Such massive scale violence, like that which Turkey endured at Saturday’s peace protest against resumed hostilities between the Turkish state and Kurdish militants, is always followed with the question of culpability. Once the bleeding stops, the wounded, dead, and damage absorbed, an investigation will no doubt take shape to identify not only the suicide bombers themselves, but also if these attacks can be ascribed to a particular non-state, ideological militant group or to a more formal, state-sponsored force. With such violent turmoil and political confusion already within Turkey and the region-at-large, it is difficult to comprehend the multitude of actors with possible motive, access, sophistication, and material to conduct such an attack. Even with this uncertainty, however, it is important to understand the players in the current political landscape to discern where responsibility may lay.
The decades-long armed conflict between the Turkish state and Kurdish militants, most notably from the terrorist-designated, separatist Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), resumed in recent months due to a number rising tensions – the state’s sluggish response to protect the city of Kobani, a predominantly Kurdish town on the Turkish-Syrian border, from the Islamic State’s (IS) military advancement; a recent bombing in Suruç, allegedly carried out by an IS affiliated movement in Turkey; and the assassination of two Turkish police officers allegedly by the PKK in retaliation to a believed tacit approval the Turkish state provides for actions against Kurdish militants. In response, the Turkish military bombed PKK military bases, effectively ending the cease-fire and attempts of reconciliation between Kurds and Turks initiated in 2013 between Turkey’s ruling Peace and Development Party (AKP) and PKK leadership.
Spiraling out of this renewed sense of hostilities, there has been a back-and-forth series of violence from both the Turkish military and Kurdish militants. The PKK stepped up their more guerilla style tactics against the state, followed by Turkish military responding against Kurdish strongholds in Turkey’s southeastern provinces. Following Saturday’s bombing, Kurdish sympathizers and leaders from the pro-Kurdish political opposition party, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), initially lashed out against the Turkish state, insinuating that the government had a role in the bombing since HDP and PKK activists predominantly attended the peace protest. Hoping to suppress such insidious allegations, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan quickly denounced the bombing as terrorist attack.
No doubt much of the AKP opposition was represented by the HDP and PKK sympathizers attending Saturday’s peace protest. But to suggest that the Turkish state gave tacit approval to the attack or had some sort of role in its execution seems to be a stretch. The Turkish state’s modus operandi in attacking the PKK tend to be carried out by military airstrikes against PKK bases, not by indiscriminate explosives in civilian concentrated areas. The government’s attacks focus on the predominately Kurdish provinces towards the southeast, and never in the central capital city of Ankara, effectively the backyard of Turkish government. The political risk of having a role in the bombing is too great for the leadership to even have considered such a course. There will certainly be some questions to answer if Turkish intelligence ignored or misused evidence of an impending attack, but not to the extent of being accused of active participation in the bombing.
Saturday’s bombing correlates to much of the guerrilla style tactics of an insurgent group, and if it weren’t for the fact that the peace protesters were made up primarily of Kurdish sympathizers, one could conclude that the M.O. was much more in line with that of the PKK. In that case, however, the indiscriminate explosion is also reminiscent of tactics of IS and their affiliated movements, which the Turkish state has alluded to as behind the attacks. The PKK and Kurdish militias in Syria have been known adversaries of IS, making the peace protest a formable target. Kurdish forces operating in Iraq and Syria have been one of the most effective military groups against IS advances, to the point that even the United States has been willing to operationally ally with the PKK’s (which the U.S. also designates as a terrorist group) offshoot in Syria, the Kurdish Democratic Union (PYD). The PKK, PYD, HDP, and other Kurdish sympathizers in Turkey and throughout the region would no doubt be on IS’s radar.
If IS or an affiliated group carried out Saturday’s attack, it would be an unprecedented change in geographic focus, bringing the fight from the Kurdish regions in Turkey’s Southeastern provinces and along its borders with Iraq and Syria to Turkey’s capital, the seat of the governing state and home of its military might. The question then becomes: would IS risk welcoming the full wrath of the Turkish military by coordinating such an attack? And is it in IS’s tactical interest to bomb civilians in central Turkey rather than militiamen in the Southeast, which is much closer to territory under IS control and has more potential to be the next area for possible territorial expansion? Yes, the Turkish military has aligned itself, even if begrudgingly, to the U.S. coalition combating IS, so like the PKK and PYD, the Turkish state is also an enemy of IS. But other than approving the use of its Incirlik air base as a staging point for coalition attacks against IS, the Turkish military has not been heavily involved in the fight, and still sees the Bashar Al-Assad regime in Syria as enemy number one. If the Turkish military weren’t all in before Saturday’s bombing, why would IS encourage their attention with such an act, opening up another front against IS forces?
The political confusion in Turkey and within the greater region leaves much of Saturday’s bombing left unanswered. With no group officially taking responsibility for the recent bombing in Suruç, we may witness a similar silence in this case. Even with the multitude of regional players with motive, access, sophistication, and materiel, the bombing’s M.O. probably points to an IS affiliate. Though this would leave its lack of tactical achievements and potential future setbacks to be criticized, IS would still have the most to gain from such an attack.