Know Them By Their Deeds

We may not know the identity of those behind the Ankara bombings, but their intention is clear: to undermine moderates and deepen divisions within Turkish society.

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Saturday’s bombing of a peace rally in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, shows the horrific extent to which Turkey’s politics and Syria’s war are merging. The rally had been organized by leftist activists to call for peace between the Turkish government and the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which for years has been agitating for greater independence for Turkey’s Kurdish minority. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has said that the Islamic State is the top suspect. If the Islamic State is indeed responsible, they will have targeted the rally in order to exacerbate the already violent conflict between the Kurds and the state. The bombing could easily have just that effect, coming at a time when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country’s authoritarian leader, has been critically weakened by protests and corruption accusations, and is turning to nationalism to maintain his grip on power.

The Islamic State has already used this strategy of playing on division in the region to great success — exploiting existing fault lines to generate conflicts that empower radicals and disenfranchise moderates. Attacking minorities who are already distrusted by the majority draws the minority further into conflict, and can spark a majoritarian crackdown. This dynamic has been playing out in Iraq, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia, and now it has come to Turkey: the bombers are exploiting and deepening the division between Turks and Kurds in the same way that terrorists have exploited Sunni-Shia divisions in other parts of the Middle East.

The immediate roots of this moment lie in September 2014, when Islamic State forces laid siege to the Kurdish town of Kobani, just across the Turkish border in Syria. As the Islamic State pounded the city, it became an international symbol of dogged Kurdish resistance. Meanwhile, Turkey’s tanks and artillery lay silent just across the border, even as hundreds of thousands of refugees fled the area and Turkish citizens gathered on the hills to watch the carnage.

The opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) — which is largely Kurdish but has increasingly been seeking support from disaffected Turks — accused the Turkish government of allowing the Islamic State to crush Kobani in order to eliminate the Kurdish militias fighting there. Under grassroots pressure to respond to the government’s refusal to intervene, Kurdish politicians called for demonstrations, and more than 30 people died in riots across Turkey’s southeast.

Only in January, with the overwhelming support of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes on Islamic State positions and airdrops of weapons and supplies to the Kurdish fighters, was the siege of Kobani broken. The Turkish government’s determination to avoid involvement seemed to confirm suspicions in the HDP that, for Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), there was no distinction between the Kurdish movement and the Islamic State.

There was still some hope for peace. On February 28, the government and the PKK issued an unusual joint announcement in Istanbul recommitting themselves to the peace process. But within weeks, President Erdogan rejected the announcement, claiming — implausibly, for a man who only seven months before had been prime minister and had kept his iron grip on the party — that he had not been consulted on the details.

Behind Erdogan’s decision — which effectively killed the peace process — was the HDP’s sudden rejection of a potential “grand bargain” with him that had been under discussion for years. Under the scheme, Turkey’s constitution would have been amended to the benefit of both parties: Erdogan would get a strengthened presidency, extending his rule indefinitely, and the Kurds would enjoy new powers in local government. But on March 17, the HDP’s co-leader, Selahattin Demirtas, announced the party’s intentions in no uncertain terms, saying “we will not make you president” and deriding any grand bargain as “dirty haggling.”

In fact, the HDP was going so far as to seek greater leverage in parliament at Erdogan’s expense, announcing in January that it would run as a party in the June parliamentary elections, instead of fielding independent candidates who would then caucus together, as it had in the past. In so doing, the HDP was taking a big risk: No Kurdish party had ever cleared Turkey’s 10 percent electoral threshold to enter parliament. If the HDP could do so, it would be a triumph; if it failed, it would be locked out of parliament.

The HDP’s decision posed a serious challenge to Erdogan. If the party could win more than 10 percent, it would take seats away from his AKP, threatening its hold on power. Understanding that the “grand bargain” was dead — and now determined to halt the HDP’s bid for formal representation in parliament — Erdogan reacted in typical Erdogan fashion: rather than accepting some limits to his power, he decided to pursue a strengthened presidency through a different route: by rallying Turks around an anti-Kurdish campaign.

His effort failed. The HDP won, smashing through the threshold in the June 7 elections with more than 13 percent of the vote and securing 80 seats in parliament. The AKP fell below a majority for the first time since 2002. But rather than forming a coalition government, Erdogan and the AKP equivocated. Tensions between the government and the Kurds grew. And then, seeing an opportunity to exacerbate the breach, the Islamic State inserted itself. Syria’s war arrived in Turkey.

On July 20, a suicide bomber linked to the Islamic State struck a youth rally for Kobani organized by pro-Kurdish groups in the southeastern Turkish town of Suruc. The PKK lashed back, assassinating two Turkish police officers in retaliation for the bombing, which it claimed had been carried out with police support. The government pushed back hard, launching bombing raids against PKK camps in northern Iraq and conducting an extensive crackdown within the country’s borders against the PKK, but also against the HDP and Kurdish and leftist activists. In retaliation, the PKK unleashed dozens of attacks on police, military, and state representatives. Its militants have killed at least 130 Turkish police and soldiers since the renewal of violence on July 22, while Turkey claims to have killed over 2,000 PKK fighters. It is impossible to know how many civilians have been killed, because several cities have been put under martial law for days during military operations, and Turkey routinely denies civilian casualties in its bombing raids in Iraq.

Against this chaotic backdrop, coalition talks went nowhere. Many people — including me — believed strongly that the AKP never intended to form a government, preferring to go back to the polls with the HDP weakened by conflict, especially in its southeastern strongholds. New elections are scheduled for November 1, but it is impossible to imagine they will resolve the crisis. Despite everything, polls show little change in support for the four parties that cleared the 10 percent threshold, which means that on November 2 they will be forced to form some kind of coalition again, after months of conflict and polarization. Unless one of the main parties is willing to back down, there will be no resolution to the crisis.

Turkey’s politics were already dysfunctional, with traditions of ethno-religious supremacism, authoritarianism, and intolerance that have sown deep legacies of mistrust among all the main players. The addition of the Islamic State as a motivated spoiler seeking to expand Syria’s war into yet another neighbor is a terrifying development.

More broadly, the way the Syrian war is infecting Turkey’s politics is yet another example of how the Obama administration’s “strategic patience” has failed to account for the entropy that spirals out from the utter self-destruction of an entire state. The European Union is in crisis over Syrian refugees, Russia has doubled down on its side in the proxy war, and now terrorists are using a political crisis in a major NATO ally to attempt to provoke civil war. It can in fact get worse — and in Turkey, it will.

In the photo, relatives mourn as they carry the coffin of a victim of the October 10 twin bombings in Ankara.

Photo credit: AKGUL/AFP/Getty Images

Nate Schenkkan is project director of the Nations in Transit publication at Freedom House.

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