuclear missiles from Incirlik, a NATO base near Adana, although both US and Turkish officials were quick to deny that this had occurred (14).
Tensions between the US and Turkey are currently at an all time high, largely due to the US’ refusal to extradite Gülen, and relations between Turkey and the EU are similarly strained. Turkish officials have expressed disappointment in the lack of solidarity afforded to Turkey by their EU counterparts after the coup attempt, and this week relations with Sweden were in the spotlight (15). Remarks made by Swedish foreign minister Margot Wallström who repeated claims that Turkey had legalised sex with children under 15 on Twitter particularly rankled last week. In response a news ticker at Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport was programmed to provide a travel warning accusing Sweden of having the “highest rape rate worldwide” – also a reference to an incident involving a news ticker in Vienna airport which had caused similar offence a fortnight ago (16).
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