A car bomb targeting Turkish military personnel driving through Ankara earlier today killed at least 28 people and left another 60+ injured. While there’s been no claim of responsibility as far as I can tell, and you can never rule out ISIS as a perpetrator, it looks probable that a Kurdish group was behind the attack given the nature of the target. Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is now pretty openly at war with the Turkish state again in the southeastern part of the country and which has a track record of making these sorts of attacks against Turkish military personnel, is a prime suspect. However, information (it’s in Turkish, apologies) that began coming out later in the day suggests that the bomber may have been a Syrian Kurd named Salih Necar, affiliated with the People’s Protection Units (YPG):
The distinction between the PKK and the YPG (and the political arm of the Syrian Kurds, the Democratic Union Party or PYD) isn’t always that sharp; the organizations definitely share an affiliation and work together at times. So even if the bomber was from the YPG that doesn’t rule out PKK involvement.
Without in any way suggesting that this bombing was justified, we can contextualize it by noting that Turkey has for the past several days been shelling YPG positions inside Syria. The Turks are increasingly alarmed that the YPG, with Russian air support, has been advancing on Syrian rebel-held positions near the northwest Syrian city of Azaz. A Kurdish takeover in Azaz would cut a key rebel supply route from Turkey, and since the Kurds are at least nominally allied with Bashar al-Assad, this would work to strengthen his position as well as enlarging the autonomous stretch of Kurdish territory across northern Syria known as Rojava, as you can see on the map below. Syrian Kurds are trying to connect the two areas in yellow, which Turkey most definitely does not want to see happen.
There’s been some cross-border exchanges of fire between Turkish and YPG units, but this attack in Ankara would obviously represent a serious escalation on the part of the Kurds, assuming that they are in fact behind it.
In response to a new flood of Syrian refugees heading toward the Turkish border due to Assad’s recent gains around Aleppo, Turkey appears to be moving forward with a plan that it’s frequently mentioned but for which it’s never been able to gain any international support: establishing a “safe zone” along the Syrian-Turkish border. This would work like a geographically-limited no-fly and no-shelling zone (so Russia or whomever would only be prevented from attacking targets within a specific area), and is ostensibly meant for the protection of refugees. In reality, it’s meant to keep those refugees in Syria and not in Turkey, but more importantly it’s meant to block any further Kurdish advances in the border region and to protect rebel access to Azaz and that supply line from Turkey.
This is a poorly conceived idea for most of the reasons that a general Syria-wide no-fly zone is a poorly conceived idea–primarily because there’s virtually no conceivable scenario under which Russia and Assad would simply acquiesce to the existence of something like this. Establishing it would mean taking out their anti-aircraft weapons and potentially shooting down Russian and/or Syrian aircraft. The Obama administration has resisted implementing a safe zone for this reason. But this new wave of refugees has given Ankara a potentially powerful weapon to bring America over to their point of view. By preventing them from crossing the border, Turkey will create a mass of refugees in northern Syria, ratcheting up the pressure on the US and the rest of the international community to take steps to protect them. A Russian or Syrian airstrike on that mass of refugees would only add to that pressure. What Tayyip Erdoğan hasn’t been able to get by talking with the Americans, he may be able to get by manipulating this newest humanitarian crisis.
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