Terror Attacks and Assassination in Turkey

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The dramatic assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey by a member of Ankara’s riot police on Monday has been heavily reported on by the international press. But the brazen murder came only days after two separate attacks orchestrated by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) killed at least 60 people and injured many more. Regional observers have been raising questions about Ankara’s strategy for dealing with the PKK and the violence leaking in from Syria and Iraq. But the attitude in Turkey since the failed coup attempt in July has been one of besiegement and suspicion, and much of the local media commentary has focused on debating the degree of responsibility the United States bears for Turkey’s problems.

Refuting the hyperbolic headlines in some publications comparing the assassination to that of Archduke Franz Ferdinand more than a century ago, Turkish scholar Sinem Cengiz, writing for the Saudi daily Arab News, believes that the terrorist attack will “draw Ankara and Moscow closer”: “[T]he killing is a terrorist attack, a provocation aimed at harming Turkish-Russian ties at a time when they are entering a positive phase. It also comes as Ankara and Moscow have been collaborating in efforts to evacuate civilians from the ravaged city of Aleppo, and while they are taking important steps regarding Syria’s future….In a perverse way, the attack may even bring Moscow and Ankara closer, as both are determined not to allow it to cast a shadow over relations. Both countries played a vital role in brokering the latest cease-fire allowing civilians to leave Aleppo. They are not going to allow it to collapse.”

According to Asharq Alawsat’s Said Abdul Razzak, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had been sounding the alarm about the rising tide of terrorist attacks even before the assassination: “Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that his country was under attack [from] various terrorist organizations, adding that developments in Turkey were not separate from what was happening in Syria and Iraq. In remarks made in a statement following a car bomb attack in the Central Anatolian province of Kayseri that left at least 13 soldiers killed and 56 others wounded, Erdogan offered his condolences to the families of the fallen soldiers and wished the injured a speedy recovery….The Turkish president noted that terrorist attacks were targeting the country as a whole. He also warned that terror groups were trying to hamper Turkey’s progress and development. ‘Terror attacks target all 79 million citizens together with soldiers and police’, he stated.”

This recent editorial by the National (UAE) calls for the United States and NATO to help Turkey in any way they can, pointing out that Turkey’s borders with war-torn Syria and Iraq and its ongoing trouble with its restive Kurdish minority have made the country a prime target for terror attacks : “Over the past two weeks, the country has been assaulted by bomb attacks outside a crowded football stadium in Istanbul and on a public bus carrying Turkish troops in the town of Kayseri….Europe and other NATO countries such as the United States have a clear interest in assisting Turkey with its domestic challenges and ensuring that the country is secure and prosperous. Instead of watching the country suffer with the weight of extremism and its effects on the economy, allies must listen closely to the Turkish leadership to forge a path out of the mess. As we have seen in the last two weeks of terror, Turkey is on the front lines of the conflicts that are defining the region. In its time of need, friends and allies can’t afford to turn their backs just as Turkey can’t afford to forge a solution on its own. Hopefully, 2017 will bring with it a renewed spirit of camaraderie, cooperation and motivation to solve problems.”

Similarly, in an op-ed for the Turkish newspaper The Daily Sabah, Mehmet Celik argues that the ambivalence of the West — in particular the United States — over Kurdish separatism has emboldened terrorists and made Turkey’s task more difficult: “The PYD/PKK has aimed at establishing a self-declared autonomous canton from Syria’s northwestern Afrin to Kobani and Jazeera cantons in the northeast, which moderate opposition groups have opposed, as it threatens Syria’s territorial integrity. Due to organic organizational links between the PKK and the PYD, Turkey also sees the PYD as a terrorist establishment in its borders, which Ankara has said numerous times it will not allow….Meanwhile, Yeni Birlik newspaper columnist Avni Özgürel said that many of Turkey’s internal problems also have international dimensions…adding that the U.S.’s partnership, military and logistical support with the PYD in Syria, despite Turkey’s concerns, has encouraged the PKK terror group to carry out attacks against Turkey, the U.S.’s historic NATO ally.”

Hurriyet Daily News’s Mustafa Akyol also condemns the PKK, drawing little distinction between their tactics and those of ISIS: “Who is doing this to Turkey? There are two main culprits, with totally opposite worldviews but a similar lust for blood: ISIL, the army of zealots in Iraq and Syria that dare to call themselves ‘Islamic,’ and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the army of similarly fanatic Kurdish separatists….The PKK typically calls its militants ‘guerillas,’ and there is indeed a difference between guerilla warfare and terrorism, in the sense of whether the targets are combatants or non-combatants. But riot police at a stadium do not constitute a military target, let alone the innocent civilians whose murder was apparently part of the plan. All this means that the PKK, under whatever name it appears, is a lethal terrorist threat against which Turkey has the right to defend itself. This threat cannot be overlooked, let alone justified.”

As seen above, many observers have complained of U.S. inaction and even implied that the West is complicit in Kurdish separatism.  But conspiracy theories have been rampant in Turkey since the allegedly-Gulenist coup attempt in July. Yasin Aktay, in a recent op-ed for the Turkish daily Yeni Safak, gives an example of this worldview as he holds the United States directly responsible for the recent wave of terrorism in Turkey: “The attempts to occupy and [besiege] Turkey since February of 2012, respectively with the Gezi, December 17 and Kobani incidents, were unmasked with the boldest attempt of them, the July 15 coup attempt. When the coup attempt failed, the real perpetrators tried to hastily hide their faces, but unfortunately they were busted this time. July 15 proved that the same perpetrators were behind all of the coup attempts….The terror wave Turkey faces today is not coordinated from within, but from an area in Syria which is under U.S. control. And if we rewind and go back to July 15, if things had gone as they had planned that night, all the plans they had foreseen for that region of Syria would have been actualized and thus a PYD terror corridor would have been established all the way to the Mediterranean.”

There is a real fear that the attacks could spark further attacks along sectarian lines. Murat Yetkin, writing in Hurriyet Daily News, worries over attacks on mainstream Kurdish political parties and warns the Erdogan government against abetting a “Turkish-Kurdish rift” that could lead to civil war: “Right after the bombing in the morning hours, angry crowds took to the streets of Kayseri in protest, and one of their targets was the local headquarters of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which focuses on the Kurdish problem. The attack was followed by a number of similar attacks in different cities. This is exactly what the PKK chiefs in their headquarters in the Kandil mountains of Iraq are aiming for: divert the anger of the crowds agitated by acts of terror onto the Kurds of Turkey, especially those whom the PKK could not succeed in taking under its control, regardless of whether they voted for the HDP or other parties….Preventing a Sunni-Alevi rift or a Turkish-Kurdish rift from being provoked is the most important job of not only the government, but also political parties, civil society and the media. One has to see that a Turkey dragged into a Turkish-Kurdish and/or Sunni-Alevi rift would not be in the best interests of the West either, whether that’s the U.S., the European Union or NATO.”

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  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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