Of all the things that happened over the weekend, while I was away, I suspect the most consequential, at least in the short-term, was the horrific terrorist attack on a largely Kurdish peace rally in Ankara on Saturday. The twin suicide bombings killed at least 95 people and wounded another 246. It’s being called (and, well, it is) the worst terrorist attack in modern Turkish history.
Obviously the first thing you try to do when an attack like this happens is to figure out who was behind it. So far nobody’s claimed responsibility, and the investigation appears to be waiting on a reconstruction of the scene and identification of the bombers. But the pool of likely candidates isn’t all that large:
- ISIS: This is obviously the likely culprit, and the Turkish government has been focusing most of its public attention on them. Suicide attacks are certainly one of their favorite tactics, they’re fighting the Kurds over the border in Syria, and Turkey is, in theory at least, part of the US-led anti-ISIS coalition, so the motive and means are definitely there. However, it’s always best to wait until the investigation is concluded before jumping to conclusions. ISIS hasn’t claimed the attack, which they often do, so that alone could be reason to consider other possibilities. This Ankara attack appears similar to the July bombing of another Kurdish rally in Suruç, so if you believe that ISIS was behind that attack, then you’ll likely believe that they were behind this one as well. The problem is that ISIS never claimed the Suruç attack either, so far as I can tell (this is the only source I can find that says they did claim it, and that article doesn’t actually offer any proof that they did). But most terrorist attacks don’t get claimed, particularly when the perpetrators think they can do more damage by leaving things ambiguous (more on that in a minute), so the lack of an explicit ISIS claim of responsibility isn’t proof that they didn’t do it.
- The Kurds: Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has generously allowed that the culprit may be some other group that the Turkish government doesn’t like, instead of ISIS. Chief among these alternative suspects is the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has been at war with the Turkish state since the 1980s, though until Suruç they’d been operating under a ceasefire with Ankara that was negotiated by Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan in 2013, back when he was prime minister. The PKK had been growing increasingly angry with the Turkish government over its unwillingness to assist Syria’s Kurds against ISIS (the main Syrian Kurdish party, YPG, has close ties to PKK), and after Suruç it began attacking Turkish security forces again, and the Turkish government retaliated severely. PKK is a terrorist group, in the sense that it has used terrorist tactics in the past and is designated as a terrorist organization by NATO, the EU, and a number of countries around the world. Your willingness to overlook that probably depends on your sympathy for the Kurdish cause, but whatever the merits of that cause these Kurdish nationalist militias are no angels; Amnesty International just today accused YPG, the Syrian Kurdish party aligned with PKK, of war crimes over its treatment of Arabs in the villages that it has captured from ISIS. Still, this is more of a leap than the ISIS theory. One argument maybe working against this theory is that the PKK is not especially known for employing suicide bombers, though it has used them in the past so it’s not entirely out of the question. A better argument against this theory is that this was a largely Kurdish crowd that was attacked, and so if PKK were behind the attack we’d be in the realm of false flag conspiratorial plots. That’s not impossible, but it needs some supporting evidence.
- Turkish Leftists: Another candidate is the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Army-Front (DHKP-C), which was founded as a splinter group of a splinter group of Turkey’s Marxist-Leninist left. These guys are also terrorists, listed as such by the EU and US, and they do have a pretty significant track record of suicide bombing. Again, though, a leftist-Kurdish peace rally would be quite a bit different than their usual targets, which tend to be politicians, police, and US diplomatic facilities. I’d rate this theory as slightly more of a possibility than the Kurdish theory, but in both cases these groups would have a tremendous amount to lose by way of popular support if their scheme was uncovered.
- The Turkish Government: Yeah, so, any attack like this inevitably brings out a country’s “Bush did 9/11” types, and there are certainly theories going around that Erdoğan himself ordered the attack to punish his political opponents, or raise the general public’s fear of terrorism, or both, or something else, I don’t know. I’m not a big fan of Tayyip Erdoğan, but this is a reach, to say the least. Slightly more intriguing is the possibility that some anti-Erdoğan element of Turkey’s “deep state” might engage in some pre-election violence to try to discredit Erdoğan, but barring some hard evidence pointing in that direction, that’s still too tinfoil hat for me.
However, Erdoğan is going to be blamed for this attack anyway, because his government failed to prevent it (“it,” to be clear, being a major terrorist attack in the middle of Turkey’s capital city) and may arguably, through its regional policies, have invited it. Thousands of people gathered in Ankara on Sunday to protest against the government for what they alleged was lax security for the rally, and the government didn’t exactly help its image in the immediate aftermath of the bombing, when it tear gassed the crowds who approached the bombing site (and later did the same to mourners, arguing that the crowds were threatening to interfere with the investigation), looking for news about their friends and relatives, and suspended Twitter.
But beneath the immediate anger over the government’s failure to prevent this attack is a deeper criticism of Erdoğan’s policies in Syria, where he’s insisted on getting involved and then refused to treat ISIS as a serious threat while focusing all of his attention on trying to block Kurdish ambitions over the border. If we’re reached the point where ISIS is able to operate this effectively in Turkey, the argument will go, it’s because Erdoğan let it happen. Supporting this argument will be the fact that, as you may have noticed, nobody’s blowing up any rallies held by Erdoğan’s Peace and Development Party (AKP).
Nothing happens that involves Turkey these days without its political implications being considered, since Turkish voters are about to get a do-over of June’s inconclusive parliamentary election. The November 1 re-vote is likely to be as inconclusive, if you believe the polling, and an attack like this risks shaking voters’ confidence in Erdoğan’s ability to govern the country, even as it also offers the possibility that scared voters will rush back to Erdoğan in hopes that he can stabilize things with an outright parliamentary majority. Shortly after the bombing, the PKK declared a unilateral ceasefire through the election, and the Kurdish party, HDP, declared that it would call off its planned political rallies. Turkish aircraft bombed PKK targets in Turkey and Iraq on Sunday anyway.
Ramping up tensions and chaos in Turkey in advance of those elections is probably just what the perpetrators of this attack were after, which would explain why, if it was ISIS (which benefits heavily from the fact that Turkey and the Kurds are fighting one another instead of focusing on them), they wouldn’t have claimed responsibility. Why focus public anger on you when it’s much more effective to leave some doubt in people’s minds as to who really did it? In the aftermath of the Suruç bombing, also probably an ISIS attack yet also unclaimed, the Turkish government promised to crackdown on “terrorism” and then mostly ignored ISIS to go after the Kurds. Why wouldn’t ISIS, assuming it was them, try going back to that well a second time?
This isn’t an easy time for Erdoğan. Syria is going sideways for him, thanks to Russia’s recent intervention on behalf of Bashar al-Assad, and the spillover effect of that intervention is that previously warming Russia-Turkey relations are now ice cold. Turkey is struggling to cope with an influx of Syrian refugees that dwarfs the size of the migration that has pretty much sent the entire EU into a collective conniption fit. Oh, by the way, Turkey’s economy also looks like it may be about to tank, as corporate and individual debt is rising past safe levels. Plus, again, the election is only a couple of weeks away and Erdoğan’s party doesn’t look like it’s going to do any better than it did in June (and may do worse), in which case Turkey’s entire political system could be in for a serious shock. There are also signs that the US is about to stage a significant anti-ISIS air campaign, perhaps directed at pushing the group out of its “capital” in the Syrian city of Raqqa, out of Turkey’s Incirlik Airbase, which could invite reprisal attacks.
To reiterate, I’m no fan, but Erdoğan’s political movement should have led to something better than this. AKP’s victory in the 2002 general election suggested a possible future where openly Islamist (albeit moderately Islamist) political parties could be full participants in a democratic system, something that was good both for Turkey, with its history of military intervention into the political system when things seemed like they were getting too religious for comfort), and for the entire Middle East. He genuinely pursued a peace deal with the Kurds that could have ended that nearly 30-year long conflict. Even now, Erdoğan isn’t wrong to oppose Kurdish violence and he’s not wrong when he says that Assad needs to go before Syria can really know peace. And he’s been overtaken by events beyond his control to some extent, particularly in Syria and with respect to the global economy. But most of Erdoğan’s current problems are self-inflicted, rooted in his increasing paranoia (which started out as a somewhat legitimate fear that the “deep state” would re-emerge but has gone well beyond that now), his hard right turn toward authoritarianism and/or “illiberal” democracy, and his decision to embed Turkey in Syria’s civil war while doing little or nothing to counter ISIS. The Ankara bombing throws a new crisis into what was already a pretty crisis-filled situation, and it may prove too much for Erdoğan to overcome.
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