By Yavuz Yavuz
54 people were killed and scores wounded in a suicide bombing at a wedding party in the southeastern city of Gaziantep in Turkey, close to the Syrian border. This is the latest in a series of attacks in the southeast, catalysed by spillover from the Syrian civil war.
“Daesh is the possible perpetrator of the attack”, said President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in a statement following the blast. “The suicide bomber involved in the attack was 12-14 years old.” More than half of those killed in the attack were children.
All four political parties sent delegations to the city immediately after the attack. “The attack targeted the diversity and togetherness in the city of Gaziantep” said Mehmet Şimşek, Deputy Prime Minister.
ISIS’s shifting targets and tactics within Turkey
ISIS members’ plans to target Kurdish weddings had previously been discovered in notes found in the house of a prominent ISIS militant in Gaziantep. Calling them ‘PKK weddings’, militants asked for permission to attack..
ISIS has increasingly carried out attacks targeting Kurds and Kurdish political movement in Turkey, starting with the devastating Suruç massacre in July last year against volunteers trying to gather aid for Kobane. The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an umbrella organization including the PYD, are the single most effective actors against ISIS in Syria, with the support of the US-led anti-ISIS coalition.
The attack came after the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) took the town of Manbij, a strategic supply point for ISIS militants. .
Perhaps more crucially, the attack came just hours after the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) declared its willingness to re-enter ceasefire negotiations with the Turkish state.
This strategy was used previously, in the twin ISIS bombing of a Kurdish and leftist peace rally in October last year, which rocked Ankara and left 103 dead. This attack took place the same day the PKK declared a temporary ceasefire due to the upcoming elections.
The amplification of this strategy in recent years indicates that ISIS is now inciting ethnic divisions in Turkey to reduce the country’s operational capacity in Syria and sabotage the position of the Kurdish movement in Turkey.
Ruşen Çakır, a prominent journalist focusing on Islamist movements, says that the Turkish government is hesitant to view ISIS as a prominent threat as they believe that doing so might overshadow its struggle against the PKK and Gülenists within the bureaucracy. This is in parallel to continuing accusations that Turkey has turned a blind eye to ISIS as a part of its battle against the Kurds.
However, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Turkey’s foreign minister, argued in a meeting with his Lithuanian counterpart Linas Linkevicius, that Turkey is Daesh’s primary target because Turkey has intercepted the foreign fighter flow to Syria, adding that Turkey has deported more than 4,000 people with links to the terrorist organization.
Security threat along the border fuelled by lack of solidarity
Kurdish politicians have corroborated the understanding of the link between ISIS attacks and the Kurdish conflict in Turkey.
Selahattin Demirtaş, co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) argued that: “The best way of avenging this heinous attack is bringing peace to this country”
“I’m calling on all the MPs of all political parties in Gaziantep. Let us stand together in offering condolences.”
The HDP had previously proposed two parliamentary motions, in February and June this year, for investigating ISIS cells in Gaziantep, however the motion was rejected by votes from the ruling party’s MPs.
Demirtaş’s call for cross-party solidarity has also seemingly gone unheeded, as a ‘Leaders’ Summit’ between Binali Yıldırım of AKP, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu of CHP and Devlet Bahçeli of MHP was recently announced, once again without the participation of HDP. The summit covered security issues following Monday’s attack.
The ruling party and opposition have explained the HDP’s conspicuous absence by arguing in a statement from the Prime Ministry that the “HDP should declare a strict distinction from PKK if it wants to be included”.
Gaziantep is one of the cities most affected by spillover from the Syrian civil war. With more than 44,000 refugees living in camps around the city. According to the latest government figures, this makes Gaziantep the second largest center for refugees in the country.
This is not ISIS’s first attack in Gaziantep. On May 1, 2016, a truck bomb exploded in front of the main police building, killing three police officers and highlighting the serious security threat faced by the city.
Clashes from across the border have frequently struck Turkey’s border cities. On the day of the wedding attack, a mortar bomb was fired at the border town of Karkamış.
Karkamış and cities across the southeast are likely to witness increasing tension in coming weeks as reports roll in of Turkey’s plans to launch an operation in Jarablus, another ISIS stronghold, by aiding groups of the Free Syrian Army. Turkey began artillery fire on ISIS positions in Jarablus and a shock ground operation on Wednesday.
Turkey has been in the grip of bombings in the past month. As in the last two weeks, during which the eastern towns of Van, Elazığ and Cizre were rocked by bombings by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), leading to multiple casualties among civilians and security officers. This spiral of violence will likely worsen with Turkey’s rapidly escalating involvement in Syria, antagonizing both ISIS and the Kurdish PYD and drifting hopes of peace further into uncertainty.
It appears the ISIS tactic of stirring up violence between Turkey and the Kurds is working, as Friday morning the PKK attacked a police headquarters in the Cizre district of the southeastern Şırnak province, killing 11 officers and wounded 78 more.
The PKK attack may have been organized in response to Turkish attacks on YPG positions in Northern Syria earlier this week. While the joint U.S. and Turkish operation was intended primarily to take back the city of Jarabulus from Islamic State fighters, the operation also ensured the maintenance of buffer zone along Turkey’s Southern border with Syria.
This buffer zone was jeopardized, according to Turkish officials, after Syrian Kurdish forces crossed the Euphrates river, and the U.S. also warned the YPG units that continued U.S. support would be on the basis of retreating back from the Euphrates. Consequently, YPG targets were reportedly hit a total of 20 times by Turkish artillery fire during the operation.
The retaliatory PKK attack on the police headquarters in Cizre Friday morning will likely prompt revamped security operations against the PKK in Cizre and other cities in Turkey’s southeast. Security operations against the PKK in Cizre had only ended recently this past spring, resulting in severe devastation to the city and hundreds of civilian casualties.
Unfortunately, it appears Turkish and Kurdish actors have opted for escalating the violence, following the atmosphere ISIS has created. The bottom line is, on Saturday August 20th, there may have been hopes for an easing of hostilities between Turkey and PKK. After the ISIS-backed suicide bombing later that evening and one week into the aftermath, those hopes now seem impossibly distant.
Additional reporting by Benjamin Bilgen