A Bombing in Ankara and Erdogan’s Political War for Total Power

Turkey’s president is bent on bludgeoning his way to dominance, but in doing so he has encouraged a wave of Islamist and Kurdish violence he may be powerless to stop.

A Bombing in Ankara and Erdogan’s Political War for Total Power

In most countries, a tragedy of the scale just experienced by Turkey would unite its citizens.

On Oct. 10, a pair of unidentified suicide bombers targeted a peace rally organized by ethnic Kurds and trade unionists in the Turkish capital of Ankara. At least 97 people were killed and scores of others wounded, making it the deadliest terrorist attack in Turkey’s modern history. Yet when soccer fans in the conservative city of Konya were asked to observe a minute of silence to honor the victims before a national team game against Iceland, many whistled and booed.

Coming ahead of crucial snap polls on Nov. 1, the episode highlights a deepening polarization taking hold in Turkey — one that pits Turks against Kurds and secularists against Islamists. It is also a stark reminder that this officially secular and predominantly Muslim nation has become as much of a recruiting ground for the Islamic State as a target of it.

“These attacks will not turn Turkey into a Syria,” vowed Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu soon after the attack. But a growing number of Turks worry that their country is being sucked into the morass of that war, and many believe that the country’s Islamist president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) are to blame.

Turkish authorities have confirmed that the Islamic State was likely responsible for the Ankara bombings. Police are investigating possible links to a suicide bomber who detonated himself in July at a Kurdish cultural center in the border town of Suruc, killing more than 30 activists. He was later identified as Abdurrahman Alagoz, an ethnic Kurd from the southeastern province of Adiyaman, where Islamic brotherhoods, known as tarikats, continue to hold sway.

The ongoing investigation has shed light on the networks that the Islamic State seemingly still maintains on Turkish soil and the authorities’ failure to crack down on them. Police officials quoted by the daily newspaper Haberturk speculated that Alagoz’s brother, Yunus, might have been one of the perpetrators of the Ankara blast. The father of another suspect in the Ankara blast said his son had traveled to Syria. He told the daily newspaper Radikal that he had asked Turkish police “to lock him up” but that they had ignored his request.

All of this will only reinforce the widespread view among Turks and Kurds alike that the AKP has been negligent, if not outright complicit, in the attacks. It will not have helped that Davutoglu declared in a television interview that his government had a list of potential suicide bombers, but they could not be detained unless they “committed a criminal act.”

Turkish journalists, who continue to be sacked and prosecuted for critical coverage of Erdogan, reacted with a mix of mockery and disbelief at the idea that the Turkish justice system is so selective. “The next time [the authorities] come to confiscate my newspaper, I will tell them that I want to benefit from the same rights accorded to suicide bombers,” tweeted Can Dundar, who runs Cumhuriyet, a prominent opposition newspaper.

Critics have long charged that Erdogan’s Syria policy has allowed the Islamic State to put down roots in Syria, and increasingly, in Turkey as well. The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the pro-Kurdish bloc in the parliament, which helped to organize the Ankara rally, says that had Suruc been properly investigated, the carnage might have been averted. “You are not killers, you are serial killers,” the HDP’s co-chair, Selahattin Demirtas, thundered.

In a rare show of humility, Erdogan conceded that there were “some” security lapses that enabled the bombers to blow themselves up in the heart of the nation’s capital. But he has spurned opposition calls for the justice and interior ministers to step down. 

Alleged links between the government and the Islamic State are impossible to prove. But there is little question that an open-door policy for rebels of all stripes — part of Turkey’s proxy war to topple Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad — has transformed its border regions into what Turkish commentator Kadri Gursel famously called “a jihadist highway.”

But Kurds on both sides of the border believe they are the real targets. Ankara panicked after the Syrian Kurds declared autonomy in 2012 in three separate “cantons” in northern Syria. The Democratic Unity Party (PYD) — the Kurdish party running the cantons — and its military affiliate, the People’s Protections Units (YPG), are linked with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been waging a guerrilla war for self-rule inside Turkey since 1984.

Erdogan’s reaction to the declaration of autonomy was to turn to the PKK’s imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan, for help. Ocalan was expected to curb the YPG’s territorial ambitions, and convince it to join the anti-Assad rebels instead. Erdogan also needed Ocalan to rally Turkey’s Kurds behind then Prime Minister Erdogan’s ambitions to change the constitution to transform Turkey into a presidential system — ahead of his own election as president in 2014. Few know what Ocalan was offered in exchange.

Kurdish lawmakers, however, balked at empowering Erdogan any further. And the YPG ignored calls to take on Assad and continued to expand the areas under its control — all the while accusing Ankara of using the Islamic State and other jihadis to undermine their gains.

These Kurdish groups soon found themselves increasingly aligned against Erdogan — both on the battlefield in Syria, and within the political arena in Turkey. And they would continue to make gains: Turkey’s Kurds handed Erdogan a stunning political defeat in the June 7, 2015, parliamentary elections when, organizing under the banner of the HDP, they won enough seats to rob the AKP of its ruling majority and dashed Erdogan’s dreams of an executive-style presidency. Erdogan hopes to reverse that outcome in the Nov. 1 election — but polls currently show that he is likely to be disappointed, as the result is likely to be a repeat of the election over the summer.

Erdogan’s stock line is that had voters delivered 400 seats to the AKP — enough to ensure its dominance over the political system — none of the recent violence would have happened. His incendiary speeches against Demirtas, who is fast dethroning Erdogan as Turkey’s most charismatic leader, may have helped to spur a rash of vigilante attacks against HDP offices throughout the country.

The Ankara tragedy presents Erdogan with a choice. He can continue to wage all-out political war against his domestic rivals — or he can stick to his constitutional role as president, and remain above the fray. After the June election, Davutoglu tried to form a “grand coalition” with the main opposition secularists, but Erdogan torpedoed the effort. If he allows such a coalition to be formed after this coming election, a power sharing arrangement between the Islamists and the secularists could help restore normalcy and clear the path for renewed peace talks with the Kurds. In the best-case scenario, Turkey would embrace Syria’s Kurds as partners against the Islamic State. Nothing would please Washington more. 

But anyone familiar with the president knows that he is unlikely to give up without a fight. If Erdogan continues with his ambitions to win total power, a further escalation of the violence is sure to ensue. Turkey’s future hangs in the balance.

Photo credit: ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images

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