Saturday’s attacks on a peace demonstration in Ankara, which caused the deaths of over one hundred people and injured many more, have once again exposed the deep ruptures that continue to dominate Turkey’s social and political landscape.
At 10:04am two explosions, mere seconds apart, rocked a crowd of protesters who had gathered in front of the capital’s train station in preparation for a big peace rally planned later that day. The explosions instantly killed dozens of people – the current death toll as announced by the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) stands at 128 – while injuring almost two hundred others.
While survivors were treating their injured comrades, the police – who, curiously, had been absent at the time of the blast – arrived on the scene. But rather than attempting to calm the situation, police forces attacked the crowds with tear gas while blocking the roads leading to the square, preventing emergency services from reaching the site of the attack.
A video, shot right after the attacks, shows a crowd of protesters clashing with police, attempting to clear a corridor for the ambulances to pass through.
In the wake of the bombings, tens of thousands of people across the country took to the streets to condemn the attacks, for which they directly hold the government responsible. Slogans like “Murderous state, you will pay the bill!” and “Thief! Murderer! Erdoğan!” echoed through the cities, as an expression of the deeply ingrained anger towards Turkey’s rulers that has come to characterize the different civil and political opposition groups in the country.
As of yet, no one has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but the similarity between the bombings in Ankara and those in Suruç and Diyarbakir, on 20 July and 5 June, respectively, leads many to suspect that the so-called Islamic State (IS) might be behind it.
The attacks on an HDP election rally in Diyarbakir, and on a gathering of activists who planned to help with the rebuilding of Kobane in Suruç, were both carried out by suicide bombers with suspected links to IS. Although both these attacks have never formally been claimed by IS, few nurture doubts as to who is responsible for them.
However, these days, very few people in Turkey actually seem to occupy themselves with the question whether or not IS is also behind the attack in Ankara. The real question at hand is to what extent the Turkish state and security apparatus was involved, and whether the attacks were perpetrated with the knowledge, support or even on the orders of the interim AKP government.
The disrespect for human – and especially Kurdish – lives by Turkish secret services and armed forces has been axiomatic ever since the latter burned down villages, displaced hundreds of thousands of people, and made thousands disappear in an attempt to break the resistance of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) back in the 1990s.
These very same tactics are once again brought to the fore now that the state has relaunched its attacks on Kurdish rebels, in the process surrounding entire Kurdish towns, cutting them off from the outside world for days on end while targeting their civilian populations with snipers and apparently random artillery bombings.
But whether the government would go so far as to actually bomb its own citizens, or to allow IS to do so just to further its political program, is a key question that goes to the heart of the current crisis in Turkey. The co-leader of the HDP, Selahattin Demirtaş, cut to the chase in a public statement responding to the bombings:
“Ankara is the capital of Turkey. Even if a single bird flies over the city the state will know. This is the most surveilled city in the country. We hold a mass rally with a hundred thousand people, but there wasn’t any security personnel to be found on the streets. Look at their own rallies: the security checks start several blocks away.”
To identify the forces responsible for this barbaric attack, one simple question ought to be answered: who benefits?
Fueling the conflict
Social media users supportive of the government – known as AK-trolls in Turkey, in reference to their support for the AKP – wasted little time in pointing to the HDP as the ones responsible for the bombings, suggesting that by presenting themselves as victims they would be able to garner votes for the upcoming elections.
Pro-government media quickly picked up this idea, and suggested that because the attacks in Diyarbakir and Suruç had boosted the popularity of the HDP, the ones responsible for the Ankara attacks might have to be sought among the pro-Kurdish party’s ranks. Stopping short of directly accusing the HDP, Prime Minister Davutoğlu suggested in a speech that there were three groups capable of carrying out such an attack: IS, the PKK and the DHKP-C, a militant leftist organization.
While it may be true that previous attacks have increased support for the HDP, seeing this is as evidence for the preposterous claim that the HDP would actually go so far as to kill their own supporters just to garner some votes is simply outrageous. If the Diyarbakir and Suruç bombings boosted support for the HDP its only because they clearly substantiated claims by the party that they have become the target of a state-orchestrated terror campaign.
When looking for a party that doesn’t shrug away from tactics so vile as to try and profit from a massacre, there’s another much likelier candidate: the ruling AKP. On several occasions it has been exposed for covertly supporting IS, in particular when the terror organization was launching its attack against the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane, right at the border with Turkey.
When the Suruç bombing took place and fingers were pointed at IS, many held the AKP responsible for the attack, and a militant group linked to the PKK executed two police officers in an act of vengeance. For the government, this was the excuse they had been looking for, and instead of going after the organization that was supposed to be responsible for the deaths of 33 unarmed Turkish citizens, it launched an all-out war against the PKK, dropping hundreds of bombs on the Kurdish rebels compared to only a handful on IS in the first week after the Suruç attack.
At the time, many linked the AKP’s “anti-terror campaign” directly to its poor performance in the June elections, in which it had lost its absolute majority in parliament for the first time since coming to power in 2002. The AKP’s losses coincided with significant gains for the HDP, which managed to enter Parliament with 13% of the vote – a first for a pro-Kurdish party in Turkey’s history.
The HDP and the Kurds it represents are now seen as the biggest threat to the AKP’s power. By plunging the country into chaos, while using its control over the national media to depict the HDP as the party responsible for the violence, Erdoğan is trying to set the board in his favor for the upcoming November elections that were announced after coalition talks broke down in mid-August.
Now, curiously, after three months of fighting between the Turkish armed forces and the PKK rebels in which hundreds are suspected to have lost their lives on both sides – not to speak of the dozens of civilian casualties, mostly at the hands of the Turkish army or police – the twin bomb attack in Ankara comes at a time when the PKK had just decided upon a unilateral ceasefire.
Not wanting to provide Erdoğan with an excuse that would allow him to postpone the ballot, or even to declare a state of emergency and install himself as a dictator, the PKK announced on Saturday that it was postponing all military operations until after the elections. The declaration of this unilateral ceasefire came after the bombings, but had been expected for several days already.
The conflict in the southeast is in fact nothing less than the AKP’s election campaign, and a ceasefire mere weeks before what will probably be the most crucial elections in the party’s history are the last thing Erdoğan and his companions need right now. The AKP’s discourse revolves around the idea that they are the only party preventing the country from collapse, that Erdoğan is the strong leader the country needs in times of crisis, and that by crushing the Kurdish resistance it would once and for all establish the hegemony of the Turkish state in all parts of the country. A ceasefire would naturally expose the hollowness of these claims, leaving the AKP with little to show for.
Within this framework, the bombings in Ankara would thus serve to annul the ceasefire by provoking a retaliation by the PKK and thereby keep the conflict alive until the elections.
Following this line of thought, one can see clearly how the AKP could benefit from Saturday’s attacks. However, benefiting from something does not immediately imply responsibility, just like the HDP can’t be held responsible for the attacks on their party members, offices and election rallies that might have “helped” substantiate their claims of being targeted by the state. To what extent the AKP has been involved in the aforementioned attacks is a question that most likely will never be satisfactorily answered.
But whether or not the AKP was directly involved, the government’s response to the tragic event shows that they wasted little time in trying to exploit it in their favor. In a thirty minute-long speech responding to the attacks, Prime Minister Davutoğlu spent twenty minutes denouncing the HDP and its co-leader Demirtaş. In trying to defend the government’s tough stance against terror he even went so far as to make the absurd claim that the suicide bomber responsible for the attack in Suruç had been arrested and handed over to the judiciary.
For many in Turkey the situation is clear: the AKP government bears responsibility for the deaths of its citizens. Whether the AKP actually orchestrated the attack or simply failed to provide the necessary security for the demonstrators, as a governing force the party bears responsibility for the security of the people. Its failure to do so constitutes a serious crime to which it ought to be held accountable – not just within Turkey, but also internationally.
Turkey’s society is more divided than ever, and with Erdoğan refusing to share power while at the same time losing the trust and support of large swaths of the population, the future is looking very grim. The options available to the people in Turkey have boiled down to democracy on the one hand, and Erdoğan on the other. Polls suggest that the outcome of the November elections won’t be that different from the ballot in June, and if the AKP at that point still refuses to admit defeat and doesn’t allow the formation of a coalition government, the bombings in Ankara might only be a herald of what lies ahead for Turkey.