Terrorism and tragedy in Turkey

Earlier this month, Turkey experienced the worst terrorist attacks in its history. Two suicide bombers targeted a peace rally, killing more than 100 people. There is no shortage of suspects, but no group has yet taken responsibility. An outrage of this scale should unite a nation, but instead the attacks appear to be more deeply dividing an already fractured country. There are real and growing fears that Turkey could be on the brink of civil war or an authoritarian crackdown.

On Oct. 10, hundreds of people gathered at Ankara’s main train station to protest mounting violence in Turkey against Kurds. Two suicide bombers mingled in the crowd, largely populated with leftists, Kurds and union members. When their vests exploded, they killed at least 102 people and wounded more than 400 others. Most observers believe the blasts were the work of members or sympathizers of the Islamic State extremist group, who were responding to a Turkish government offensive against the group that had been launched after a terrorist attack in the town of Suruc in July. Islamic State forces claimed responsibility for that blast, even though the perpetrator was a Turkish Kurd alleged to have joined the group.

The Kurdish connection is important. The Ankara government has long had an uneasy relationship with its Kurdish population, which it believes is interested in joining other Kurds in the region to carve out a homeland. The Kurdish Workers Party (KPP) is considered a terrorist group by Ankara and other Western governments, but that did not prevent the Turkish government from holding peace talks and reaching a tenuous cease-fire with the group.

Peace talks and the cease-fire collapsed in recent weeks. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blamed the collapse on the Kurds, but there are suspicions that the president is happy to have that outcome since it allows him to call for national unity in the runup to “snap” national elections that he called for next month. That ballot has been forced by parliamentary elections that were held in June.

Erdogan had hoped that his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) would win an absolute majority and he could then rewrite the constitution to claim more power. Instead, the AKP was defeated as leftist forces, united for the first time as the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), crossed the 10 percent threshold (allowing them to take seats in the legislature), claiming 80 seats in Parliament and becoming its third-largest force. The HDP is closely aligned with Kurdish sentiment.

As a result of this alignment of forces, Erdogan has an interest in laying responsibility for the October bombing at the feet of the Kurds and their political supporters. That allows him to call for all aggrieved Turks to rally around the government and to support national unity. The problem with that argument is that it would mean the Kurds (or their backers) attacked a rally filled with Kurds and their supporters.

It is more plausible that the attackers were from the Islamic State group. Originally, using the logic that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” the Islamic State received covert support from Ankara as the group fought in Syria against both the Bashar Assad government, and the Kurds in Syria and Iraq that are fighting Assad. When Kurdish forces in Syria helped oust the Islamic State from a town that the group had captured, the extremist group retaliated with the Suruc bombing. Confronted by charges that Ankara was ignoring the Islamic State and letting it operate freely in Turkey, the Turkish military launched attacks against the group, which resulted in turn in the terror strikes earlier this month.

There is one final interplay of domestic and international forces in this drama. There are reportedly concerns that Erdogan and the AKP need a majority to head off any investigations into its support for the Islamic State and other groups in the Syrian conflict. There have been incidents in which arms shipments to groups in Syria were intercepted by Turkish police and then released after being described as “humanitarian aid.” Courts and provincial officials have been involved as news blackouts have been (unsuccessfully) imposed. Confirmation of official Turkish government ties to and support for the Islamic State would be terribly damaging to Erdogan.

In addition to concerns that the government is using the Kurds as a scapegoat for its own failures — in particular turning a blind eye to Islamic State activities — there is a growing fear that the unrest could trigger military intervention in Turkish politics. Erdogan has battled the political establishment in Turkey since he came to power, which has worried that he is a radical Islamist in disguise who threatens the modern, secular Turkish state. His increasingly obvious attempts to manipulate politics and electoral outcomes could provide members of the military the excuse they need to directly intervene in politics. Given Turkey’s sad history of military coups, such an outcome is not sheer fantasy.