The bombing in Ankara was the deadliest in modern Turkish history. In a country where the state regularly uses violence against protesters, and with an election approaching, much of the left argue that the government bears much of the blame. Phil Buyum Jackson explains the background to the attack and describes events since the bombing.
106 people were killed and over 400 injured in the bomb attacks on a “Labour, Peace and Democracy” rally in Ankara on 10 October. Many activists remain in intensive care units with horrendous injuries and may not live.
This is only one of several incidents in the last few months involving violence against the Turkish left and against the Kurdish people, who are primarily concentrated in the south and east of the country. 33 people were killed and over 100 injured in a bombing in Suruç in south eastern Turkey on 20 July. The attack was made against a socialist youth group, who were planning to take aid to the Kobane region where Kurdish forces had, alongside the Syrian resistance, defeated a major ISIS advance in the months before.
An election rally organised by left-wing, Kurdish supporting HDP party was bombed on 5 June, two days before the last election, killing 4 people and injuring 100. The attack took place in Diyarbakır in the heavily Kurdish province of Eastern Turkey.
That attack wasn’t widely reported, and the same is true of the siege of Cizre, a town in eastern Turkey. After reported clashes with fighters from PKK, the armed Kurdish left nationalist group, the town was encircled on all sides by the Turkish army from 4 to 11 September. Cizre was shelled, roads were sealed and all food, water and basic medical supplies were cut off. Approximately 25 civilians were killed, as were many others who the government claimed were PKK fighters. Among the civilians reported dead were at least five children and a man of 75 shot by a sniper whilst looking for bread. This collective punishment of Cizre was condemned by the Council of Europe and numerous human rights groups. But it is far from unusual.
The backdrop to the most recent bombings is a massive intensification of clashes between the Turkish state and the PKK this year, which has impacted much of the Kurdish population. This comes after two years of ceasefire during which the AKP, the ruling party in Turkey, had taken part in dialogue with Kurdish leaders, at first semi-secretly and then in the open. These talks had attempted to permanently resolve the ongoing conflict, which has resulted in approximately 30,000 deaths, most of them civilians, in the past 40 years, as well as the displacement of up to 1 million Kurdish villagers from their homes. But, in the last few months, the government ended those talks.
Why Did The Peace Process Collapse ?
Various factors have led to the escalation of violence in Turkey. The primary factor is the recent election – both the run up to it, and in response to the results.
Before the election there was already a steady erosion in AKP support, faced with a declining economy and several corruption scandals involving accusations against AKP officials right up to and including Erdoğan himself.
The AKP government was also widely condemned for its handling of the Soma mining disaster of May 2014. This was the worst industrial disaster in modern Turkish history, in which over 300 people died, most of them miners who were asphyxiated or burned alive. President Erdoğan responded to the disaster with the claim that “these things happen in the mining industry, look at the numbers who died in the British industrial revolution”, and no state official was prosecuted despite a complete and utter flouting of basic health and safety law, a routine practice in many Turkish workplaces. Mass protests greeted Erdoğan when he finally agreed to visit the Soma mine. “The fires of Soma will burn Erdoğan” the crowd chanted, as the president was shuffled off to hide in a nearby building.
Soma in any case came on the heels of the massive Gezi Park confrontations of 2013. These began as a fairly small fight over government plans to pave over one of the last remaining pieces of green space in Istanbul – a fairly small park – to allow a shopping mall to be built. A sit-in at the park was met with such a brutal and violent confrontation by riot police as to trigger a massive wave of protests. The images of teargas and water cannon assaults seen on western TVs were primarily from Istanbul, but what we didn’t see was a movement taking place at various levels right across Turkey, with protests in all but two of the country’s 81 provinces. Those protests that became emblematic of the ruthless means by which the AKP would pursue its neoliberal agenda.
A combination of factors thus led to an erosion of support for the AKP in the most recent elections. The party, which had been in power with a majority of seats for 13 years, suddenly lost 9 percent of their vote and with that their overall majority. The pro-Kurdish and left-leaning HDP also made historic gains, passing for the first time the 10 percent threshold to enter parliament with 82 MPs, effectively denying the AKP a majority.
Both in the immediate run up to the election and more intensely in the aftermath, the AKP had made a strategic decision to tack forcibly right, and position themselves as the strong force of stability against terrorism both inside and out of the borders of Turkey. During the election campaign the nationalist CHP and MHP parties had highlighted, to varying degrees, their opposition to peace talks with the Kurds. Now, having abandoned all peace talks with the PKK going into the election, and having lost its majority following the rise of the pro-Kurdish HDP, the AKP presided over a pervasive post-election escalation of violence and rhetoric – an escalation which had the effect of reigniting police killings and attacks on the army by the PKK. The war was back on. The AKP was repositioning itself as the party of security and stability against terror.
Who is to Blame for the Suruç and Ankara Bombings ?
It is impossible to definitively answer this question. While fingers are pointed at ISIS in both cases – and they may be responsible – the argument raised by much of the Turkish left and many in the Kurdish community is that the state is at best negligent, and at worst complicit or directly responsible for these deaths.
They point to the lack of police presence either in Suruç or Ankara before the bombings. Anyone who has ever protested in Turkey knows that this is far from the norm – there is usually massive blanket policing for every significant left march. They point to 250 separate attacks on HDP offices and buildings, and on Kurdish businesses, across Turkey in recent weeks by mobs – in a number of cases, prominent AKP officials have been documented as being present. They will point to statements made by the AKP’s acting prime minister Davatoğlu after the Suruç bombings that the suspect or suspects “had been brought to justice” – when they had already blown themselves up. They will point to the fact that the state has admitted knowing that one of the Ankara bombers was the brother of the Suruç bomber and that the state had a list of potential suicide bombers but could, absurdly, not legally act until “a criminal act had been committed”. They will point to the fact that not a single attack has taken place on AKP rallies, despite the AKP stating that it is engaged in airstrikes against ISIS. They will further point to the fact that as of today, despite the AKP’s vaunted military opposition to ISIS, over 90 percent of Turkish airstrikes have in fact attacked Kurdish positions.
The Turkish government’s case is further undermined by the fact that after the attacks in Suruç and Ankara police teargassed survivors as they lay bleeding. Again, the state imposed media bans after both Suruç and Ankara – effectively making any discussion of the circumstances around these events technically illegal, both in broadcast and social media.
Put simply, there is no concrete proof for Turkish state involvement in the Ankara and Suruç bombings, and the fact that Suruç is close to the Syrian border perhaps makes ISIS involvement more likely. But the suppression of the media and independent investigation leaves a massive unanswered set of questions in a country where direct assaults on the left and Kurdish community have been well documented over many years. Even if ISIS do turn out to be responsible for the bombings, that does not absolve the state of its responsibilities – there remain questions about whether the state had information that it didn’t act on, about securing the right to protest in safety and about the violence meted out on those who survived the bombings.
The timing of the bombings raises the most questions. If a climate of fear exists specifically in the south and east of the country in the run up to the elections on 1 November, it is possible that HDP voters could stay away from the polls. The polls themselves could even be suspended in certain regions. This would mean a decline in the HDP vote, allowing the AKP to regain full majority control and Erdoğan to pursue his plan to change the constitution and so enhance his presidential powers. To date most polls don’t seem to be showing this, but polls can be wrong, and the AKP would certainly be happy if things turned out this way. That said, if anything, the bombings have provoked across Turkey many questions and something of a backlash is underway that could sustain or even enhance the HDP vote.
Repression from the Turkish State
The Turkish left’s deep mistrust of the Turkish state is based on experience. It is normal in Turkey to go to a demonstration knowing you are about to be tear gassed, baton charged and water cannoned. For example the Istanbul Pride march, which has now become a major event in the city, was tear gassed, water cannoned and baton charged for the first time this year.
Mayday in Istanbul has been routinely attacked since 2013. People march on this day to commemorate the deaths of over 30 people in 1977 in Taksim Square in central Istanbul: those killed were taking part in a Mayday demonstration attacked by the right wing, and were either shot or crushed to death. The marches were initially banned, then allowed in 2011 and 2012, but every year since 2013 the march is prevented from going to Taksim Square, the site of the deaths – this ban is violently enforced with gas, water cannon, and rubber bullets. People now make preparations to go with gas masks if they have them, or preparations for washing gas out of their eyes – this is so normalized now that it is a protestor’s routine. You are advised to take a book and some snacks for the inevitable detention, as well as lemons and various solutions to help with the effects of the tear gas.
This level of violence is so normalised that often the weather and traffic news will include details of where the massive clouds of teargas are drifting. On days of major clashes, you can literally stand on a balcony and watch the clouds drift over the city. The difference in the more isolated south and east of the country, where there is less media scrutiny, is that demonstrators often face all of the above, plus occasional live munitions.
Repression applies to the legal community as well, with mass arrests of lawyers – such as 51 arrested in one swoop alone in 2013. It is not uncommon for a defendant to have their lawyer arrested as well, and this is particularly true if the defendant is Kurdish. Only Russia has lost more cases at the European Court of Human Rights, with Turkey a close second.
One of the best known symbols used by a lot of the anarchist and non Stalinist left and non-aligned activists is the penguin, which turns up on T shirts, graffiti and websites. It is a humorous reference to CNN Turkey at the height of the 2013 Gezi Park confrontations. The TV channel repeatedly broadcast a show about penguins in the Antarctic while mass confrontations were exploding in Taksim, in Istiklal, in multiple cities and towns across Turkey and literally outside the offices of CNN. During Gezi the government attempted to shut down Twitter and Facebook – people got around it by spray painting on walls the technical details required to get around the censorship. In the aftermath of Suruç and Ankara they did the exact same thing again. Journalists and editors have been detained in the attacks on Kurdish and left offices that have exploded in the last couple of months, and the offices of the liberal Hürriyet newspaper surrounded by a massive mob attempting to ransack the building. The subject of press censorship, both formal and informal has been well documented in multiple global reports on press freedom.
The recent moves by the European Union to provide additional financial aid to Turkey to house Syrian refugees, to potentially relax the currently prohibitive and frankly racist visa requirements required for Turkish citizens to visit the European Union may well offer a glimmer of hope for Erdoğan and the AKP.
The EU visa requirements are frankly universally hated in Turkey, for good reason. This is part of a broader issue – the treatment of Turkey and indeed Turks within Europe. In much of the western press and political commentary, Turkey is relegated to a periphery, and described in a way that many in Turkey find insulting and humiliating. Turkey has taken in over 2.2 million from Syria, many housed in people’s homes including Kurdish homes close to the Syrian border in addition to those in formal camps. This has come at massive cost to the state, so it causes huge anger across all political parties in Turkey when western politicians lecture the country about being better on refugee rights – while countries like the UK pledge to take in less than 1 percent of those already in Turkey, and this over a period of five years. If funding does come through it could have a political impact, since many of the centres hardest hit financially by caring for Syrian refugees outside of the formal camps are Kurdish municipalities that are themselves under immense financial pressure.
It is precisely in these areas that the AKP lost its largest percentage of votes, not primarily over the refugee issue alone, but due to the abandonment of the peace process with the Kurds, so that many Kurds who had voted AKP moved over to support the HDP.
However, the agreement Turkey is being offered is essentially a racist agreement designed to ask the country to effectively deny freedom of movement to those Syrians fleeing the war. Turkey is to retain them and, most likely, to militarily enforce its border patrols. This is the EU offloading its responsibilities onto a country to which it is denying membership. It’s also a matter of the EU turning a blind eye to the AKP’s human rights record – though here there is a distinct whiff of hypocrisy as Turkey is singled out while many EU countries erect barbed wire fences.
It is too early to tell how the current situation will play out, but it looks as if the EU intervention might help Erdoğan. The HDP itself has said it will respond only with peaceful actions and will still contest the elections. Anger over the loss of so many members, the attacks on its offices and the bombings will likely have the effect of mobilising and not suppressing its support. Something like this has already been seen in the series of mass demonstrations against the bombings which have already taken place across Turkey. Whether that mood wins out, or whether Erdoğan and the AKP will benefit from stirring up nationalism and fear, is something we’ll only find out after the election in two weeks’ time.
But I want to end by pointing out that political decisions and actions in Turkey are also part of politics and our communities in the UK. This weekend, an unprecendented 6,000 people turned out for two huge back-to-back rallies by HDP leader Demirtaş at the Dominion Centre in Wood Green, North London. Huge crowds attended that rivalled the largest of the Corbyn rallies, around half of whom were women and very many of whom were young. There is a political firmament in Turkey that has echoes in the communities where we live. Internationalism is not simply about supporting the struggles of those fighting back overseas, but also about engaging with those who are here. As an elderly nursery school worker told us in the queue – “I hate Cameron, I am for Corbyn – but I am HDP.”