The unprecedented wave of suicide bombings in Turkey raises the question whether President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants to solve the country’s security crisis or just exploit it for his own political ends.
The bombings are unprecedented because they are indiscriminate. During the 1970s and 1980s leftists and nationalists engaged in bloody street clashes that paved the way for the military coup in 1980. But since the middle of last year Turkey has been rocked by a series of bloody suicide attacks carried out by Islamic State and Kurdish Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants, which have killed around 200 people.
In the latest attack on March 13, a suicide car bomb killed at least 37 people and wounded more than 100 in the heart of Ankara, less than a month after a similar attack on a bus carrying military and civilian personnel killed 29 in the same area.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but the usual suspects are Islamic State, the PKK, and the TAK, a PKK-affiliated group. A female member of the PKK was one of two suspected perpetrators of the car bombing, security officials told Reuters. The government has not confirmed this information yet.
Turkey, once seen as a beacon of stability and democracy in the Middle East, is now facing multiple security threats. It is battling against the PKK in the country’s southeast, and fighting Islamic State in Northern Syria and Iraq; both conflicts are rebounding on the government in the form of bombings inside Turkey.
While critics and opposition leaders blame the authorities, particularly the country’s intelligence service MIT, for serious security lapses, the government may use the Ankara attack as a pretext to deepen and widen its crackdown on its opponents, especially to tighten the screws on the Kurdish party HDP.
Erdogan has reacted by once again vowing to bring terror to its knees. If the attack is blamed on the the TAK or the PKK, this will provoke a tougher military response and fuel tensions across the country.
Both the Ankara explosions in January and March occurred in an area near key government buildings and military headquarters. People are now asking how a suicide bomber with a vehicle full of explosives could so easily cruise around the heart of the capital only three weeks after a car bomb attack killed more than 20 people.
These two attacks hit the capital when the deadliest terror attack in the history of modern Turkey on October 10 was still fresh in the city’s memory. More than 100 were killed when Islamic State militants carried out a suicide attack on a peace rally in Ankara.
While apparently the country’s spy agency was busy with some more urgent matters, other countries’ intelligence services were able to sense that something very perilous was brewing: only two days before the Ankara blast, the US embassy in Ankara warned of a possible terrorist attack in the city.
“The US Embassy informs US citizens that there is information regarding a potential terrorist plot to attack Turkish government buildings and housing located in the Bahcelievler area of Ankara. US citizens should avoid this area”, the embassy said in a statement issued on March 11.
Hundreds of unfortunate residents of Ankara, unaware of this security warning, became the victims of terrorism on a busy Sunday evening.
The government, however, is not taking any responsibility, let alone forcing anyone to resign, and is rejecting any suggestion of a security lapse. Instead the authorities immediately imposed a ban on media coverage of the Ankara blast. The country’s telecommunications authority also temporarily blocked access to social media after images from the scene started to circulate on Twitter and Facebook.
The cover-up follows the strange official reaction to the suicide attack that rocked the city in January, killing 28 people. Less than 24 hours after the blast, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu confidently declared that a member of the Syrian Kurdish militia YPG was behind the attack. But the Kurdish Freedom Hawks (TAK), a splinter group of the PKK, claimed responsibility for the suicide car bombing. The group said the bombing was in retaliation for the government’s policies in the country’s mostly Kurdish-populated southeast. Moreover, the DNA analysis of the attacker revealed that the bomber was Abdulbaki Somer, a member of the TAK.
People were confused. On the one side there was the country’s premier insisting that the YPG was responsible, on the other side there was a radical group claiming responsibility and vowing further attacks.
No matter who did it, the March 13 attack is a clear manifestation of the miserable state of the country’s intelligence services. Maybe some heads will eventually roll but these heads probably will not be of top politicians but of some local police chiefs.
New Year violence
The March 13 attack comes at a very dangerous time. The Newruz, the Kurds’ new year celebrations, is only two weeks ahead. The Newruz celebrations have often sparked violent demonstrators in the Kurdish provinces and in large cities such as Istanbul and Ankara.
This year’s Newruz will also be overshadowed by the military’s ongoing operations against the PKK and a government threat to lift the immunity of HDP deputies.
For much of the past three decades, the Kurdish conflict has largely been concentrated around remote mountains. But since July, renewed fighting between the PKK and the security forces has spread across the country, killed hundreds of people and derailed a fragile peace process.
The government has imposed curfews in a number of towns and cities in the country’s southeast and the security forces are carrying out operations in city centres where PKK militants and its sympathisers have dug trenches and erected barricades.
There were reports ahead of the Ankara bombing that 20,000 soldiers and police were preparing for a massive operation in the towns of Yuksekova and Nusaybin. Early on March 13 Turkish warplanes hit PKK targets in Northern Iraq, including ammunition depots and shelters.
The government sees the HDP – the third largest party in parliament with 59 deputies – as the extension of the PKK, and has recently moved to strip five leading members of their parliamentary immunity, including the party’s co-chairs Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag.
Prosecutors launched probes against the HDP lawmakers over the remarks they made in December in support of Kurdish self-rule in Turkey’s southeast. If parliament lifts their immunity (the nationalist movement party signalled that it would support the AKP’s bid), this will help the government delegitimise and undermine the HDP in the eyes of voters.
The Ankara attack will also provide an excuse for exerting more pressure on the country’s leftists. Last week, the PKK and 10 armed Turkish leftist groups declared that they had joined forces against the Turkish state.
The government’s dislike of the left - whether they are legal or illegal - is no secret. The AKP hates the leftists not only because of ideological differences but for a simple reason: the non-parliamentary/radical leftist groups were the main organisers of the Gezi protests back in 2013. They are small in numbers but very effective in organising people. The government can now put all of them in the same basket and crush them.
There is a call by several leftist civil organisations to condemn the Ankara attack in Istanbul. There will be a rally in Istanbul’s famous Taksim square on March 14. Probably Taksim once again will witness clashes and will be covered by tear gas.
The government does not feel comfortable with dissent voices challenging its narrative. The leftists, including the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) in parliament, argue that the chaos and violence engulfing Turkey is the product of the AKP’s erratic, repressive and adventurist policies in Syria and towards the Kurds.
But the government will continue to ignore this and insist that Turkey is under attack from all fronts, and that internal and external enemies endlessly try to undermine the country, its government and its leaders. A recent headline of a pro-government Akit summed it all up: “Either chaos or Presidential system”.
Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is seeking to change the constitution to give him more powers. Erdogan has been arguing that Turkey needs a presidential system because this will create a stronger economy and more stability.
The Ankara blast, if claimed by the Kurdish groups, will provide an opportunity for the government to whip up nationalist sentiment and this, in return, could increase Erdogan’s chances of victory in any possible referendum on a new constitution.
The government decided to intensify the war against the PKK after losing its parliamentary majority at the June elections for the first time since coming to power in 2002. Afterwards the AKP increased its share of its vote in the November election and regained its parliamentary majority.
Apparently some voters who had previously supported the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and HDP turned to the AKP in the November election in search of the security and stability which Erdogan promised.
There are rumours that if the AKP fails to get parliament’s approval to put constitutional amendment to a referendum, the government could call yet another snap election.
Some analysts believe Erdogan will not stop until he gets what he wants: all-powerful presidential system. More chaos and more clashes in the country’s south-eastern provinces could push the HDP below the 10% electoral threshold, which will mean more deputies in parliament for the AKP, which is the second largest party in the Kurdish cities.
Investors’ reaction to the Ankara bombing has been rather muted thanks to renewed appetite for emerging markets. The main stock exchange rose 0.3% on Monday, the lira lost only 0.3% of its value against the dollar.
But if the security problems persist – and they do not look like receding anytime soon – there will be consequences for the economy in the medium-term: consumer and investor confident will erode; people will not spend their money; companies will not invest; foreign investors will withdraw their money from Turkish assets and flee.
The ethnic tension between Turkish nationalists and Kurds could easily spiral out of control. The government in Ankara needs to stop playing with fire and reconsider its current policies towards Syria and the Kurds, otherwise the country could descend into chaos.