On Monday a suicide attack in the small Turkish city of Suruc killed at least 32 young activists and left more than 100 seriously injured.
The activists were part of a meeting of around 300 members of the Federation of Socialist Youth Associations (SGDF), who were staying at Suruc’s Amara Culture Centre and planning to cross into Kobane to help with rebuilding efforts.
The attacker, suspected to be ISIS-affiliated and reportedly now identified by Turkish officials, targeted the gardens of the centre where the volunteers were making preparations to deliver toys, plant trees and build a library in Kobane. After the blast the bodies of the dead were covered with red flags.
Yesterday Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said: ‘On behalf of my people, I curse and condemn the perpetrators of this brutality.” Prime minister Ahmed Davutoglu echoed his sentiments: “Turkey has taken and will continue to take all necessary measures against Islamic State.”
But today, Kurdish demonstrators have clashed with police in Istanbul after taking to the streets and accusing Erdogan of having the blood of Suruc on his hands. There are chants of ‘Erdogan is a collaborator’.
Suruc is a Kurdish majority city, less than six miles from the border crossing to Kobane. The Kurdish community, especially those living along the Syrian border, have long accused President Erdogan of not doing enough to stop ISIS sympathisers travelling into Syria; the YPG, the Kurdish-Syrian army that helped free Kobane after it was besieged by ISIS, have criticised the Turkish President for failing to support them.
Erdogan’s mortal enemy remains the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) whose leader Abdullah Ocalan has been inacerated since 1999 on a prison island in the Sea of Marmara. Since 1984 the PKK has been fighting for autonomous rule for Turkish Kurds, and 40,000 people have died in the bloody guerilla war. In recent years Ocalan has been more conciliatory in his pronouncements from jail; nonetheless, the PKK is considered a terror organisation by NATO and is outlawed in Turkey.
In 2014 Erdogan told reporters:
“For us, the PKK is the same as ISIL. It is wrong to consider them as different from each other.”
It was this thinking which led to Turkey’s obstinacy during the 2014 siege of Kobane. The PYD, the Syrian branch of the PKK (the YPG is their military offshoot) who led the defence of Kobane, were accused by Erdogan of wanting to maintain control over the town. Erdogan would not let US planes attacking ISIS in Kobane use the Turkish airvase at Incirlik, conveniently located 100 miles from Kobane; neither did he take action to prevent weapons and ammunition from crossing the border to reach ISIS.
The Turkish government was tacitly signalling that, although it claimed to consider ISIS and the PKK on a level, it would prefer ISIS to have control of Kobane, because it would weaken the Syrian faction of the PKK.
Turkey’s foreign minister Mehmet Cavusoglu said at the time that while the government was willing to support the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga (though apparently only after increasing international pressure), the PYD was a threat to Syria because it wanted to ‘have control over a certain part of Syria. Just like ISIS’. It is clear that Kurdish autonomy remains Ankara’s number one fear.
In short, the Turkish government is settled enough in its enmity with the Kurdish insurgency that it has been happy on several occasions to let ISIS do some of its work for it. The route from Europe to Syria via Turkey is a well travelled one for jihadi recruits, and although western pressure has forced Turkey to crack down on this a little in recent months, the flow of fighters continues.
Two Turkish intelligence officials told the New York Times this year that rather than placing the blame on border guards, the west should be focusing on stopping radicalisation on its own ground.
There are also the usual sectarian rifts to consider; hoping to see the downfall of the Shi’ite Bashar al-Assad, Turkey has admitted providing support to Islamist groups including Jabhat al-Nusra. The general consensus in the Turkish government has seemed to be that although ISIS is bad, Assad is worse; moreover that they are connected, with Assad’s regime a necessary pre-condition for the rise of the jihadis. While this is not untrue, Turkey’s motives all have to be considered through the prism of its attitude to the Kurdish issue.
Under Erdogan’s leadership there have been efforts to crack down on free speech and human rights (six people were killed by the police response to the Gezi Park protests), and a deliberate move away from Turkey’s secular constitution. Thus, as is the case with Saudi Arabia, the west must be very careful in its dealings with Erdogan as an ally against ISIS.
The feeling among Kurds seems to be that the President is only half committed to fighting the jihadists, and that his own desire to keep the Kurds controlled will remain his priority, even in the face of such desperate cruelty as the massacre of the courageous activists at Suruc.
We can only hope that yesterday’s brutality may lead Erdogan to rethink his stance, and step up to protect his citizens.