While the assassination of Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrey Karlov marks a dangerous new turn in the larger regional conflict in Syria and Iraq, it was preceded by two suicide attacks that highlight the unrelenting internal struggle, ongoing since July 2015, between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its affiliates.
On December 10, a suicide attack in Istanbul targeting police officers outside a soccer stadium killed 46 and wounded over a hundred more. On December 17, a suicide bombing in the province on Kayseri targeting a bus containing soldiers from a Turkish military base claimed 14 lives and wounded over 50 more.
Both attacks were claimed by the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK) a splinter group of the PKK that has carried out seven high profile attacks in Turkey in 2016. TAK, in taking credit for the December 10 attack, declared it as a reprisal against Turkey for violence against Kurds in Turkey’s southeast and the continued imprisonment of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. TAK also claimed responsibility for the Kayseri attack, which targeted soldiers who had been active in anti-PKK operations in the southeast.
The Turkish government, however, has advanced two possible causes to explain the uptick in TAK violence—both advance its own agenda. The attacks spurred a renewed crackdown on Kurds in Turkey, further inflaming anti-Kurdish sentiment which sees no distinctions between TAK, PKK, and the Kurdish political party currently represented in parliament, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP)—a perspective that has been advanced by the Turkish government. Over 900 people were detained for alleged ties to the PKK in the course of a week—including many HDP members, whose co-chairs had already been detained in November. Additionally, several branch offices of the HDP were damaged across Turkey.
The government has pointed to the unveiling of a new package of constitutional reforms—which would strengthen Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s presidency—as one reason for the escalation in violence. “Whenever Turkey takes a positive step for the future, we are immediately faced with a response of blood, lives, violence, chaos—delivered by terrorist organizations,” Erdoğan said.
Drawing a connection between attacks and the new constitution can only advantage Erdoğan, who has argued that a stronger presidency is needed to defend Turkey against the continued threat of terrorism.
The government has pointed to the unveiling of constitutional reforms—which would strengthen Erdoğan’s presidency—as one reason for the escalation in violence.
Erdoğan also accused the PKK of attempting to divert Turkey’s “power and energy” from its efforts in Iraq and Syria, which would then allow the Syrian Kurds to further expand their control over territory in Syria. Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield, launched in August, seems to be explicitly aimed at preventing this occurrence—more than defeating ISIS. Reports that the Kayseri bomber had entered Turkey illegally from Syria, and had received training at Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party camps in Kobani, have been used by pro-government media to advance an argument that Turkey should retaliate by attacking the Syrian Kurdish region known as Rojava.
However, Turkey’s military efforts have, by the government’s own admission, slowed down, as Turkish-supported forces have struggled to retake the ISIS-controlled town of al-Bab. The Turkish government may be trying to obscure that fact by blaming the recent spike of attacks for dividing its efforts and attention.
This has been a year of escalating violence in Turkey, both due to worsening domestic dynamics and increased spillover from regional conflicts: nearly 300 people were killed in Turkey in 2016 in major TAK and ISIS bomb attacks, compared to less than 150 in 2015. With the situation continuing to worsen, 2017 will likely hold more of the same.