Turkey bombings: Islamic State focus doesn't sway Kurdish suspicions

Saturday's twin bombings at a peace rally in Ankara were the worst terror attack in modern Turkish history. The government says the Islamic State is the likely culprit, but critics accuse the government of complicity.

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
Mourners carry the coffins of victims of Saturday's Ankara bombing attacks during their funeral in Istanbul on Monday. Turkish investigators are close to identifying one of the suicide bombers in Turkey's deadliest attacks in years, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Monday.

National mourning combined with deepening political rage across Turkey on Monday, in the aftermath of twin suicide bombings at a peace rally that killed at least 97.

The weekend bombings came amid a perfect storm of destabilizing internal and external factors, less than three weeks before Turkey holds snap elections. No group has claimed responsibility for the blasts. 

In Syria, Turkey has begun to take on the Islamic State (IS), which the government sees as the likely perpetrator of the worst terrorist attack in modern Turkish history. Yet Turkey has long been accused of giving safe passage and support to IS and other jihadist groups in Syria. Since July, Turkey has also waged an escalating fight against Kurdish separatists in southeast Turkey and northern Iraq that has left hundreds dead. 

Some attending funerals here blame the policies of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for creating the conditions for violent attacks. Mr. Erdogan has also angered many by painting as terrorist sympathizers the pro-Kurdish politicians who denied his Justice and Development Party (AKP) a ruling majority in June’s parliamentary elections. The AKP ruled alone in Turkey for 12 years, and the election represented a major setback.

“Murderer Erdogan!” chanted some funeral-goers in Istanbul and elsewhere on Monday. Similar sentiments echoed among thousands of mourners who took to the streets of the capital Ankara on Sunday, a short distance from the blast site.

“We don’t know who the culprit is yet but the reaction has almost been worse,” says Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“It has divided the public which is really alarming for Turkey’s future because the country’s fault line of pro- and anti-Erdogan camps seems to be trumping all other concerns, including the [separatist Kurdish] PKK and IS,” says Mr. Cagaptay. “That is very dangerous.”

On Saturday, explosives packed with ball bearings were detonated in the midst of a peace march calling for an end to months of fighting between Turkish forces and the Kurdistan Worker's Part (PKK). Turkey claims to have killed more than 2,000 members of the banned group, which has in turn killed scores of Turkish police and soldiers.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Monday that authorities were close to identifying one of the bombers, and that IS was the focus. “These attacks won’t turn Turkey into a Syria,” he said.

Mr. Davutoglu rejected accusations of government culpability in the violence. But he also claimed that such attacks wouldn’t have happened had the AKP still held power, effectively baiting the opposition.

After the election, the AKP held talks with opposition parties on forming a coalition, but when these failed it announced a snap poll on Nov. 1. Davutoglu said one purpose of the weekend bombing was to affect the outcome of the election.

Entanglement in Syrian conflict

Some mourners are not convinced. Distrust of Turkey’s government and particularly of Erdogan – who has tried to create an executive presidency in place of a largely ceremonial position – has grown in recent years. And Turkey’s growing entanglement in Syria, where Russia’s military recently entered the fray, has only added to the tensions here.

In July, another lethal bombing of Kurds in Suruc was blamed on IS. The reaction from Kurds was to blame the government for what they see as either negligence or complicity, for this blast and many other security actions recently taken against Kurds and their politicians. 

“The government speaks of democracy but on our streets we see war,” says Mehmet, who survived the blasts and was at a funeral on Sunday, who declined to give his full name. “Those in power want more chaos but people can only tolerate so much. If they keep attacking us, they should know that they could face a stronger reply.”

Pro-Kurdish politicians also pointed the finger at those in power. “The state which gets information about the bird that flies and every flap of its wing, was not able to prevent a massacre in the heart of Ankara,” said Selahattin Demirtas, co-chair of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP).

Gönül Tol, head of the Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies in Washington, says many Kurds believe they are being punished for polling strongly in June against the AKP, noting that there have been “constant attacks” against Kurds.

“The immediate effect [of the bombing] is to be further alienation of the Kurds,” she says. “Everyone wants to score points before the election and this is a matter of political survival for everyone.” 

Red carnations, bitter recriminations

On the streets of Ankara yesterday, red carnations were laid down and portraits of the victims held up. Some of the thousands who turned out chanted, “Murderer state, you will be held accountable!” 

Zeynep Kaya was 15 yards from one of the blasts, which killed several of her friends. It took more than half an hour for the first ambulance to arrive, which she says resulted in a higher death toll.

“Ultimately we are citizens of this country and we are trying to make [it] a better place,” says Ms. Kaya. “This should have been obvious to the authorities but they attacked us with [tear] gas bombs and plastic bullets while we were helping the injured.”

At a funeral in one Ankara suburb on Sunday, the father of victim Korkmaz Tedik, a board member of the Turkish Labor Party, said: “These people are trying to start a war, they are trying to make people go against each other and to keep minorities from gathering. But we will gather.”

Mr. Cagaptay noted that some of Turkey’s current woes are familiar: separatist violence in Kurdish areas, a bumpy economy, and friction with neighboring states. But he said the sharp divisions over Erdogan’s leadership represented a new challenge.

“The country is polarized not along part or ideological lines of left and right, but along the very nature and rule of President Erdogan,” he says. “That is very alarming ... the [two] sides have a very difficult time talking to each other.”

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