Testing Ankara’s resolve

Karam Said, Thursday 5 Oct 2023

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party has claimed responsibility for a terrorist attack that targeted the heart of the Turkish capital Ankara this week.



The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), designated as a terrorist organisation by Turkey and the Western nations, has claimed responsibility for the terrorist attack in the vicinity of the General Security Directorate in Ankara earlier this week that wounded two police officers.

A statement released by the PKK’s military arm, the People’s Defence Forces (HPG), said that what it described as “an act of legitimate defence” was carried out by an HPG unit called the Brigade of Immortals on 1 October.

The attack, carried out by two suicide bombers according to Turkish Interior Minister Ali Yerlikaya in a press conference on Sunday, throws into relief the complex ways in which Turkish foreign policies in the region interweave with domestic policies.

It will focus attention on developments related to the Turkish military involvement in northern Syria and Iraq, where the PKK or related groups operate. It may also cast a shadow over the crucial municipal elections in Turkey in 2024, when political tensions are likely to peak especially in the predominantly Kurdish areas of south-eastern Turkey.

The General Security Directorate in Ankara is located near the Turkish Parliament and ministerial buildings, and it may be no coincidence that the attack occurred only hours before the parliament was due to reopen after the summer recess.

Coming less than a year after the bomb attack in Istanbul in November last year, Sunday’s suicide bombing in Ankara belies the Turkish authorities’ claims of success in curbing terrorist violence.

Turkey has recently escalated its actions against Kurdish groups in northern Syria, where it has been backing local Arab tribes against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), associated with the Syrian Kurds, in the Deir ez-Zor governorate.

On 27 August, the SDF launched an open-ended “security tightening” operation in the areas under its control in the governorate east of the Euphrates. Ankara notched up its support for the Arab tribes in response.

Meanwhile, skirmishes continue between the SDF and Turkish-backed armed factions in the vicinity of Manbij in Aleppo governorate. The Turkish-backed factions have intensified artillery shelling of SDF positions in an attempt to infiltrate SDF-controlled Manbij.

Inside Turkey itself, the authorities have escalated campaigns to arrest and forcefully deport Syrian refugees. Previously, the government had announced plans to resettle a million such refugees in northern Syria despite the ongoing conflict there.

The question of the Syrian refugees has become a hot-button electoral issue in Turkey, where they have increasingly been the victims of racist abuse and violence.

A short documentary titled The Silent Invasion released in May 2022 helped fuel the anti-immigrant sentiments. It depicts a dystopian Istanbul in 2034, where Syrians are in control, the city is devastated, and Turks are hunted down in the streets.

The film was financed by Ümit Özdağ, leader of the far-right and anti-refugee Victory Party (ZP).

In its statement in the wake of the attack, the HPG described the attack in the vicinity of the Turkish Interior Ministry building as a response to “the disregard for human rights” by the Turkish authorities and “the inhumane practice and policy of isolation that is being implemented in the jails of Turkey and Kurdistan.”

The PKK wings or factions evidently wanted to demonstrate that they had the ability not just to disrupt Turkish security, but also to strike in the heart of the capital and on the doorstep of the country’s powerful security apparatus.

In addition to the ongoing warfare against SDF-controlled areas in northern Syria, the attack may also be a response to the frequent Turkish military strikes against PKK locations in northern Iraq.

Kurdish sources there allege that the Turkish military has used internationally banned chemical weapons in these attacks, though the Turkish authorities deny this.

It could be that far-right elements in the Kurdish nationalist movement are gaining ground against the backdrop of these developments and that they took the initiative to stage a suicide bombing that would expose the weakness of the Turkish government and upset the calculations of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) ahead of the 2024 municipal elections.

The PKK may have had some success in this regard, as it appears that the PKK caught the Turkish security authorities off-guard. There were no prior indications or warnings of a possible terrorist attack, and the perpetrators were able to move freely until they reached the heart of the capital without arousing suspicion.

The planners of the terrorist operation may have calculated that security would not be as tight in Ankara as in the bustling metropolis and tourist hub of Istanbul.

Tensions and violent confrontations between Turkey and Kurdish groups and organisations are now likely to intensify, and within hours of the attack in Ankara the Turkish military launched a series of air strikes against PKK areas in northern Iraq.

According to a Turkish Ministry of Defence statement, it destroyed 20 PKK targets in Jarra, Hakurk, Matina and Qandil.

The suicide bombing in Ankara has shown that Turkey is still vulnerable to terrorist attacks. It also suggests that at least some segments of the PKK have been driven by the systemic violence against Kurdish groups in Syria, Iraq, and even in Turkey to go on to the offensive again against the Turkish government.

Judging by past experiences of this sort in its decades-long conflict with the Kurds, the Turkish government will likely only harden its stance with the aim of showing its toughness against terrorism and solidifying public opinion behind it.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 5 October, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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