On October 10, in the Turkish capital of Ankara, more than 100 people died and over 400 were injured, making it the most deadly terrorist attack in Turkish history. This attack on the peace rally was perpetrated by suicide bombers. ISIS is the prime suspect, but the incident suits the interests of both the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in relation to the forthcoming November 1 parliamentary elections. Turkey is experiencing increased instability and polarization deliberately fueled by the electoral and political strategies of both the Justice and Development Party (AKP), hoping to subsequently form a single-party government, and actors tied to the PKK.
ISIS’ Distaste for Turkey and the Kurds
Considering the modus operandi of the Ankara bombing, ISIS seems to be the prime suspect of the attack. If so, this is deeply troubling for the Turkish establishment as it is widely believed to oscillate between tolerating and in some cases even supporting ISIS’ logistics and recruitment operations on Turkish soil. ISIS already conducted a similar attack in the border town of Suruç in July, where two suicide bombers targeted a leftist (mostly Kurdish) rally resulting in the tragic death of over 30 people. Some claim that ‘The ISIS narrative’ is being deliberately nurtured by the government. On October 22nd, president Erdoğan opted for blaming all ‘usual suspects’. According to his words the Ankara bombing was a collective act of ISIS, the PKK and its Syrian branch PYD, and of the Syrian military intelligence. The Prosecutor’s office leading the subsequent investigation concluded on October 28th that the attack was ordered by ISIS, adding that the aim was to bring instability and disrupt November 1 elections.
ISIS has multiple reasons to provoke hostile acts against Turkey. On one hand, the Ankara bombing primarily targeted leftists and peace activists, many of them Kurds, sympathizers with pro-Kurdish HDP (People’s Democratic Party), but also young supporters of CHP (Republican People’s Party). The PKK’s branch in Syria, the PYD, has held ISIS forces in the north and upholds their positions despite ISIS’ efforts, for example, to conquer border town of Kobanî in northern Syria last autumn. ISIS also has motives to target the AKP government directly due to their decision in July to allow the US to use Turkish airbases, mainly İncirlik, in order to launch sorties against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
After protracted negotiations Ankara finally appeared to be nominally on board with the coalition combating ISIS, despite the vast majority of their airstrikes actually targeting PKK safe havens in northern Iraq rather than ISIS positions in northern Syria. Hundreds of suspected ‘terrorists’ have been arrested since the end of July, including radical Islamists. Border security was additionally bolstered, reportedly making it more difficult to cross Syrian-Turkish border since July. Despite the terror wrecked upon Turkish society by ISIS in recent months, the AKPs action against pales when compared to the one against PKK and other leftists groups. This leaves questions regarding how far Ankara actually went in dismantling ISIS logistics and recruitment bases on its soil. After all, ISIS’s ideology finds fertile ground amongst various Turkish and Kurdish radical Islamist organizations, which have been allowed to flourish under AKP rule. If the AKP cracks down decisively on radical Islamists it will be damaging itself as this entails targeting its supporters. So far it seems that Ankara tries to prevent radical Islamists from staging attacks but leaves majority of their networks untouched not to stir waters too much prior to November 1 elections.
Regardless of Ankara’s debatable determination to combat ISIS, in the July issue of ISIS propaganda magazine Konstantiniyye written in Turkish, the AKP and Erdoğan were slammed, showing that ISIS at least feels threatened by recent developments in Turkish foreign and domestic policy. Additionally, the PKK was named an “atheist gang of the Middle East” working hand in hand with Ankara. At the same time, it shows increased hostility towards AKP, blaming for working with ‘crusaders’ (US and their allies), which basically means justification of terrorist attacks against Turkish establishment. There are more reports on sermons or coordination meetings within ISIS areas calling for attacks in Turkey. This stands in sharp contrast to ISIS’s previous attitude towards Turkey as a logistics base and safe haven.
Ankara Bombing Serves Well
Regardless of worsening relations between ISIS and the AKP, the current Turkish establishment can also profit from Ankara tragedy. Many in Turkey believe that Turkey’s burgeoning security apparatus may well have initiated or organized the attack, or simply could have known about but allowed it to happen. The AKP is keen to represent the current situation as “being besieged by enemies”. In the wake of its last, and unsuccessful, election strategy, it is playing upon nationalist notes, highlighting the threat of Kurdish separatism, ISIS, abandonment by the West, and, most recently, the revival of an old “Cold War enemy”, Russia. The message is clear: The Turkish nation is besieged and we are on the verge of a dire crisis, and during such times a resolute and strong government – Erdoğan and his AKP – is needed.
Some argue that attack came from the state structures but wasn’t necessarily organized by the AKP government. The ‘deep state’ is largely believed to consist of secular nationalists, embedded mainly in the security forces, who have an obvious interest in regaining their previously prominent position they lost due to the rise of the pro-Islamic AKP elite in the 2000s. The ‘Parallel state’ on the other hand represents Gülen sympathizers belonging to the Islamist movement within state structures, and also have interests in damaging the AKP due to the ongoing rift between those two former allies since late 2013.
The presence of a relatively small police force during Ankara rally is for many proof of a complot. However, uniformed policemen do not usually extensively mix among the crowds, preferring to base anti-riot units close by, ready to intervene when needed. But some plain cloth policemen are always present. In the end, preventing suicide bombing on the ground is next to impossible.
The PKK has constantly blamed the AKP for the escalation of this conflict, arguing that it is behind all problems of the Kurds and that it undermines Turkish democracy or even directly supports ISIS. The PKK strives for further international support, already at its peak due to PKK’s effectiveness in combating ISIS in Syria. The PKK’s main propaganda message this summer is that the Turkish state cannot and is not willing to ensure the security of Kurdish civilians and, therefore, it must resort to “self-defense” and “self-governance”. Thus, even for the PKK, the Ankara bombing serves its purpose and confirms their propaganda message. Moreover, the PKK experimented with terrorist bombings in Turkish cities, including Ankara and Istanbul, through its branch called Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), which was active mainly between 2004 and 2011.
The last ’suspects’ in the attack are various radical leftist groups (such as the DHKP-C, Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party–Front) which occasionally stage terrorist attacks in Turkey and had previously bombed the American embassy in Ankara. Despite occasional suicide bombings are in their modus operandi, never have they conducted such a large scale attack, and reportedly they do not posses sufficient know-how to pull of such a large scale attack, or more importantly, the motive.
Erdoğan’s Western Insurance
The AKP is highly reliant on Western support. Turkey is a member of NATO and a strategic ally of the West. A Turkey fallen into chaos and instability is the last thing that the US and their allies desire. The US and European states often voice concerns over human rights violations, suppression of press freedom and Erdoğan’s authoritarian tendencies but given the current situation, are left with no other choice but to back the AKP’s regime. Increased Russian engagement in Syria has further highlighted the cordial alliance between US and Turkey.
The EU has demanded that Turkey prevents the inflow of Syrian refugees into Europe. Turkey has preliminarily requested funds in exchange, with a more important deal on the table: easing visa restrictions for Turkish citizens (a card to play in the AKP’s hand to bolster popular support). The European Union does not seem eager to do so. Regardless, not even European states wish for unstable Turkey and thus will hardly withdraw its support for Erdoğan’s regime. On October 18th, German Chancellor Angela Merkel met with Erdoğan in Ankara. Turks demand opening of new EU accession negotiation chapters, for example, sensitive Chapter 23, Judiciary and Fundamental Rights, or Chapter 24, Justice, Freedom and Security. In the end it seems, that even the EU is shamelessly throwing away its value-based policies, and lending increasingly authoritarian Erdoğan’s regime support.
A Gloomy State of Affairs in Turkey
Turkey has entered a very unpleasant period that may, if not managed carefully, end in a catastrophe. Erdoğan and his allies, guided by president’s dream of an (authoritarian) presidential system in Turkey, have drawn the country into a conflict with the Kurds as a part of their electoral strategy. The Kurds, namely the PKK, have also willingly escalated violence in order to strengthen their position in the southeast of Turkey and to pose as the only actor capable of protecting the Kurds. Unprecedented acts of disobedience and open rejection of Ankara’s sovereignty over the Kurdish southeast proliferate. Pro-Kurdish actors were all eager to show their enmity after Ankara bombing and blame the AKP establishment for the attack.
The dangerous situation in Turkey can easily escalate. Up until now, Ankara has not ordered its powerful army to engage with the Kurds on a mass level, although there have been some limited operations.
The question is whether the military partially regained its position and generals wait after the elections only to come as a savior of the country, or whether Ankara simply does not want to escalate violence in the southeast even more prior to the elections.
Maybe the army itself is reluctant to fully engage a tries to put break on re-escalation of the conflict, just as it had reservations towards AKP’s plans to invade Syria this spring and summer. The underlying question is whether the Turkish military partially regained its prominent position in the political system. AKP stripped generals of their influence over politics between 2002 and 2007. The current state of affairs may pave way for the army to come as a savior of the country. Or, perhaps AKP simply does not wish to come to elections with more casualties on the tab. The only thing that seems clear in this dangerous political quagmire is that more terrorist attacks, similar to Ankara bombing, may very well occur soon.
Parliamentary elections, scheduled for November 1, will surely be a turning point but it is debatable whether positive or negative, regardless of results. If the AKP wins, will it crack down on the Kurds even more? If the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party does not pass 10 % threshold, what will the PKK do? If the AKP loses, will it comply with it? Will military attempt to influence politics if the AKP is weakened?