Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November 2006, pages 44-45

Talking Turkey

Bombing Campaign a Response to Ankara’s Kurdish Policies, or “Deep State” Plot?

By Jon Gorvett

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A STRING OF BOMBS IN SOME of Turkey’s top tourism resorts this past summer has once more plunged the country’s Kurdish policy back into the headlines. The attacks also reinforced calls for a restoration of emergency rule in Kurdish areas, while leaving the government between a rock and hard place, as it tries to combat the bombers while also downplaying their significance.

Meanwhile, though, the source of the explosions—and the fact that they also were condemned by the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), Turkey’s main Kurdish guerrilla group—has remained largely unexplored, leaving suspicions as to the motivations behind the shadowy Kurdish Freedom Falcons, or Hawks (TAK).

This group claims responsibility for a series of bomb attacks across the country, including several on Aug. 28. On that day, three bombs went off in the Aegean resort town of Marmaris, one in the Mediterranean city of Antalya and one in Istanbul. The bombs, most likely hidden in trashcans, killed three and wounded over 40. Many of the injured were tourists; all were civilians. This came after a string of similar attacks going back to 2004, when the group was formed, all mainly targeting tourists.

The response of the Turkish authorities was to play down the attacks as much as possible. When, back in June, TAK killed four tourists in a bombing at a tourist stop in the hills near Antalya, the local governor’s office claimed the explosion had been caused by a faulty liquid gas canister.

Authorities attempted to lay the blame for these bombings at the doorstep of something approximating “natural causes” for obvious reasons. Turkey’s tourism sector is a major currency earner and employer, and this year’s arrivals numbers had already been down. Yet there now is little disguising the fact that a major bombing campaign is underway across Turkey.

At the same time, the conflict between the Turkish security forces and the PKK has continued to escalate. Seven Turkish soldiers were killed by the PKK in early September, with fighting in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of Turkey spilling over—albeit on a small scale—into cross-border incursions into northern Iraq.

Indeed, it is in northern Iraq that much of the current equation is balanced. The PKK long have maintained bases there, much to the anger of Turkish authorities, who repeatedly have called on the U.S. to roll up these camps.

While the military significance of these bases may now be minor—many guerrillas having crossed back into Turkey, with the rest largely dispersed—their political significance as a source of aggravation between Washington and Ankara is major.

In an effort to ease some of these frictions, at the end of August the U.S. appointed a retired general, Joseph W. Ralston, as special envoy to coordinate U.S., Iraqi and Turkish anti-PKK efforts. This also followed strong Iranian demonstrations to Turkey of Tehran’s determination to combat Kurdish groups—the Iranian army had been periodically shelling suspected PKK positions inside northern Iraq for some time. Iran, too, has a fear of Kurdish insurrection, via the Party for Freedom and Life in Kurdistan (PJAK). This group has launched repeated attacks against Iranian forces in recent years, often from its bases in northern Iraq.

While Ralston’s appointment was welcomed in Ankara, privately few seem to place much faith in it signifying any major new move against the PKK by U.S. or Iraqi forces.

To some extent, however, the many-cornered fight for the stretch of territory dominated by ethnic Kurds that runs from the Mediterranean coast through Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran is nothing new. What is new is the element of urban terrorism that the TAK has thrown into the equation. Traditionally, the PKK had confined its activities largely to the southeast of Turkey, its self-declared Kurdish homeland, and had not been known for attacks on civilian targets.

Common wisdom is that TAK is a splinter from the PKK that fell out with its commanders precisely on this issue, however. TAK’s cadres saw the PKK’s insistence on a political solution as a sign of weakness. The lack of a campaign targeting Turkey’s economic—in other words, civilian—infrastructure was a reason for the struggle’s failure to prevent a campaign of “destruction and denial” by the Turkish authorities, according to TAK’s now-offline Web site. Rather disingenuously, TAK also insists that it is not trying to kill foreigners, but merely to disrupt Turkey’s economy.

The hard fact is, however, that in other countries, such urban bombing campaigns often have indeed been more successful than efforts by insurgent groups taking to the hills and trying to shoot it out with much better equipped and trained security forces.

Yet speculation is rife as to who might really be behind the group. There is a lingering suspicion, by the Turkish political left in particular, that TAK is a creation of the “deep state”—the secret authority of generals, politicians, bureaucrats and organized criminals often held responsible for the dark side of Turkish politics. According to this interpretation, TAK’s bombing campaign is an attempt by this deep state to force the government to grant emergency powers to the security authorities—themselves thought to be dominated by the deep state—and thus entrench the power of these dark forces.

Indeed, the military has been strongly arguing that the heightened violence requires just such a move. Its case is being more forcefully put by senior commanders now that the previously more liberal chief of the General Staff, Gen. Hilmi Ozkok, has retired. Since August, his place has been taken by Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, widely seen as much more of a hard-liner.

Nor is this only relevant to the Kurdish issue. Buyukanit’s hard-line status also is a result of his staunch secularism and known dislike of the current government, with its Islamist roots.

Yet for all the security issues now coming into play, many ethnic Kurds in Turkey also are keen to stress that there are deeper reasons for such a campaign of bombings—just as there are behind continued support of the PKK by many of Turkey’s Kurds.

Since the PKK declared a unilateral cease-fire back in 1999, after the capture of its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, by Turkish special forces, the Turkish authorities have done very little to address such real problems in the southeast as economic decline, unemployment and cultural and political marginalization. Efforts by ethnic Kurds to form political groups to contest Ankara’s policies often have ended in the arrest of activists and banning of parties. Many have relatives who have “disappeared,” and blame the security forces for their abduction and probable murder. Campaigns to return people to their villages and homes which the army destroyed as part of its anti-PKK campaign in the 1980s and 1990s, have foundered in conflicts with these villages’ new occupiers—pro-Turkish village guard militias.

This is the “destruction and denial” to which the TAK refers. Without any real progress in this sphere, its bombings are likely to continue, while the PKK continues to fight on in the mountains, its ranks swollen with young recruits who have grown up in the recent years of frustration. Ankara’s Kurdish problem, therefore, is not likely to go away any time soon.

Jon Gorvett is a free-lance writer based in Istanbul.

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