Ziya Meral is a British-Turkish researcher, the Director of London based Centre on Religion and Global Affairs and Secretary of British-Turkish Foreign Policy Platform.
Last weekend’s terror attack in Ankara, the capital of Turkey, have sent shock waves across the world. The number of fatalities has past a hundred, with many still in critical condition. This is the single most fatal terror attack in Turkey’s history. While most commentary focuses on the domestic context and developments, few are drawing attention to the implications of this event for Turkey’s partners and wider international community.
It will indeed take a while for the entire picture to be clear, but the initial clues from the attack point to a certain direction. The type of bombs used, as well as their deployment and target choice show striking similarities with at least two prior attacks in Diyarbakir and Suruc. The gathering in Ankara was organised by a wide coalition of left-leaning trade unions, civil society groups, political activists with a large presence from the Kurdish party HDP. The rally was held to ask for a political solution to the lapse in Turkey-PKK ceasefire which saw more than 600 people – including Turkish soldiers, PKK militants and civilians, killed since the elections in June
In Diyarbakir, the attack was directly on a rally of HDP, and in Suruc it was on a wider group of left-leaning activists with a dominance of Kurds heading to bring aid and practical help to the town of Kobane in Syria, which ISIS tried to overtake from Kurds last year. Thus, these attacks clearly aimed at not only Kurds, but also at fuelling the on-going clashes in Turkey, as large number of Kurds accuse the Government of not taking necessary caution and some even accuse it to be directly involved with ISIS. It is telling that the Ankara attack occurred on the day that the PKK declared a temporary ceasefire until the next set of elections in November.
In both the Diyarbakir and Suruc incidences, the suicide bombers were established to have been related to ISIS and travelled to Syria. Indeed, one of the bombers was reported to the police by his own parents following his affiliation with ISIS. There are still suspects at large from both incidents and, because of an injunction brought by the Turkish Government, the media has been limited in what it can pursue on the follow up to these attacks. Now the same patterns show themselves in yet another attack, raising questions on whether Turkish state security structures provided enough security to protesters and whether the intelligence services failed to prevent the attack. The fact that the attacks were successful is perhaps the answer to that question. Ahmet Davutoglu, the Prime Minister, jas stated that two suicide bombers were stopped last two weeks in Turkey, which suggests that the state may be keeping certain developments away from the public eye.
No group has publicly claimed the attacks, causing some to speculate that this is unlikely to be an ISIS attack, since ISIS often enjoys broadcasting its murderous campaigns. However, this does not necessarily follow. We have seen how in Iraq and elsewhere similar groups have at times not claimed responsibility, which creates the maximum social and political effect in causing confusion, fear and chaos. It also serves as a veil to protect new networks being formed by the terror group. In the case of Diyarbakir, Suruc and now Ankara, signs suggest a Turkish cell founded or operating from the city of Adiyaman, by Turks who have direct relationship with ISIS, though they may be acting on their own.
Clearly, the fight between ISIS and Kurdish groups in Syria is now manifesting itself in attacks by ISIS or other Islamist extremists on Kurds in Turkey. While Turkey is part of the anti-ISIS coalition that includes the UK, it has chosen to play a cautious role. However, by attacking the precarious Turkish-Kurdish fault lines, but not the Turkish soldiers or state amidst such political instability in the country, and by choosing to remain unknown, the terrorists are punching above their weight as their network in the country is relatively new and has limited social appeal and logistic support.
This creates larger worries for Turkey, for Europe and the UK. It is plausible to suggest that we will see more terror attacks in Turkey. While the Turkish security apparatus has once again pulled all of its resources to combat PKK, there are legitimate questions to ask on its capacity to handle an increasing domestic ISIS threat. ISIS expanding its activities into a NATO state and an EU candidate country brings the risk directly to us in wider Europe. It also creates substantial questions on foreign direct investment in the country as well as the tourism sector. Some 35 million tourists visit Turkey each year, with more than four million of them being Brits.
Yet every tragedy is also an opportunity. Following unprecedentedly strong single party rule by the AKP for 13 years, Turkey is now set for weak coalition governments when it desperately needs political unity and bold decisions on a wide range of issues ranging from solving the Kurdish issues to undertaking a serious foreign policy reconstruction project. Turkey needs its partners more than ever, and at such a moment no outreach goes missed by the public and by the state officials.
The UK remains one of Turkey’s closest and strongest allies in Europe. British diplomats in Turkey are doing exemplary work reaching out to the public, building relationships with officials and advancing British trade in the country. The British Government’s signing of a Strategic Partnership Agreement with Turkey has been a benchmark, bringing the two countries closer on a wide range of issues from trade to security and defence cooperation to joint research and investments. There is now much closer work between security agencies in both countries on handling British suspects travelling to Turkey to join ISIS in Syria. In Ankara, there is a deep awareness that its bid for EU will not be possible in the short-run, if ever. Thus bilateral relations gain much more importance. The UK’s steady stand on Turkey’s EU bid as well as cautious diplomacy places it at an advantageous place.
This is the time for the UK to seek much closer and pro-active relations with Turkey, both for UK’s interests but also for supporting a country that is pivotal to the protection of Europe’s borders, handling of Syrian refugees, and countering the increasing Russian ambitions. While such a call would get a hearty welcome from both the Foreign Office and the Government more widely, British NGOs, think-tanks, and universities have, sadly, a long way in discovering the importance of bilateral relations as well as the complexities of Turkey, including its desperate need for constructive support in its moment of need. To that extent, British Parliamentarians and political parties can play a key role in not only building bridges between the Turkish communities in the UK but also actively supporting closer relations between both countries. They must do so now.