The brazen act of terrorism that saw 128 people killed at a political rally in Ankara this weekend traces back at least somewhat to government missteps in feeding Syrian violence — violence that appears to have now migrated home.
The attack by two suicide bombers, whose victims had gathered in support of the opposition party HDP, or Peoples’ Democratic Party, has sent Turkey into uncharted territory. Unlike two bombings earlier this summer, which hit restive parts of the country, this one occurred near the heart of the capital city of Ankara. It was also the single deadliest terrorist incident in Turkish history.
The attack commenced a war of words between the ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party, or AKP, and the pro-Kurdish HDP, which in June stunned observers by winning more than 12 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections. HDP leader Selahattin Demirta accused the government of operating “a murderous mob state,” and further alleged that Turkish intelligence services may have had advance knowledge of the attack.
But no evidence has emerged that the AKP and the Turkish government were behind the attack or another bombing of an HDP event this past June. More plausible is the suggestion from Turkish officials that the militant group ISIL (Islamic State) is behind the attack, though some of those same officials had initially suggested that Kurdish separatist factions may have been responsible.
The Ankara bombing would be the most recent in a string of attacks by a group Turkey indirectly (if inadvertently) supported. Following a suicide bombing this July in the southern Turkish town of Suruç, the Turkish government began to permit U.S. air raids against ISIL to operate from Incirlik Air Base, near the Syrian border.
After this weekend’s bombing, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu declared that “these attacks will not turn Turkey into a Syria.” In many ways, however, spillover from the Syrian conflict is at the heart of Turkey’s increasingly fraught security situation. This weekend’s attack, to a certain extent, is a result of both difficult circumstances and government missteps that have had the net result of compounding regional instability.
Since a popular uprising against the Syrian government began in 2011, the Turkish government has been forced to manage a difficult balancing act with regard to its southern neighbor. Prior to the uprising, Turkey had instituted a “zero problems” policy with regard to the other countries in its region, and maintained good relations with the Assad government. Once it began, Turkey initially maintained this posture, even offering to mediate between Bashar al Assad’s regime and the opposition. But after the Syrian military and intelligence agencies began to wage a brutal crackdown on protesters, Turkey’s position shifted, and the country began to support a wide range of militant opposition factions seeking to topple the regime. As part of this policy, Turkey loosened restrictions on its southern border, accepting hundreds of thousands of civilian refugees, but also allowing militant groups and foreign fighters to cross south and join the battle against the Syrian government.
Unfortunately, this strategy failed to achieve Turkey’s goal of toppling Assad and allowing a new government to come to power in Syria. While Turkey and other countries in the region had expected an international coalition to eventually intervene on behalf of the rebels, as NATO had intervened in Libya, such an intervention never materialized. Instead, the Syrian uprising has devolved into a grinding war of attrition, with millions of refugees fleeing the country and terrorist groups establishing themselves in contested areas.
In light of these circumstances, Turkey’s open border policies, as well as its singular focus on toppling Assad at any cost, has now shown itself to be disastrously misguided. Not only is Assad still in power, but some of the same groups that Turkey had once indirectly supported are now apparently conducting attacks against civilians in Turkish territory. As Turkey also confronts the growing authoritarianism of the ruling AKP government and a revived insurgency by the Kurdish independence group PKK, its stability looks increasingly threatened. Furthermore, while there is no evidence that the AKP government had foreknowledge of the bombing, the fact that its leaders had been openly inciting against the HDP in the weeks and months leading up to the attack has fed allegations that they bear responsibility for the bloodshed that has now come to pass.
This November, Turkey will hold another general election, after the June election failed to produce a viable governing coalition. The HDP party may actually end up benefiting from a wave of popular sympathy and outrage over the Ankara bombing; its members were the primary victims of the attack. “We won’t seek revenge,” HDP leader Demirtas said in a rally in central Ankara a day after the bombing. “Violence will breed more violence. We’ll seek justice in the election on Nov. 1. Shared life is possible among the oppressed and the abused.”