Carnage in Ankara – by whom and why?

Carnage in Ankara – by whom and why?

This is the second time in the past five months that Turkey’s capital has been hit by terrorist carnage. The first one was in October 2015, when Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) suicide bombers killed 101 civilians in front of the main train station. On Feb. 17, another suicide bomber, this time in a vehicle loaded with hundreds of kilograms of explosives, killed 28 people, most of them military personnel heading home in a bus. Moreover, this second attack took place in the most official spot of the all-official Ankara: right next to the Chief of Staff and the headquarters of the Army and the Navy.

But who is responsible for this attack? ISIL, of course, is always a usual suspect, but this time the culprits seem to be of a different genre. The police soon identified the suicide bomber as Salih Muhammed Neccar, a 24-year-old Syrian Kurd, who entered Turkey in the summer of 2014 from the besieged city of Kobane. His background and profile shows no affiliation with ISIL, but does show affiliation with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the main Kurdish party in Syria. 

Hence the Turkish government declared the PYD as the culprit of the horrible attack. This, of course, seems to justify Ankara’s aversion to the PYD, and the recent shelling of PYD targets in northern Syria by the Turkish military. It also gives Ankara the right to call on its allies, such as the United States, to stop seeing the PYD as an ally in Syria.

However, there is also the fact that the PYD denied any responsibility for the attack. Salih Muslim, the leader of the party, spoke just an hour after Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s accusation of the PYD, and said they had “nothing to do with what happened in Ankara.”

Meanwhile, however, Cemil Bayık, the commander of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Turkey-based mothership of the PYD, also spoke from his base in northern Iraq with a conspicuously different tone. “The act realized in the heart of militarism in Ankara could be a retaliation against the savage, inhumane, genocidal massacres against our people,” he claimed. “We do not know who did this. But we know such acts were realized before as retaliations against massacres in Kurdistan.”

Even more notably, Bayık had spoken a day before the attack, saying, “all guerillas in our movement are now devotees. They are so angry that they want to explode themselves at the AKP’s belligerent powers like atomic bombs.”

By looking at these, my feeling is that perhaps the culprit is less so the PYD, which is fighting its own battles in Syria, but Turkey’s older foe, the PKK. (These two organizations are of course closely related, but they still seem to have their own decision-making processes.) In fact, the actual operation may have been carried out by the Kurdish Freedom Falcons (TAK), which is the PKK’s younger and more militant offshoot, which took responsibility before for such lethal attacks in big cities. In this scenario, Neccar, the suicide bomber, may be a Syrian Kurd incorporated into the Turkey-based TAK.

None of this means that Ankara’s worries about the PYD are wrong. An empowered PYD in Syria will certainly imply an empowered PKK in Turkey. And that is why the United States, which explicitly sees the PYD as an ally against ISIL, should understand Turkey’s worries and do something to allay them. Forcing the PKK to come back to the peace table that it upended last summer, and encouraging Ankara to do the same, might be a good idea.