After less than five months since the massive Ankara peace rally bombing, another terror attack rocked Turkey’s capital on February 17, raising more questions about the security threats and geopolitical risks the country is facing.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu blamed Kurdish militants – both the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and their allies, the Syrian People’s Protection Units (YPG) – for the Ankara bombing, even though previous bombings are thought to have been carried out by militants from Islamic State, which controls large areas of Syria and Iraq. 14 people have also been detained in connection with the attack.
A senior PKK commander denied any responsibility, amid speculation that rogue Kurdish forces may have carried out the attack.
Turkey will try to exploit the Ankara bombing to advance its case that both the PKK and YPG are terrorists, while continuing to rebuff EU and US calls for it to return to the peace talks with the PKK.
The government will also try to use the bombing to justify its military operations against members of the PKK inside Turkey and the shelling of Kurdish militia group YPG targets in Northern Syria. Shortly after the Ankara bombing, Turkish jets hit PKK targets in northern Iraq, killing more than 70 PKK members, including some senior figures.
Meanwhile a remote-controlled roadside bomb, probably detonated by PKK militants, killed six soldiers in a military vehicle in the south-eastern town of Lice on Thursday.
One immediate consequence of the Ankara attack could be that Turkey is further drawn into the war in Syria if it decides to retaliate against the YPG. But if Turkey opts for hitting the YPG harder, this will complicate the situation on the ground for the anti-Islamic State coalition and may severely damage Turkey’s relations with the US, which cooperates with the Kurdish militia.
A vehicle loaded with explosives was detonated at the heart of Ankara on Wednesday as buses carrying military and civilian personnel stopped at traffic lights at rush hour. At least 28 people were killed and more than 60 others were wounded in the explosion that occurred in an area close to parliament, other government buildings and the military’s headquarters.
Over the past year, Turkey has been hit by a series of deadly attacks, mostly blamed on Islamic State. The jihadist group was held responsible for the suicide bomb attack in Ankara at a peace rally last October that killed more than 100 people. 34 people were killed in July 2015 in the town of Suruc near the Syrian border when an Islamic State militant blew himself up in a suicide attack. In January, 10 German tourists were killed in yet another suicide bombing, also blamed on Islamic State, in the Sultanahmet district, one of Istanbul’s major tourist attractions.
A YPG militant of Syrian national with logistic support from PKK militants carried out the Ankara attack, Davutoglu said in a live TV speech on February 18. This direct link, which the government claims to have established in less than 24 hours, will serve as justification for Turkey’s retaliation. “We will continue to shell YPG targets in Northern Syria,” he said.
The prime minister also called on the countries that previously refused to recognise the YPG as a terrorist organisation to think again. “Turkey will share information on where the militants came from, and how they organised, with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council,” Davutoglu said, adding this will prove that the YPG is a terrorist organisation.
Davutoglu did not stop there and he went on to accuse the Syrian regime and warn Russia. “The YPG is the pawn of the Syrian government and Turkey preserves its right to take proper actions against Syria. And once again I warn Russia that help the YPG advance in further north not to use this group against Turkey”, he said.
However, Cemil Bayik, a senior PKK field commander, denied responsibility for the attack, telling the Kurdish news website ANF on February 18 that they do not have plans to expand the war to the western parts of Turkey. “I don’t know who did the Ankara bombing. It could be an act of retaliation for massacres in Kurdistan”, said Bayik. He may be signalling that some other militant groups or individuals that are not controlled by the PKK can carry out similar attacks in the future.
Turkey’s military forces are now likely to step up their bombing of YPG targets in Northern Syria, while intensifying military operations against the PKK inside Turkey.
But Ankara is not likely to send in troops into Syria because this would mean a direct military confrontation with Russia, something Turkey’s Nato allies do want to happen.
Ankara is also unlikely to send its warplanes to hit YPG targets in Northern Syria because of the Russian anti-aircraft missile systems deployed in Syria along the Turkish border and the Russian jets guarding Syria’s skies.
Turkey will once again try hard to convince its Western partners that the Kurdish Democratic Union’s (PYD) and its military unit YPG are dangerous terrorist organisations and they have to cut their support for Kurdish forces. Ankara already asked the US to choose between Turkey and the YPG. But, at the moment Washington does not want to take such a decision as the YPG is the only effective power on the ground fighting against Islamic State militants and it does not see which group or groups could replace them.
Ankara may also try to undermine the YPG by employing other tactics. At least 500 rebels on February 17 crossed the Turkish border and headed for the Syrian town of Azaz in northern Aleppo province where opposition forces have suffered setbacks at the hands of Kurdish fighters, AFP reported, citing Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Earlier this week, the Syrian government also claimed that 100 gunmen, some of them are believed to be Turkish soldiers and Turkish mercenaries, crossed into Syria from Turkey.