Two days ago, on 10 October, a pair of bomb blasts killed over 100 and wounded over 180 plus marchers at a peace rally in downtown Ankara, Turkey.
Addressing the nation that same evening, Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu named four organizations as possible perpetrators of the attack: the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C) and the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party (MLKP).
The prime minister also declared a three-day period of mourning for victims killed in the attack.
The rally targeted by the bombs was held in support of a peaceful conclusion to the ongoing war between Ankara and the Kurdish PKK. Trade unions, non-governmental organizations, and various leftist groups organized it. Interestingly, these are the same sort of groups that had organized the “student” movement demonstration that was the target of a suicide bombing on 20 July Suruç, Turkey.
That bombing was seen as the trigger for the current hostilities between Ankara and the PKK. By the middle of last week, however, rumors had begun circulating that the PKK was seeking a cease-fire to the conflict prior to the 1 November elections.
The government dismissed these rumors as “tactic.” But it proved to be more than that, for immediately following the 10 October bombing the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), the political umbrella organization that represents Kurdish voters in Turkey, called on the PKK to unilaterally declare a cease-fire in its war with Turkish government forces. Then, the pro-PKK Firat News Agency announced the cease-fire at noon local time.
With the 1 November election just 20 days off the AK party led-government has been attempting to shift the narrative away from Turkey’s worsening economy to a security crisis that must be strongly dealt with. However, the polling numbers have shown that the electorate is unmoved by this language, with the economy remaining the primary topic of voter concerns.
As well it might. Since mid July the Turkish Lira (YTL) has lost 30 percent against the U.S. Dollar (USD), although in the past week this slide has abated, with Friday’s price holding at 2.91YTL against the USD. One month ago the YTL was 3.025 to the USD.
Given the 10 October attack, the narrative might shift in the government’s favor—unless the economy continues to slide. In fact, given the two big issues facing the country, plus continued uncertainty about the situation south of Turkey’s shared border with Syria, the bombing and its political fallout might be too much for this government to handle.
Turkey has been at war off and on with various Kurdish factions and forces almost since the founding of the republic. For example, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the republic’s founding father, went to war with the Zara Alevis in 1937. Even so, and despite decades of intermittent conflict, the residents of Ankara and Turkey’s other cities and large urban areas outside the major Kurdish regions have lived relatively conflict-free lives. The PKK has generally limited offensive military operations to striking at the security services and Turkish army forces stationed in the Kurdish regions in the southeast, and the government has limited its attacks to those regions and to air attacks in the mountains just beyond the nation’s borders.
Thus, it remains to be seen what the public’s reaction will be to the recent bombing: whether people will flock to the government’s AK party banner, or blame the government (and the AK) for not stopping the violence in the first place.
The bombing does not fit the established PKK pattern of militant action. But the leftist and pro-Kurdish composition of the target does fit into a pattern of violence committed by ultra nationalist elements and, lately, by pro-government gangs hostile to the media, Kurdish organizations, and opponents of the government.
If the ultra nationalists were responsible for the attack, this incident marks a return to a level of street violence by the right that hasn’t been seen since before the 1980 coup d’état. This is not to say that a coup d’état is imminent. But it does stand as a sign of worsening civil discord, which only the Turkish military can restore to order.
A significant Twitter trend is the reaction of leading Turkish intellectuals, reporters, government opposition, and members of the general public to the attack (http://www.todayszaman.com/national_intellectuals-underline-timing-of-attack-and-lack-of-intelligence_401157.html). Most have called for the prime minister to resign while demanding a full accounting of National Intelligence Service (NIT) activities, in particular its failure to stop the attack before it happened. Many have noted in this regard the prime minister assertion earlier in the week that “we have broken the back of the terrorist threat.”
Predictably, pro-government news sites have attempted to shift blame for the attack onto the PKK, though this charge seems to be gaining little early traction.
Southeastern Turkey was once the center of a large Assyrian population. Assyrians have dwelled in the region since the third millennium B.C., well before the arrival of the Kurds and long before the arrival of the Turks. They were early converts to Christianity, creating a vibrant culture characterized by the Assyrian peoples’ deep spirituality and devotion to the Christian faith. Evidence of that faith abides in the region even though most of the Assyrians are gone. For example, Dayro d-Mor Gabriel, located in the town of Midyat in Mardin Province in southeastern Turkey, stands as one of the world’s oldest surviving Syriac Orthodox monasteries, founded in 397 A.D. by Assyrians.
Today Dayro d-Mor Gabriel is the seat of the Metropolitan Bishop of Tur Abdin, and serves as both a spiritual and geographical center for the few remaining Assyrians in the region–and as a safe haven and refuge for Assyrians in times of trouble and persecution. As such, it is sad reminder of a large and peaceful Assyrian presence in the region, before the Turkish campaign against Christian minorities in 1914-23 forced the Assyrians to flee their ancient communities.
In the wake of the Assyrian flight, Kurds, who are now mostly PKK supporters, occupied southeast Anatolia. They have little love for Turks, and many Turks have similarly negative feelings for the Kurds. But it is the Christian minorities who seem to bring out the nastiest bigotry in Turks, especially in the upper echelons of Turkish officialdom. Indeed, today the Al Monitor newspaper reported that in August 2014, then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, now president, said, “Let the Turk say he is a Turk, and the Kurd say he is a Kurd in Turkey. What is wrong with that? In the past, they spread rumors about me. They said I am a Georgian. Excuse me, but they have said even uglier things. They have called me Armenian”
President Erdogan was given the opportunity earlier this year to formally recognize the massacre of Christian Anatolian Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks by Ottoman/Turkish military forces and their Kurdish minions during and just after the First World War. Over the past few years he has also repeatedly been given opportunities to help resettle an estimated 660,000 Assyrians, descendants of the Assyrians who fled the massacres, in their historical homelands in southeastern Turkey. So far he has not lifted even the proverbial finger on their behalf. Instead he chooses to be insulted by insinuations that he may be of Armenian Christian heritage. In the meantime Mor Gabriel stands as an enduring symbol of what might have been a diverse society where Christian and Muslims live together in peace–if only Turkey had chosen democracy and invited the Assyrians back to their historical homeland one hundred years after they replaced the peaceful Assyrians with the warring Kurds.