ISTANBUL: Rather than compelling Turks to unite, the Ankara bombing looks set to deepen the fissures in Turkish society.
Four score and a dozen years ago, when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk forged a new republic from the detritus of a fallen empire, he chose as its capital not the great, storied metropolis of Constantinople, but Ankara, hoping to unite his people in the Turkish heartland of Anatolia.
Modern Turkey had seen pogroms, coups, and spasms of violence, but never had terrorists wreaked the havoc they did last Saturday, killing as many as 128 people and wounding hundreds more with twin blasts on a peace rally in the heart of the capital.
The attack punctured Turks’ sense of stability – or what was left of it. Speaking on national television, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called it “the most painful incident in the history of the Turkish Republic”.
Within hours, thousands descended on Istanbul’s great pedestrian artery, Istiklal Caddesi. They waved flags and vented their ire at the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
“Thief, murderer: AKP!” they chanted, calling on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to resign. That same anger simmered in Ankara Sunday, when thousands turned out to mourn the victims, gathering near the blast site to wave political banners and chant anti-government slogans.
Erdogan, for his part, linked the bombing to recent attacks on Turkey’s security forces – a clear reference to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought an off-and-on war with the state for three decades and with whom violence has flared in recent months.
Selahattin Demirtas, co-chair of the Kurdish-led Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), said the Ankara blasts had been “perpetrated by the state against the people”.
From politicians, the finger-pointing is almost understandable, particularly in the run-up to parliamentary elections on November 1. But among the general citizenry, a response more about vengeance than sorrow and peace felt dispiriting – and highlighted the deep divisions in Turkish society.
Turkey has a long history of brazen political violence, and AKP politicians, like Erdogan, have in recent years embraced a polarising “us” versus “them” perspective.
Still, this government must shoulder some blame. Along with the July bombing of a pro-Kurdish youth rally in Suruc, which killed 33 people, and a twin blast on an HDP election rally in Diyarbakir, the Ankara attack, which struck the HDP contingent at the rally, makes three with similar hallmarks since June.
No arrests have been made in any of these cases.
A dangerous game
What’s more, Turkish police believe one of the Ankara bombers may have been the brother of the Suruc bomber. As I suggested in August, the government’s Gulenist purges and simultaneous wars against Marxists, the PKK, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have likely undermined Turkey’s security apparatus.
Even so, this seems a stunning lapse. ISIL appears to be attacking the Turkish state for turning its back after a couple of years of what many view as tacit support, and the Kurds for their stout fighting in northern Syria. If its objective is to weaken its enemies and create chaos, it’s succeeding.
After Suruc, the PKK quickly struck the state, killing two police officersand sparking the tit-for-tat battle that continues today. As a consequence, ISIL is free to do its bidding and Turkey is less stable.
That last attack went so well, ISIL might have thought: Let’s do it again – but bigger this time, and during a tense election campaign.
Turkey’s leaders seem to have taken the bait. Both Erdogan and Davutoglu have portrayed it as an “attack on our unity”.
Strange, considering Turkey has of late been as divided as it’s been in decades, thanks in part to AKP rhetoric, and had in recent months seen an end to a lengthy spell of peace with the PKK.
Rather than an attack on Turkey’s unity, why not view this as an opportunity to unite? Embrace the PKK’s ceasefire, announced a few hours after the Ankara bombing, in an effort to move towards reconciliation and ensure a safe and secure election? Or investigate the recent attacks and come together to battle the real enemy, ISIL?
The enemy within
There’s little point in denying that Syria’s war has spilled into Turkey. With the US ending its failed train-and-equip programme and flailing in its fight against ISIL, the time is ripe for a greater effort from Turkey.
And the will is there. Nearly half the Turks surveyed by the German Marshall Fund in July would support sending Turkish troops to fight ISIL. That number will have spiked after last weekend.
But Turkish leaders seem to have little use for unity, accountability, or security. Hours after the bombings, Turkey’s Interior Minister Selami Altinok said he saw no security vulnerabilities.
Turkey’s EU Minister suggested PKK and ISIL were “in cahoots” over the attack, along with foreign states. Many believe Turkey’s government escalated the war against the Kurds to spark support for the government and cut into the vote share of the HDP.
On Sunday, the workers’ groups that had organised the Ankara peace rally blamed Erdogan and his political allies for starting a civil war and declared a two-day anti-government strike.
Referring to the AKP, Demirtas said, “They want to give this message: We can kill anybody who stands against us and cover it up.”
Also on Sunday, the military dismissed the PKK ceasefire and bombed a predominantly Kurdish town in Diyarbakir and PKK camps in northern Iraq. The PKK, for its part, killed two Turkish soldiers in an attack near Erzurum.
And Ataturk’s dream of Turkish unity receded further still.
David Lepeska, who earlier worked with the Kashmir Observer, is now based in Istanbul and focuses on Turkey and the Middle East.
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