The Ankara massacre

Print edition : November 13, 2015

Injured people being taken away after the suicide attack on October 15 in Ankara. Photo: Tumay Berkin/Reuters

Victims consoling each other. Photo: Tumay Berkin/Reuters

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photo: Frederick Florin/AFP

Selahattin Demirtas (left), People's Democratic Party leader, with Kemal Kilicdaroglu, chairman of the opposition Republican People's Party. Photo: ADEM ALTAN/AFP

The terror attack in the capital city on October 10, the worst in Turkey in almost a century, is seen as blowback from the country’s dubious involvement in Syria.

It was the worst terror attack in Turkey since it became a republic in 1923. On October 10, thousands of people marching under the banner of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), left-wing parties and trade unions had gathered outside the central railway station in the capital, Ankara, in preparation for a rally dedicated “to peace and democracy”. Two suicide bombers struck, killing more than a hundred people and seriously injuring 246. There have been demonstrations all over Turkey and in many European capitals against the bombing and expressing solidarity with those who were injured. Over 10,000 people marched in Istanbul the next day, denouncing the bombing and the policies of the government led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The opposition blamed his anti-Kurdish rhetoric and political miscalculations for the latest carnage. The Turkish authorities announced after more than a week of investigations that the needle of suspicion pointed to two persons having links with the Islamic State (I.S.).

The Turkish government came in for a great deal of criticism for its failure to prevent the attack, which occurred a stone’s throw away from the headquarters of the country’s intelligence services. The Interior Ministry has since fired several senior officials, including the police chief of Ankara. It has been generally accepted that the police were very lax in carrying out security checks. As opposition activists have noted, when the ruling Justice and Development Party (A.K.) holds rallies, the security drill is very tight. According to reports, one of the suspects is the brother of the suicide bomber responsible for a similar attack in the south-eastern city of Suruc in July, which killed 32 people. In June, there was a suicide attack on an election rally in the town of Diyarbakir in north-eastern Turkey. In all these attacks, the targets were Turkish Kurds who are sympathetic to the opposition.

The government has so far been either incapable or unwilling to stop the ongoing attacks against Kurds. Usually, no group claims responsibility for the suicide bombing against them. However, the Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, while announcing the breakthrough in the investigations into the October 10 attack, tried to apportion blame equally to the I.S. and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) for the rising terror incidents in the country. The PKK, which has been fighting for Kurdish rights for a long time, is a banned organisation in Turkey, the United States and the European Union. The I.S. and the PKK are at daggers drawn. The PKK’s Syrian affiliate is among the few groups that have been effectively confronting the I.S. In fact, it is backed by both Washington and Moscow. The Obama administration has been helping the group financially and militarily, much to the chagrin of Ankara.

The ceasefire agreement between the Turkish state and the PKK unravelled after the Suruc massacre. Turkey, while blaming the I.S. for the suicide bombing in June, had arrested a large number of PKK activists and leftists. Only a handful of I.S. members were picked up. A little later, the Turkish Air Force struck Kurdish targets in northern Iraq without prior warning. President Erdogan finally called off the two-year-old ceasefire agreement with the PKK in July for a variety of reasons, the most important being domestic political compulsions. His A.K. Party had, for the first time since coming to power in 2002, failed to win a majority in parliament in the elections held in June. The Kurdish-dominated HDP got an unprecedented 13 per cent of the vote, crossing the 10 per cent barrier and allowing it to claim crucial seats in parliament. It was the HDP’s performance that denied the ruling A.K. Party a majority. Many secular Turks opposed to the growing authoritarian tendencies of Erdogan preferred to vote for the HDP in the last elections.

The HDP’s rise has put paid to Erdogan’s plans, at least for the time being, to redefine the Turkish presidency and rewrite the constitution. The President had vetoed the formation of a caretaker government comprising representatives of the major parties following the June elections. His critics say that the President was afraid that an interim government would have ordered investigations into the myriad allegations of corruption and misuse of power. With the snap elections that he preferred due on November 1, Erdogan would like nothing better than to put the HDP on the back foot by accusing the party of having terrorist links. The President seeks to further polarise voters on the grounds of ethnicity by playing the anti-Kurdish and anti-terrorism card. The far-Right Nationalist Movement Party has asked Turks to take to the streets to protest against the PKK. This party and the A.K. have tried to paint the HDP as a proxy of the PKK. The government has accused HDP legislators of conspiring with terrorists and launched criminal investigations against many of them. Hundreds of HDP activists have been arrested since June this year.

The HDP leader, Selahattin Demirtas, has on several occasions been critical of the PKK. He has said that his party wants to represent all secular Turks irrespective of their ethnic background. Demirtas, a former human rights activist, has accused the government of being behind the latest suicide attack. He went to the extent of calling the government a “mafia state” that acts like “a serial killer”. At the same time, he has called on his fellow citizens not to seek revenge. “Violence will breed more violence. We’ll seek justice in the elections of November 1. Shared life is possible among the oppressed and the abused. We will not surrender to a bunch of scoundrels,” he said.

In recent months, ultranationalists, with the support of the ruling A.K. Party, have been attacking HDP workers and vandalising their offices. Offices of media houses critical of the government have come under mob attacks. Leading editors have been physically attacked. Many journalists have received death threats for their critical reporting. More than a hundred people have been arrested on charges of “insulting the President” since Erdogan was elected to the post last year. In the last two years, Erdogan has revamped the security apparatus and the top army leadership, putting loyalists in charge.

“How is it possible that a state with such a strong intelligence network did not have prior information of the attack [in Ankara]?” asked the HDP leader. In the 1980s and 1990s, the “deep state”, consisting of influential members of the executive, the judiciary and the military, had encouraged extremism so that they could find a pretext to crack down on the media and left-wing groups. According to many Turks, this is exactly what is happening now. Since the ceasefire ended, violence inside Turkey has escalated. More than a hundred soldiers and police officers have been killed since then. After the war against the PKK started in 1984, more than 40,000 people have lost their lives.

The HDP and other groups had organised the ill-fated peace march in Ankara on October 10 to call for a ceasefire and demand that the government return to the negotiating table to discuss the long-simmering Kurdish issue. The PKK, on its part, had announced a unilateral ceasefire immediately after the massacre, stating that it wanted to create an atmosphere in which “free and fair elections can be held”. The PKK said that it would only retaliate if it “or the Kurdish people are attacked”.

The Turkish government dismissed the PKK’s offer out of hand, describing it as a propaganda stunt. The Turkish Air Force showed no let-up in its strikes on PKK targets in the south-eastern part of the country and in northern Iraq. Former American Ambassador to Turkey Eric S. Edelman, in an article in The New York Times, said that by targeting the PKK in Iraq and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria, Turkey had “weakened the most effective ground force fighting the I.S. in Syria”. Turkey’s clandestine links with the terror groups working in Syria are well documented. Ankara, in its zeal for a regime change in Damascus, has shown that it is willing to sup with the devil to achieve its goal. Turkey is known to have allowed free passage to I.S. militants to cross into Syria since the beginning of the civil war there four years ago. There are reports that Turkey clandestinely buys $3 million worth of oil from the I.S. every day, indirectly financing the violent insurgency.

Metin Gurcan, a security analyst and a former official of the country’s security services, told The New York Times that the security establishment in Turkey had not given “the priority to fight I.S. in a material and legal sense”. Many Turks in fact view the spate of recent terror attacks as a blowback from Turkey’s deep involvement in Syria. The leader of the main opposition party, the secular Republican People’s Party, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, put the blame for the Ankara terror attack on Turkey’s “involvement in middle-eastern affairs”. An Islamist jehadi group, Jaysh al-Islam, openly backed by Turkey and its regional allies, sent a message of solidarity to the government after the latest terror attack. The group said that it was “in complete solidarity with the Turkish government”. Selahattin Demirtas accused Erdogan of leading the country into war to move his political agenda forward.

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