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Terror in Turkey

Turkey has rejected the condolences of the United States in the aftermath of a bombing in Istanbul.

Carnation left after the attack in Taksim

Turkey has rejected the condolences of the United States in the aftermath of a bombing in Istanbul, the deadliest the country has experienced in more than five years.

The Sunday bombing on Istiklal Avenue, one of Istanbul’s most popular commercial streets, killed six and injured 81 others. The device: a bag with a small amount of TNT abandoned on the busy street. Shortly after the explosion rocked the shopping district, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the bombing was a deliberate attack, and vowed to find and punish the perpetrators. “Efforts to make Turkey and the Turkish nation surrender by terror will not reach their aim today, as they did not in the past,” Erdogan said to members of the media before departing to the Group of 20 summit hosted in Indonesia.

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According to Turkish authorities, the bombing was timed for Istiklal Avenue’s peak hours of activity. The commercial street was even busier than usual because a soccer game featuring one of Turkey’s premier teams was scheduled for later that evening nearby. 

Business owners and residents along Istiklal Avenue fear the bombing will have devastating, long-term effects. Istiklal Avenue and the surrounding area have been devastated in the past few years because the Covid-19 pandemic, and the travel bans that came with it, put a stop to almost all tourism. Though Istanbul’s tourism industry has rebounded as travel restrictions were lifted and the relatively weak Turkish lira made it cheaper to visit Turkey, an ongoing threat of future violence in major commercial districts could once again endanger the community’s economic wellbeing, beyond the obvious concerns for safety.

By Monday, authorities had raided 21 different locations and detained 47 individuals with potential ties to the bombing. One of the detainees turned out to be the suspected bomber, the Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu announced. "Our people should be assured that the perpetrators of the incident on Istiklal Avenue will be punished as they deserve," Soylu declared. "The relevant units of our state continue to work to uncover the perpetrators of this treacherous attack and the groups behind it."

The arrested individual has since been identified as Ahlam al-Bashir, a Syrian woman who claims to have received orders from Syria's Democratic Union Party (PYD). Authorities claim that al-Bashir entered Turkey illegally from northern Syria after receiving instructions on how to carry out the attack in the Kurdish city of Kobani.

The Turkish government considers the PYD a Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the primary belligerent group fighting against the Turkish government in the more than forty year conflict between Turkey and Kurdish insurgents. The PKK, however, denied any involvement in the attack. In a statement released on the group’s website Monday, the PKK said, "It is out of question for us to target civilians in any way.”

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A Sunday statement issued by Biden’s White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said, “The United States strongly condemns the act of violence that took place today in Istanbul, Turkiye [Turkey]. Our thoughts are with those who were injured and our deepest condolences go to those who lost loved ones. We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our NATO Ally Turkiye in countering terrorism.”

But, in an update to the bombing investigation delivered by Soylu, the Turkish interior minister rejected America’s sympathy. Turkey “will not accept messages of condolence” from the United States, Soylu said, likening the sentiment expressed by Washington to "a killer being the first to show up at a crime scene."

Fahrettin Altun, Turkey’s president of the directorate of communications, piled on. “The international community must pay attention. Terror attacks against our civilians are direct and indirect consequences of some countries’ support for terror groups,” Altun said. “They must immediately cease their direct and indirect support if they want Türkiye’s friendship.”

Though Washington and Brussels consider the PKK a terrorist group like Ankara, the United States continues to bankroll other Kurdish militant groups, namely the People's Defense Units (YPG), which al qhave ties to the PKK but are considered part of the Syrian Democratic Forces that fought the Islamic State in northern Syria. The arming of such groups since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war has been a point of acute tension between Washington and Ankara.

Max Abrahms, an international security professor at Northeastern University, told The American Conservative via email that this is because America has viewed the Islamic State as the foremost terrorist threat since 2014 and prioritized accordingly. But policymakers in Washington were stuck between a rock and a hard place when it came to fighting the Islamic State in Syria. “Washington didn't want to ally with President Assad because they're enemies. The so-called rebels turned out to be unreliable fighters tainted by extremism and led by Al-Qaeda and its jihadi friends who preferred to topple Assad than fight ISIS. Kurdish fighters in the form of the YPG emerged as the best pro-America, anti-ISIS fighters in Syria after the battle of Kobani. That is, the Kurds became America's premier counterterrorists,” Abrahms said. “That rankled Erdogan, who views the Kurdish militants as the foremost terrorists.”

“This is the background as to why Erdogan didn't accept American condolences,” Abrahms explained. Nevertheless, “whether the PKK actually committed the attack is hard to establish. My research has shown statistically that attacks like the one in Istanbul often go unclaimed because smart militant leaders are reluctant to take responsibility due to the reputational costs of killing civilians. Attacks against government targets by contrast are significantly more likely to be claimed,” Abrahms went on to say.

“Attributing the attack to the PKK serves Erdogan's agenda because he's a well-known opponent of Kurdish separatism who has been a fierce critic of American support of Kurdish fighters in Syria who claim to be unconnected from PKK terrorism in Turkey,” Abrahms claimed. “Erdogan is correct that the groups are connected, but the strength of the connection is hotly debated.”

Regardless of which terrorist group is responsible, Abrahms believe that this attack will backfire for the perpetrators because “terrorism justifies hardline stances against them and their political aspirations while boosting popular support for the government most of the time.”

Andrew Doran, a senior research fellow at the Philos Project, acknowledged in email correspondence with TAC that “the relationship between the YPG and PKK is close, at least ideologically.”

“The Ocalists are, as I’ve noted in previous pieces in TAC and elsewhere, frighteningly ideological,” and “have carried out terrorist attacks against Turkish civilians, which is unacceptable,” Doran said. Nevertheless, “the Syrian Democratic Forces weren’t all Ocalists (i.e. not all PKK/YPG), and the SDF—DoD’s operation—was infinitely more successful in advancing U.S. objectives than the CIA’s idiotic caper with the FSA.” Doran said on his previous travels to the region, he found that “Kurds in both Syria and Iraq do a good job of not killing Americans in general and on visits to the Middle East my analysis typically begins there: who might be trying to kill me because I’m an American.”

“As it happens, our allies the Turks seem to be in the habit of arming people who want to kill Americans and genocide Christians,” Doran stated. 

With brutal fighting and tactics employed by both sides in the Kurdish–Turkish conflict, it seems there are no real good guys. War is often messier and more morally dubious than most policymakers in Washington would have the public believe: this is partly why “U.S. foreign policy in Iraq and Syria, and Yemen and Libya, has been imprudent, unwise, and foolish for over twenty years,” according to Doran.

“The Islamic State couldn’t have come into existence without the toppling of Saddam,” Doran said as an example. “Reasonable minds might differ on whether it was better to leave the ISIS caliphate intact or to destroy it. I’m inclined to think it was better to destroy it. The Kurds were highly effective fighting ISIS, both in Iraq and Syria,” Doran added.

In terms of what the bombing and its diplomatic aftermath will mean for U.S.-Turkey relations, Doran observed that the schism between these two NATO allies has widened in the recent past. “There are those in the U.S. foreign policy establishment who believe that the Turkish alliance, with its origins in the Cold War, ran its course a couple of decades ago, and that Erdogan’s illiberal Islamism was sufficiently problematic to part ways once Turkey’s admission to the EU was clearly not going to happen,” Doran explained. “Turkey is not part of Europe, and its interests and values are historically—and currently—at odds with the West’s. Looking at the past ten centuries, the Turks have posed a far greater threat to the West than the Arabs and Persians combined.”

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