Why the Carnage in Ankara Has Left Turkey Even More Divided

Riot Police

Riot police secure the site of twin explosions near the main train station in Turkey's capital Ankara, on Oct. 10, 2015.

Photographer: Adem Alian/Getty Images

Suspected suicide bombers killed at least 97 people in Turkey’s capital, Ankara, in an attack on Saturday at a rally calling for a peaceful solution to the fight with Kurdish rebels.

The worst such attack in the country’s recent history comes amid a divisive election campaign and a deepening entanglement in the civil war in neighboring Syria. Here are some of the questions it has raised:

Who carried out the attack?

While there’s been no claim of responsibility, most analysts immediately focused on Islamic State, in part because the attack was directed against activists who have supported the Syrian Kurds in their fight against the jihadist group.

Turkish authorities have come round to that position too, after initially sending out mixed signals. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Monday that Islamic State was the prime suspect, backing off from earlier comments that Kurdish and far-left groups were also among those that “have the capacity to carry out such attacks.”

Why did the bombing trigger anti-government protests?

Turkey is holding elections in three weeks, a repeat of an inconclusive June vote. The main Kurdish party is a key rival for Davutoglu because its strong performance in June stripped his AK Party of the majority it had held for about a dozen years. In recent weeks, Turkey has stepped up attacks on Kurdish PKK rebels -- along with a political campaign to paint the legal Kurdish party as in cahoots with the armed militants, and so erode its support.

Protesters accuse the government of trying to exploit Saturday’s violence to further that agenda -- by suggesting that Kurds may have been behind the bombing, even though Kurdish activists were its main victims.

What’s the Syrian connection?

The Kurdish question is where Turkey’s domestic politics overlap with the war in Syria.

Syrian Kurds have emerged as a powerful player in that conflict. They’ve gained effective self-rule in their northwestern corner of the country, and proved among the most effective fighters against Islamic State, winning plaudits from the U.S.

But their rise has alarmed the Turkish government, which has a different set of priorities in Syria. While the Kurds mainly fight Islamic State, Turkey wants to oust President Bashar al-Assad. Turkish authorities are also concerned by the links between Kurdish militants in Syria and their counterparts in Turkey, who seek greater autonomy.

So the Kurds -- and some other groups in Turkey -- accuse Davutoglu and his patron, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, of turning a blind eye to jihadists in Syria while focusing all their attention on rolling back Kurdish gains. And they say that policy is backfiring on Turkey in the form of suicide attacks.

The government denies that accusation and points to a wave of violence on the part of the Kurdish rebels, who have killed more than 100 Turkish soldiers and police since July. When Turkish authorities condemn terrorism they typically cite both Islamic State and the PKK, as equal threats.

Does all that explain why the carnage is so divisive?

From Sept. 11 to the London and Madrid bombings, the killing of civilians often united the public in grief. Why is it having the opposite effect in Turkey?

It’s impossible to understand the polarizing impact of recent violence without grasping the political position of Erdogan, the country’s dominant leader for more than a decade.

Erdogan last year ascended to the presidency, a supposedly non-partisan and largely symbolic role, after holding the premiership since 2003. He’s won a string of elections and presided over a mostly buoyant economy. But he’s also alienated many Turks by spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a presidential palace, ordering crackdowns on protests, chipping away at secular rules, and siding with Islamists in regional conflicts.

Now, Erdogan wants to shift power to his presidency -- but the June election had the opposite outcome: the AK Party, which he founded, saw its support decline. He’s seeking to reverse that when the country goes back to the polls on Nov. 1.

For the Turks who’ve consistently voted against Erdogan -- roughly half the population -- almost everything that happens, including the revival of a war with Kurdish rebels and the entanglement in Syria, is part of that narrative. They say Erdogan is plunging Turkey into instability as he clings to power.

While the president’s supporters draw an opposite lesson: only strong leadership can keep Turkey out of the chaos sweeping across the region -- and only Erdogan can provide it.

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