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Escalating Terror in Ankara Poisons Hopes for Peace

By Nicholas Danforth

Monday, March 14, 2016

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On Sunday, March 13, a car bomb exploded on a busy street in downtown Ankara, killing at least 37 people and wounding over a hundred. Given the wave of sometimes deliberate misattribution after previous bombings it is important not to jump to conclusions with too much certainty. Whoever was behind this attack, it has left many in Turkey worried that they are entering a new era in which political violence has become depressingly commonplace. For those in Washington concerned with the country’s role as a stable partner and stabilizing influence in the region, understanding and preventing this violence should be of utmost concern.

But if, as many believe, this bombing was perpetrated by the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK)—a splinter group suspected of operating with implicit sanction from the better known Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—it would mark another dangerous escalation in the ongoing conflict between Turkey and the Kurdish nationalist movement. Previous TAK operations have killed civilians: a cleaning women died in a January mortar attack on Sabiha Gökçen airport and many bystanders were killed in an attack on a Turkish military convoy in Ankara last month. But the added brutality of this bombing, which appears to have deliberately targeted ordinary citizens, would make a political settlement to Turkey’s current conflict even harder to achieve.

After three decades of fighting, both the Turkish government and the PKK recognize that ultimately some form of political settlement will be necessary. Yet following the breakdown of negotiations last spring, both sides believed they could use military force to obtain added leverage that would enable them to conclude subsequent negotiations on better terms. Since then, though, both have used tactics that failed to provide a decisive military advantage while poisoning the prospects for any future peace deal.

More terrorist attacks will naturally make it even more difficult for the government to justify the compromises that peace requires to an already skeptical Turkish public. At the same time, the government’s actions have also served to radicalize public opinion on the Kurdish side. Military operations against PKK fighters in a number of predominantly Kurdish cities since last summer have resulted in over 200 civilian deaths, thousands of buildings destroyed, and the temporary displacement of several hundred thousand people. Subsequently, families returning to their homes after Turkish forces left have found their walls covered in racist anti-Kurdish graffiti and their possessions deliberately destroyed or in some cases smeared with feces.

In addition, the recent bombing in Turkey will likely accelerate the government’s efforts to try several prominent Kurdish politicians on terrorism-related charges. The political wing of the Kurdish nationalist movement has a long and troubling relationship with the PKK. But arresting those who have been most outspoken in seeking to channel Kurdish anger into democratic politics will only make it easier for others to channel it into violence.

When this conflict resumed last summer, both sides undoubtedly—if perhaps implausibly—envisioned a path through which the strategic use of violence would help them secure their political goals. This latest bombing pushes the conflict toward a stage where revenge becomes a strategic objective in itself. Now, barring unexpected regional developments or new thinking on the part of the combatants, civilians across Turkey will continue to die without anyone coming any closer to achieving the objectives—be it stability or Kurdish rights—that caused them to take up arms in the first place.

American policymakers concerned with how the United States can help break this cycle of violence must confront the conflicting interests that have so far put them at odds with their Turkish colleagues. For years the Turkish government was more concerned with preventing Kurdish gains along its southern border than confronting the threat of ISIS. The United States, meanwhile, remained focused on ISIS without fully recognizing how its support for the Syrian Kurds would exacerbate tension with, and within, Turkey. If Washington is to play an effective role in pushing Turkey and the PKK back to the negotiating table, it will have to work with Turkish policymakers to develop a joint approach that recognizes and accommodates Turkish and American security concerns.