ANKARA –– Millions of refugees from Syria have flooded into Turkey, straining its economy and draining resources. Turkey has been drawn into its neighbour’s five-year-long war, spawning discord with Russia. Its leaders have pushed to join the European Union while fending off criticism of cracking down on opponents and journalists.
On top of all this, Turkey is battling a terrorist insurgency.
In the latest violence, a Kurdish rebel group today claimed responsibility for a car bomb attack that killed at least 37 people earlier this week in the capital.
The Kurdish Freedom Falcons, or TAK –– an offshoot of the Kurdish separatist group PKK –– said on its website that militants struck Sunday “in the heart of [the] fascist Turkish republic”.
The TAK said “our comrade” Seher Cagla Demir was the female suicide bomber behind the Ankara attack. Turkey’s Interior Ministry also identified Demir as the bomber, saying she’s believed to have trained with Syria-based Kurdish rebels known as the YPG.
Turkey’s NATO allies haven’t labeled the YPG as a terrorist group. The American-led coalition supports this Kurdish group and considers it a reliable and effective ally in the fight against ISIS in Syria, much to the chagrin of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The PKK, or Kurdistan Worker’s Party, which seeks an independent state in Turkey, has been in an armed struggle with Turkey for decades and has been designated a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and EU.
In July, the PKK declared a 2013 ceasefire agreement with Turkey to be over.
Turkey’s military has responded with airstrikes and ground troops pushing into northern Iraq to go after PKK targets.
There have also been crackdowns in restive Kurdish areas in southeastern Turkey, with some towns put under curfew. Some accuse the Turkish government of unfair collective punishment for the crimes of a few, saying security forces have acted with impunity and killed civilians.
The carnage has spread to Turkey’s most populated cities.
In January, ten German tourists died in a suicide bombing in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet Square. Authorities connected this attack to ISIS, the terror group that has taken over swaths of Syria and Iraq.
Then came a February bombing targeting military vehicles in central Ankara, killing 28 people and wounding 61 others.
Top PKK leader Cemil Bayik said his group didn’t know who was responsible. But the Kurdish Freedom Falcons later claimed it carried out the attack as “revenge” for Turkish military actions and warned that tourists could be next.
Over the weekend, a blast ripped through a major transit hub in Ankara. Citing a security source, Turkey’s semiofficial Anadolu news agency reported today that the 660-pound bomb of RDX, TNT and ammonium nitrate used in the attack was similar in makeup and scale to one used a month earlier, a few hundred metres away.
The government reacted to Sunday’s attack with military action and defiant rhetoric.
“Terror organizations and their pawns are targeting our innocent citizens in the most immoral and heartless way as they lose the fight against our security forces,” Erdogan said in a statement this week.
“Terror attacks –– which intend to target the integrity of Turkey, unity and solidarity of our people –– do not diminish our will to fight against terror, but further boost it.”
The TAK is not technically a part of Turkey’s main bete noir of Kurdish terrorism, the PKK, but some analysts say that’s partly a matter of plausible deniability.
They say the TAK follows the broad direction of the PKK, adhering to its ceasefires and mimicking its targeting, but does not seek approval from the PKK’s hierarchy for each attack.
The PKK’s critics say that this loose structure allows the main Kurdish group to keep acts of carnage perpetrated against victims –– like the Ankara attack, which killed almost exclusively innocent civilians –– at an acceptable distance from the larger militant group.
The fact that a faction linked, however loosely, to the PKK has claimed this savage attack will still massively complicate the United States’ ties with Turkey.
The United States arms and assists Kurds fighting in northern Syria against ISIS.
But Turkey insists these militants in northern Syria, the YPG, are essentially the PKK in different uniforms.
The United States disputes that and lists the PKK as a terror group. But this gray area has damaged relations between Ankara and Washington, and the civilian massacre in Ankara will further complicate that vital relationship in the war against ISIS.
Other governments have taken precautions as Turkey faces the threat of more terror attacks that could drive tourists away and hurt its economy.
In December, the American diplomatic mission in Turkey cautioned Americans to avoid its consulate in Istanbul because of a security threat. And last week, the American Embassy in Ankara warned of a possible terrorist plot to strike government buildings in the capital’s Bahcelievler neighbourhood, a few minutes’ drive from the site of Sunday’s explosion.
Germany’s Foreign Ministry said today that the German Embassy in Ankara, a German school in the city and the German Consulate in Istanbul remained closed “based on a possible threat that we are still investigating”.