This was how Turkey woke up the day after the third bomb attack of this year so far. This time, the target was a bus station, the main transit point from Ankara’s iconic Kızılay Meydanı, the heart of Turkey’s bustling capital. The majority of those killed were students. The perpetuator used a car bomb, and the government have quickly accused the PKK of orchestrating the attack.
On February 17 this year, there was a similar bombing a few blocks away that targeted civilian military personnel. Although Turkish officials were quick to blame the YPG, the Syrian Kurdish group controlling much of northern Syria and affiliated to the PKK, DNA tests proved that it was the work of the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK), a PKK-splinter group.
This weekend’s attack, however, is different in nature from previous bombs in Turkey. Until now the targets have been mainly pro-Kurdish groups or military personnel. However, this time the casualties were innocent civilians. If it was the work of the PKK, or any other Kurdish splinter group, does this represent a new, more violent tactic from the Kurdish militants?
Are the Kurds to Blame?
President Erdoğan responded by reiterating the government’s resolve to fight terrorism in the face of such an attack, saying “Our state will never give up using its right of self-defence in the face of all kinds of terror threats,”. “All of our security forces, with its soldiers, police and village guards, have been conducting a determined struggle against terror organisations at the cost of their lives.” By terror organisations, Erdoğan referred first and foremost to the outlawed PKK, conjured up by his reference to the village guards, a paramilitary force used by the state to combat the Kurdish fighters in south-eastern Turkey.
The government’s identification of a possible culprit is not without cause. The Kurds have suffered a long, hard winter, and the PKK will want to seek revenge. Cities that declared themselves autonomous from Ankara were subjected to months-long sieges, forcing thousands of Kurdish civilians to flee their homes. In recent photos, the Kurdish city of Cizre, following a three-month siege, resemble Homs, or Aleppo. Civilians suffered the most brutal military crackdown, and people were killed for simply stepping outside their homes. Bodies lay in the snow for days as families were unable to collect their dead for fear of being shot themselves. And then, in Cizre, came the basement massacres. At least 60 Kurds were killed in basements serving as makeshift hospitals. Of those massacred, reports show that many were burnt alive.
Such a brutal suppression of a people has undoubtedly left a deep psychological wound, which will take years—if not decades—to heal. Many Kurds feel deeply hurt by the lack of empathy in Western Turkey. This lack of empathy is a sign of the tragedy, and of the division, which is taking hold of this country. Immediately after the bombing last month in Ankara, one friend in Diyarbakır, who has refused to leave the city despite the curfews, guns and destruction surrounding him, explained that “I’m pleased, not that people have died because that is of course a tragedy, but because I want people to feel the pain that we’ve had to endure.”
In an interview with The Times, four days prior to the Ankara bombing, Cemil Bayık—one of a three-man executive council running the PKK from their mountain base in the Qandil mountains in northern Iraq—spoke on the PKK’s strategy. “The Turks looted and burnt everything they could in the Kurdish cities on which curfews were imposed,” he said. “So now our people are full of feelings of vengeance, calling on our guerrillas to avenge them. This is a new era of the people’s struggle.”
Peace has never felt so far away…
The Government’s Response
Selahattin Demirtaş, the co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), condemned the terrorist attack in the strongest possible terms. “Unfortunately the country has been unsuccessful in sharing each other’s pain,” he commented. “The government needs to reflect on why this is so.”
However, instead of such reflection, the government has focused on “bringing terrorism to its knees.” The military responded by launching quick airstrikes on PKK store houses and shelters in the Qandil mountains. Alongside that, the Turkish army immediately began to lay siege to the Kurdish city of Yüksekova, buried deep into the mountains in the south east of the country, by firing mortars. The day before the bomb attack, a round-the-clock curfew was announced on the town, with many predicting a fierce battle to ensue for many months. In Bağlar, a district of Diyarbakır, witnesses described seeing Turkish authorities firing indiscriminately in the streets.
At the heart of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) response to this tragedy is a repeated call for unity against terror, condemning such atrocities whilst vowing to destroy such “enemies.” The attacks on PKK bases, as well as Kurdish-majority cities in the south-east, is a short-sighted response and underlines state security failures. Rather than focusing on enacting a decisive victory against the PKK, Erdoğan and his government should instead put in place measures to protect its citizens.
A few days before Sunday’s explosion, the US embassy in Ankara warned of a potential terrorist attack on the streets of Ankara. Turkish officials offered no such warning. Ankara’s failure to protect its citizens from terrorism threats over the last few months, alongside the destruction inflicted upon Kurdish civilians in the south-east, increasingly suggest that while the Turkish state may not be failing, it is struggling. “There have been massacres, attacks and deaths but the only thing the government has done is condemn them,” Demirtaş said while also criticising its refusal to accept any responsibility: “According to them, everyone except them are to blame.”
The criticism is clear. No police commissioner has been appointed in Ankara for four months. By focusing on “bringing terrorism to its knees,” Erdoğan has failed to prioritise the security of his own citizens. But instead of reflecting on such failings, and repressing any form of dissent that questions such authority, the current government hopes to deflect all anger towards the PKK.
In a sign of things to come, Erdoğan hinted that he intends to go after all those that support the PKK. “It may be the terrorist who detonates bombs and pulls the trigger, but it is these supporters who enable them to achieve their goals,” the President said in a speech. “Being an MP, an academic, journalist, writer or civil society group executive does not change the reality of that person being a terrorist.”
These are violent times in Turkey. The democratic force in the Kurdish movement, the HDP, looks weaker than ever before. Now that the snow has melted, analysts expect a surge in PKK activity. And with President Erdoğan in no mood to negotiate, there is little hope amongst ordinary citizens that these tragic events are likely to come to an end. The PKK’s Cemil Bayık’s words are chilling: “Until recently the war with the Turkish army occurred just in the mountains. Then it moved to towns and cities,” he explained, whilst Turkish drones flew above. “Now there will be fighting everywhere.”
Update: In an online statement, the Turkish militant group TAK has claimed responsibility for the deadly attacks. TAK is known to be an offshoot of the PKK.