On Saturday, the deadliest terrorist attack in Turkish history killed at least 99 and injured hundreds more at a peace rally in Turkey’s capital city of Ankara. The attack has been called “Turkey’s 9/11,” however, while the tragedy on 9/11 unified America, Saturday’s bombing has only deepened the divide between Turkey’s sectarian factions, with some citizens blaming their own government for the tragedy.
This deadly attack, which President Obama called “heinous,” is the latest in a string of attacks on pro-Kurdish and left-leaning rallies. In July, a suicide bomber killed 33 young socialists and aid workers at a cultural center in the southeastern city of Suruc. Earlier in the summer, just before Turkey’s elections, a bomber attacked a rally for Turkey’s pro-Kurdish party in Diyarbakir, killing 4. That bomber had been arrested by the police and released prior to the bombing, raising allegations from negligence to conspiracy.
— Conflict News (@Conflicts) October 10, 2015
In the days since, many have taken to social media to blame the government for failing to protect pro-Kurdish rallies, and thousands marched through the streets of Istanbul, chanting anti-government slogans. In Ankara, the police fired tear gas at mourners laying flowers.
Turkey is a long-time NATO ally of the United States, and has emerged as a key player in the fight against ISIS. Due to its proximity to both Syria and Iraq, Turkey’s cooperation is essential to any operation against the group. Turkey recently joined the United States in conducting airstrikes in Syria, and agreed to allow the United States to use a Turkish airbase for bombing raids. However, Turkey and the U.S. disagree who the main enemy is: Turkey has argued the focus ought to be on Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, while for the U.S., ISIS is the first priority.
The Kurdish fighters of Syria and Iraq have been some of the most successful fighters against ISIS. Russian and U.S. support for Kurdish militias, however, makes Turkey very uneasy due to its own tense relationship with the group, which is its largest minority population.
Turkey’s history with the Kurds
For years Turkey’s Kurds were prevented by the Turkish state from practicing their culture or even speaking their own language. However, in recent years Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling government have loosened these restrictions. They also started peace talks with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK, which both Turkey and the U.S. designate a terrorist organization. On and off for decades, Turkey has been fighting a guerrilla war with the PKK; the conflict has claimed over 40,000 lives.
Those peace talks, the work of two years, went up in flames after the Suruc bombing. The PKK accused the government of being complicit and executed two Turkish police officers, reigniting the conflict. Clashes between the government and the PKK have since killed thousands, and some have accused Turkey of using airstrikes on ISIS as cover as they bomb Kurdish positions. Factions between Turkish nationalists and ethnic Kurds have deepened, leading to vandalism and violence.
The peace rally that was targeted on October 10th was agitating for an end to the violence between Kurdish rebels and Turkish security forces.
Who’s responsible for the October 10th bombing?
ISIS has since emerged as the prime suspect for Saturday’s attack, although the terrorist organization has yet to take formal credit, a lack of acknowledgment that is common for the group. One of the bombers has been identified in the press as Yunus Emre Alagoz, the brother of the suicide bomber responsible for the earlier Suruc attack.
Both brothers spent time in Syria, and together operated a cafe in Adiyaman that was one of Turkey’s “most well-known ISIS hangouts,” according to Bloomberg’s Benjamin Harvey. The cafe, known as the “Islam Tea House,” was also reportedly frequented by Orhan Gonder, the bomber arrested for the Diyarbakir bombing in June. The three attacks combined have claimed over 135 lives.
Many are now questioning how it was that the Turkish government failed to prevent an attack in its capital, especially given the high profile of ISIS and of the attackers.
In an interview with CNN international, the head of the pro-Kurdish opposition party, Selahattin Demirtas, accused the government of turning a “blind eye” to ISIS’ activities. “Ankara is a city where intelligence work is at its highest. And it seems there was no preventative work, no security arrangements in place. And that increases the responsibility for — of the government in an attack such as this one,” he said.
The government’s unconvincing response
On Monday, Turkey’s acting Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said, “we have a list of suicide bombers. But we aren’t allowed to arrest them before they take action.” Due to the “rule of law,” he said, attackers could not be arrested until after the attack had taken place.
However, experts have pointed out that Davutoglu’s own party passed a controversial homeland security bill earlier this year that allows for arrests based on “reasonable suspicion,” a clause that has been primarily used to target critics of the government, including students and journalists.
As Max Hoffman, a policy analyst focusing on Turkey and Kurdish regions for the Center for American Progress, said in an email to ThinkProgress: “The excuses about why the suspected bomber was not more closely monitored ring hollow given how far AKP efforts extend against government critics in the press and the political opposition.”
“The AKP government sees ISIS as a threat, but generally lists it below the PKK, PYD [a Syrian affiliate of the PKK], and even DHKP-C [an outlawed Marxist-Leninist Party in Turkey] in terms of potency. This is negligence, pure and simple, and repeats a pattern stretching back to the bombing of the HDP rally in Diyarbakir just before the June election, not to mention the Suruc bombing.”
Even in the face of increasing evidence that the attack was carried out by ISIS sympathizers, Turkey’s majority party is doubling down on its focus on the PKK. Prime Minister Davutoglu said that “Daesh [ISIS] and PKK are organizations with a high likelihood of having an active role in these attacks.”
However, ISIS and the PKK are enemies, and highly unlikely to be cooperating, and furthermore, there has been little evidence that the PKK may be complicit, particularly as most of the victims of the bombing were activists for the pro-Kurdish political party.
According to Hoffman, Davutoglu’s accusation is “utter nonsense designed to whip up nationalist support for the AKP and discredit the HDP — PKK has no motive to undertake such an attack and to my knowledge has never used mass suicide bombings on civilian targets as a tactic.”
The link between Turkey’s problems and ISIS
The pro-Kurdish HDP party is largely responsible for ending Davutoglu’s AKP political party’s 10 years of majority rule by crossing, for the first time, the high threshold for representation in parliament. However, after Turkey’s political parties failed to form a coalition government, the AKP called for new elections to take place on November 1st. The AKP hopes to regain a majority in the upcoming election; with a supermajority, it would be able to change Turkey’s constitution and give its controversial leader, President Erdogan, increased executive power.
The interim government has since escalated arrests of journalists, protesters, and government critics, and began bombing PKK camps, polarizing the population.
These deepening rifts within Turkey were evident even in the sports arena, when Turkish soccer fans booed and shouted nationalist slogans during a minute of silence for the bombing’s victims. Days earlier, when Turkish-American scientist Aziz Sancar won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, a debate erupted on social media over whether he was ‘truly Turkish’ or Kurdish.
The Ankara bombings will continue to create chaos and widen political divides shortly before the election. After the bombing, the PKK announced a ceasefire to create stability before the election; the government has continued airstrikes on PKK camps.
If anything, the attack only increases the conflict between the Turkish state and PKK, which plays to ISIS’ advantage.
“By continuing to demonstrate the authorities’ inability or unwillingness to protect peaceful Kurdish gatherings, the bomber drives more Kurds towards more radical resistance to the state, in turn ratcheting up state pressure on ISIS’ most potent rivals, the Kurds,” said Hoffman.