Turkey appointed new administrators in two dozen municipalities mostly in the largely Kurdish southeast on Sunday after removing their mayors over suspected links to militants, deepening a crackdown in a volatile region bordering Syria and Iraq. President Tayyip Erdogan said this week that the campaign against Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants, who have waged a three-decade insurgency for Kurdish autonomy, was now Turkey’s largest ever and that the removal of civil servants linked to them was a key part of the fight.
The 24 municipalities had been run by the pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the third largest party in parliament, which denies direct links to the militants. It decried the move as an “administrative coup”.
Turkey’s battle against the PKK has a renewed sense of urgency since a ceasefire collapsed last year and as Kurdish groups in Syria’s tangled five-year war seek to carve out an autonomous Kurdish enclave on Turkey’s border.
Turkey views the Kurdish militia fighters in northern Syria as an extension of the PKK and fears that Kurdish gains there will fuel separatist sentiment on its own soil. In a message to mark the Muslim Eid al Adha holiday on Sunday, Erdogan said that the PKK had been trying to step up its attacks since a failed coup attempt in July and that they had a clear aim of disrupting Turkey’s military operations in Syria.
“The PKK has suffered a distinct failure in these bloody attacks, which it has conducted at the cost of its most serious losses in its history,” he said. The crackdown comes as Ankara also pushes ahead with a purge of tens of thousands of supporters of US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, accused by Turkey of orchestrating the attempted coup in July. Gulen denies any involvement.
The mayors of four other municipalities, three from the ruling AK Party and one from the nationalist MHP opposition, were also replaced on Sunday over alleged links to what the authorities call the “Gulen Terror Organisation” (FETO).
“No democratic state can or will allow mayors and parliamentarians to supply the municipality’s resources to finance terrorist organizations,” Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said on Twitter of the dismissals. The interior ministry said the mayors, 12 of whom are formally under arrest, were under investigation for providing “assistance and support” to the PKK and to FETO. Two of them were more senior provincial mayors, it said.
Turkey has sacked or suspended more than 100,000 people following the failed July 15 coup, in which rogue soldiers commandeered fighters jets and tanks in a bid to seize power. At least 40,000 people have been detained on suspicion of links to Gulen’s network and half of those arrested.
The scope of the crackdown has raised concern from rights groups and Western allies who fear Erdogan is using the failed coup as pretext to curtail all dissent, including intensifying its actions against suspected Kurdish militant sympathisers. On Friday, police detained dozens of people and used water cannon to disperse several hundred teachers demonstrating against their suspension in the largely Kurdish southeastern city of Diyarbakir.
Turkish officials say the moves are justified by the extent of the threat to the Turkish state, both from the coup attempt, in which more than 240 people were killed, and from the PKK, listed as a terrorist organisation by the United States and European Union as well as by Ankara. The HDP, which denies direct links to Kurdish militants and which says it promotes a negotiated end to the PKK insurgency, said it did not recognise the legitimacy of the mayors’ removal.
“This illegal rearrangement, which disregards the voters’ will and renders the elected local authorities and institutions useless, has no basis for us,” it said in a statement. “This illegal and arbitrary stance will result in the deepening of current problems in Kurdish cities, and the Kurdish issue becoming unresolvable.”
Tensions in the southeast had already been heightened since Turkey launched a military incursion into Syria two and half weeks ago dubbed “Operation Euphrates Shield”. The operation aims to push Islamic State fighters out of a strip of Syrian border territory but also to prevent Kurdish militia fighters from seizing ground in their wake and joining up cantons they already control into one large enclave.
Erdogan said Turkey had a duty to “finish off” Islamic State in Syria and prevent it from carrying out attacks in Turkey, and said “Euphrates Shield” was just the first step. His chief of military staff said the operation would “continue decisively”.