Ankara Car Bombing Could Lead to Collapse of Syria Cease-fire

The deadly attack could bring Turkey to resume its offensive in Syria, but the U.S. seems willing to oppose the inclusion of Kurdish officials in the Geneva talks as long as Turkey maintains the truce.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Police, firefighters and emergency services work at the site of a blast in Ankara on March 13, 2016.
Police, firefighters and emergency services work at the site of a blast in Ankara on March 13, 2016.Credit: Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

At least 34 people were killed and about 125 wounded in a car bomb explosion in the Kizilay Square area of the Turkish capital, Ankara, on Sunday. It came about three weeks after a bombing of a military convoy in the city.

Sunday’s blast took place in an area of bus stops. Turkish sources say it was carried out by members of the Kurdish underground, the PKK, but there is no official confirmation of this and no organization has taken responsibility for the attack. It is possible that the attack was preceded by a less-than-specific warning, because the United States issued a security warning for American citizens in Turkey to exercise caution over concern of anticipated terrorist attacks in the country.

Last month, after the previous attack in Ankara, which killed 29 people, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu announced plans for a special security plan for the capital, including electronic monitoring, but it has not yet been put in place. One assessment has it that the most recent attack was in response to a bombing operation on Saturday by the Turkish air force in the Qandil Mountain region of Iraq, which has a large concentration of PKK forces. The Turkish army claims that at least 67 PKK members were killed in the bombing raid.

If the PKK was indeed responsible for Sunday’s Ankara blast, it would demonstrate a high degree of logistical and operational capabilities on the PKK’s part, showing that it was able to assemble and dispatch a car bomb within a very short period of time. It would also demonstrate an absence of immediate and reliable intelligence information about the deployment of the PKK or other groups in Turkish cities despite the significant logistical requirements necessary to carry out such an act.

Turkey is in the midst of a violent simultaneous three-pronged campaign: against organizing activities on the part of the Islamic State group, or ISIS, in the country; against the Kurdish underground; and against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, known as the YPG, in Syria, which is cooperating with the PKK. It’s a campaign that has intensified since last July, when a suicide bomber blew himself up at a cultural center in the town of Suruc, near Gaziantep, an attack that killed more than 30 people.

Forensic officers work on the site of a suicide bomb attack in Ankara, Turkey, early March 14, 2016. Credit: Reuters
A view of the site of an explosion in Ankara, Turkey March 13, 2016.Credit: Reuters

At that point Turkey scrapped a process of political reconciliation with representatives of the Kurdish underground. The break provided the signal for the beginning of a war that has featured extended curfews in Kurdish towns and villages in the southeast of Turkey, mass arrests and the killings of dozens of soldiers and civilians.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who last month embraced a hardline nationalistic approach against the Kurds, particularly against the backdrop of two parliamentary election campaigns, said he did not intend to renew negotiations with the Kurds. At the same time, in February, he accused the YPG of carrying out the terrorist attack at the time. Since then, Turkey has responded with the assaults on Kurdish concentrations in Syria, despite the fact that the YPG is cooperating with the Americans and Russians in the war against ISIS in Syria.

With the signing of the cease-fire between rebels and the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and the halt to the Russian and American assaults, Turkey had also refrained from attacking Kurdish bases in Syria. The concern now is that following Sunday’s terrorist attack in Ankara, Turkey would decide to resume its offensive in Syria, which could in turn lead to a collapse of the cease-fire just around the time when on Monday the international negotiating conference on the situation in Syria is again convening in Geneva.

A senior Turkish source told Haaretz that there were intensive telephone conversations Sunday between Turkey and the U.S. administration in an effort to prevent a Turkish attack in Syria. It appears that the Americans are still prepared to oppose the participation of the Kurds in the negotiating conference as long as Turkey adheres to the cease-fire. At the same time, the United States will continue to turn a blind eye to the war the Turks are waging against Kurdish concentrations in its own territory and over attacks in Iraq. That’s in accordance with a policy that holds that Turkey’s war against the Kurdish underground is an internal Turkish matter while assaults on Kurdish concentrations in Syria are an international matter that requires coordination with the other major powers.

Turkey, which views the war against the PKK and its Syrian partners as one indivisible campaign, does not accept this American policy. Judging by the pace of terrorist attacks in Turkey, it appears that the PKK and the rebels in Syria also view the campaign against Turkey as a joint campaign.

The Turkish dilemma is how to respond to the series of terrorist attacks when the rational solution is to try to revive the political negotiations with the Kurdish underground. But as with other countries that are engaged in a battle against terrorist groups - including Israel - it is the principle that one does not negotiate with terrorists that is also guiding Turkey. That’s despite the fact that the country violated the principle when Erdogan initiated the reconciliation process.

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