Although an offshoot of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) has claimed responsibility for the attack, the Turkish government has stood by its initial assessment- blaming the People’s Protection Units (PYD) for the assault, a Syrian Kurdish group known for its success in battling Daesh. The PYD, however has disavowed any part in the bombing, instead claiming that Turkey plans to use the assault to discredit them internationally and justify a ground invasion into Syria.
Ankara’s claim that the attack was carried out by members of the PYD is difficult to believe for a number of reasons. First of all, the PYD has denied having committed the attack. Second, the PYD has never before made an on Turkish soil. If we take the Turkish government’s word to be true then this may be due to the fact that the PYD represents the Syrian wing of the PKK. However following the AKPs logic, that the PYD is an extension of the PKK on Syrian soil, it seems extremely unlikely that they would chose this critical juncture in international politics to cross the border and start acting within the PKKs jurisdiction. And so this issue of timing; it seems illogical for the PYD to expand its operations beyond the Syrian border at this critical moment in the civil war.
Turkey recently began shelling PYD positions in Syria in an effort to halt their expansion into Daesh-held territory in Northern Syria. Russia, the UN, the EU, and the US have all asked Turkey to stop attacking PYD positions. In fact, the list of PYD supporters makes for the broadest, if not strangest, group of bedfellows involved in the conflict as a whole. Russia, the Assad regime, and the United States all work with the PYD to varying degrees in their attempts to root out more extremist factions in the Syrian civil war.
President Erdoğan and Prime Minister Davutoğlu have both been pressuring the United States to declare the PYD a terrorist organization. The US has refused to do so, and continues to support the PYD which it views as the most effective ground force fighting against Daesh. It seems odd then that the PYD would carry out such a horrific terrorist attack when their international credibility is under such close scrutiny.
It was only two weeks ago, on February 7, that President Erdoğan demanded the US choose between Turkey and the PYD; a demand that Spokesman for the US State Department John Kirby replied to by saying, “Even friends don’t agree on everything. And we’re friends and we’re not going to always agree on everything in this particular fight.” When asked specifically about the transfer of US arms from the PYD in Syria to the PKK, Kirby denied such allegations but said that “should we find evidence that it’s true, well, then we’ll take the appropriate steps. But we haven’t seen any indication of that thus far.” Given the tensions regarding their international reputation it seems unreasonably foolish for the PYD to begin undertaking such blatant acts of terrorism at this time.
If not PYD, then who? A radical offshoot of the PKK, the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) recently claimed responsibility for the bombing, and the attack seems to fit their profile well. TAK broke away from the PKK in 2004 because they saw them as too soft, and has remained highly critical of the group. Whereas the PKK has tended to focus its efforts on targeting military and police forces in the Kurdish south east as of late, TAK has made several attacks in major Turkish cities in the west, including the shelling of Istanbul’s Sabiha Gökçen Airport in December of last year. This bombing fits their profile, and they have admitted to it, so it seems likely that they are behind the whole thing.
TAK announced that they were responsible for the bombing on February 19, claiming that “this act was a revenge [for] the massacre of wounded civilians in basements in Cizre…We will act against every attack on the Kurdish people.” The group went on to warn foreigners against traveling to Turkey for tourism, saying that the industry is “a major target we aim to destroy.” The February 17 bombing marks TAK’s bloodiest yet, but they have been actively attacking the Turkish state for years. The Turkish government, however, has chosen to stand by their accusation that it was the PYD who carried out the attack.
When asked about TAK having claimed responsibility for the February 17 Ankara Bombing, Prime Minister Davutoğlu said that it did not rule out the PYD’s responsibility calling TAK a ‘proxy’ of the group. Undisclosed media sources later released audio recordings purported to contain a conversation between two PKK officials, codenamed Gabar and Goşkar. In the recording the two individuals discuss the bombing some three hours after the fact, one of them asking who was responsible. The other replies that the PYD had carried out the attack, much to their own detriment, but that the PKK would ensure that one of their affiliated groups would take the blame for it, so as to save face for their Syrian allies. This is not a wholly unbelievable story, although it is rather out of character for the PYD, and acts as something of a ‘political gift’ for Turkey’s ruling Peace and Development Party (AKP). Regardless of the truth of the matter, the AKP party stands to gain tremendously.
President Erdoğan has already promised to call President Obama directly to let him know “how and where those weapons you provided were fired,” indicating that he plans on using the bombing to further pressure the US to disavow any ties with the PYD. Over the coming weeks Ankara only needs to release little bits of information regarding the bombing, and to hold to its assertion that the PYD was behind the whole thing. This allows them to continue to justify their infamous ‘military operations’ in Turkey’s Kurdish south-east, and their shelling of PYD positions across the Syrian border; giving them casus belli to rebuff condemnations of their regional adventurism from Russia and other states.
It also puts a lot of pressure on the US to choose between an effective ally on the ground in Syria, and a longtime NATO ally who increasingly caters to its own ambitions within the region. Prime Minister Davutoğlu told a press conference on February 20, that “the only thing we expect from our US ally is to support Turkey with no ifs or buts.” While the US has stood by the Syrian Kurds in the past, it remains to be seen if, and how long, they can stand up to this kind of increased pressure.
Thus far we still have more questions than answers. Whether the bombing was carried out by TAK or the PYD, one thing is certain; the AKP government stands to gain a significant amount of political leverage as a result of this horrendous loss of life. The odd coalition that has formed around the PYD may finally come to an end if the US succumbs to pressure from Turkey. This event has provided the justification for the AKP to continue shelling PYD positions in Syria, and its round-the-clock curfews in Turkey’s south east. It may have been Turkish soldiers who lost their lives on February 17, but ultimately it is likely to be Kurdish civilians and PYD fighters who will bear the brunt of the carnage to come.