BACKGROUND: Turkish authorities quickly claimed to have identified both the perpetrator of the car bombing in Ankara on February 17 that struck a military convoy, killing twenty eight people, and the organization that was allegedly behind it. On February 18, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu stated that the perpetrator was a Syrian national named Salih Necar, who he said could be tied to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the militia of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). The identity card of the alleged bomber was said to have been retrieved from the site of the blast. However, Salih Müslim, the leader of the accused Syrian Kurds, adamantly denied any involvement of the YPG militia. Meanwhile, Cemil Bayık, a leading representative of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), stated “We don’t know who carried out this attack. But it may be an act of retaliation in response to the massacres in Kurdistan.” On February 19, a Kurdish militant group, the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), a group once linked to PKK and listed as a “specially designated terrorist organization” by the U.S. government, claimed responsibility for the bombing.
On February 18, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that “even though the PKK and the PYD, those who were behind this, claim that they had nothing to do with it, the information and the evidence that our intelligence services have obtained have made it clear that the attack emanated from them.”
In several respects, the circumstances surrounding the latest bombing in the Turkish capital – which occurred only four months after the deadliest terrorist attack in the history of Turkey, also in Ankara, that killed over one hundred people – follow what has become an established pattern: this is the fourth in a row of terrorist attacks that have taken place in Turkey since July last year. The first was the bombing of a socialist and Kurdish youth gathering in the southern border city of Suruç in July 2015, which was followed by the massacre at the peace rally in Ankara in October 2015, and the attack in January 2016 in the Sultanahmet district in Istanbul that targeted a group of tourists. In each case, the authorities were able to quickly identify the perpetrators – after the Istanbul attack within only hours – displaying the identity cards of the suicide bombers and to name the organization responsible for the blasts. The attacks in Suruç, Ankara, and in Istanbul were said to have been carried out by the terrorist organization calling itself the “Islamic State.” However, in none of these cases did the allegedly responsible organization, ISIS, actually assume responsibility. In the latest case, those who are blamed flatly deny any responsibility.
What sets the February 17 bombing in Ankara apart is the target: military personnel. In contrast, in two of the three previous terrorist attacks since last year, the targets were opponents of the regime. The site of the attack on February 17 was also highly conspicuous: it took place in the vicinity of the General staff, the headquarters of the Turkish Air Force and a few blocks away from the parliament. While the first Ankara bombing hit the politically marginalized – the left, Turkish and Kurdish peace activists – the second Ankara bombing shook the center of the state.
IMPLICATIONS: Historically, political violence in Turkey has followed a certain “script”: the circumstances have as a rule remained opaque and murky, the instigators unknown, even though there have been sufficient circumstantial evidence to allow leading politicians and others to accuse the “deep state” of being implicated. Yet while the question “who did it” has never been satisfactorily resolved, the answer to the question “who or what benefits from violence” has usually been unambiguously clear.
Turkey went through its worst period of political mass violence so far during the 1970s, when ultra-rightist militias took on the left – killing leftist intellectuals, labor representatives, politicians, university students – and the extreme left retaliated. Three thousand people were killed between 1975 and 1980. The violence undermined faith in democracy and paved the way for the military takeover. When the military staged a coup in 1980 violence ended overnight, and in 1982 a grateful population in a referendum massively voted in favor of the authoritarian constitution that the military had imposed.
The terrorist attacks during the second half of 2015 – together with the restart of the war against the PKK in the Kurdish cities in the southeast of the country – similarly helped create a climate of fear and insecurity among parts of the population of Turkey. After the Ankara massacre, two of the opposition parties, the centrist Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (HDP) stopped their election campaigns, deciding not hold any more rallies. The attacks may have contributed to the landslide of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the snap general election on November 1, 2015, by making it appear to be the guarantor of stability and security. Indeed, leading representatives of the AKP, including President Erdoğan, warned that chaos threatened if the AKP was denied a majority. In that sense, the popular psychology that was at work during the second general election in 2015 was similar to the psychology of the electorate that in the 1982 referendum – with 92 percent – approved the constitution that the military had drafted. What is clear is that the governing party benefited from the quest for stability and security, which seems to have led many of the voters who had abandoned the AKP in the general election on June 7, 2015, to recast their votes for the party at the renewed ballot.
Yet stability nonetheless remains elusive; the challenge posed by the PKK in the cities of the southeast may be on the verge of being crushed after months of fighting, but that threatens to offer only a temporary respite for the Turkish regime. The PKK is expected to resume its fighting with the arrival of spring, and above all, in the wake of the empowerment of the Kurds in Syria, the Kurdish equation now looks very different than it used to. From the vantage point of the Turkish state, the emergence of Rojava – Western Kurdistan in Syria – represents an existential threat. Turkey has been shelling the United States-supported YPG units in Syria since last week, in an attempt to stop the Kurdish militia from joining the eastern and western Kurdish cantons in northern Syria. But Turkey needs to get the U.S. on its side against the Kurds.
President Erdoğan has expressed extreme frustration with the U.S. for supporting the PYD-YPG and asked Washington to decide on whose side it stands, with Turkey, or with Kurdish groups that Ankara describes as “terrorists,” affiliated with PKK. There is little likelihood that the United States will do Turkey’s bidding in Syria. The U.S. relies on the Kurdish militia against the terrorist organization calling itself the Islamic State (ISIS); helping Turkey beat the Kurdish forces would not only mean that the U.S. would abandon its priority of defeating ISIS, it would also put the U.S. on a course of direct confrontation with Russia, the other ally of the Kurds in Syria.
Turkish militarism is thus constrained; indeed, there is reason to assume that the Turkish general staff makes a realistic assessment of what can be done in Syria. However, the wave of terror that has struck Turkey since last year will nonetheless have the cumulative effect of bolstering militarism as a response to the Kurdish challenge that the country faces.
The return of the war against the PKK, and the military response to the Kurdish advances in Syria, has brought back the Turkish military into the political realm. Bygone are the days when the military was hounded, when former chiefs of the general staff and force commanders were disgraced and thrown into jail. Today, the AKP government relies on the armed forces to stave off existential threats to the motherland. But the army is not a simple executioner of government policy: it has been vindicated ideologically. The abandonment of the peace process with the Kurdish movement means that the AKP has adopted the hard-line policies that the military has always prescribed to deal with the Kurdish insurgency. And that in turn will ultimately also have an impact on the power balance between the civilian and military wings of the Turkish regime, between the president and the high command.
CONCLUSIONS: For the Turkish public in general, the February 17 bombing of the military convoy in Ankara – and the following attack on February 18 against another military convoy, outside Diyarbakır, at which six soldiers were killed – are bound to serve as reminders that the armed forces are paying a heavy prize in what a majority of the population sees as a fight to preserve the unity of the fatherland. While the terrorist attacks of 2015 led many to attach greater value to AKP as the guarantor of stability, the impact of the recent attack can be expected to be an increased attachment to the military.
Turks are fond of thinking of themselves as a “nation of soldiers,” and the path on which Turkey has embarked since last summer, when the Kurdish war was restarted, will only make them more inclined to think so. However, that will not make it easier for Turkey to cope with the existential challenge that it faces.
Halil Karaveli is a Senior Fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, where he heads the Turkey Initiative and is Editor of the Turkey Analyst.