Several Islamic State cells are active in Gaziantep near the Syrian border where the wedding party was targeted by a child suicide bomber aged 12-14. The attack appears to be a calculated attempt by the terror group to encourage a war in a region already in flames. Unlike its operations in other countries, IS never claims responsibility for its terrorist attacks in Turkey. The bombing on a Kurdish wedding raises the possibility of a further escalation of violence as many Kurds draw the conclusion that the Turkish state is unable or unwilling to protect them.
ISTANBUL–Saturday night’s attack on a wedding party in the Sahinbey district of the large southeastern industrial city of Gaziantep, in which at least 51 people died and 90 were injured, is the latest shock to befall a country which currently seems to endure a major terrorist disaster every few weeks.
Five weeks ago, the country was jolted by an attempt by army officers to stage a military coup. It was swiftly put down but 240 people died when rebel soldiers fired on crowds and attacked loyalist officers.
Since then, a purge of supporters of the Gülen movement, a US-based Sufi cult which the government blames for the coup attempt, has seen 80,000 public employees removed from their posts and 25,000 people either detained or formally charged.
The Gülen movement has denied the allegations against it.
No one has claimed responsibility for Saturday evening’s attack in Gaziantep, but within a few hours, Turkey’s strongman President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan blamed the Islamic state, which has carried out a stream of deadly operations in the country for several years, most recently when gunmen killed 47 people on 28 June at Istanbul airport.
Other officials followed suit as the other possible culprit, the PKK, (Kurdistan Workers Party — the armed militants fighting since 1984 for Kurdish autonomy) can be ruled out, because the bombers’ victims at Gaziantep were Kurds belonging to the HDP, the Peoples Democratic Party.
Unlike its operations in other countries, IS never claims responsibility for its terrorist attacks in Turkey but they have had a devastating effect on Turkey’s national life, among other things bringing the country’s once booming tourism industry to a more or less complete halt.
IS forces have also regularly shelled the frontier town of Kilis throughout this year, in cross-border attacks from Syria which the Turkish authorities seem unable to stop.
On 20 July last year, an earlier attack on HDP supporters at the town of Suruc close to the Syrian border unlocked a chain of violent events which plunged Turkey into an unprecedentedly violent civil war between its government and radical Kurds, causing over 700 deaths of police and soldiers and seeing several towns in southeastern Turkey virtually razed in counter-terrorist operations lasting weeks or in some cases months.
The Gaziantep bombing raises the possibility of a further escalation of violence—which is already running at between five and ten deaths of soldiers and policemen on many days — as many Kurds draw the conclusion that the Turkish state is unable or unwilling to protect them.
In the hours following the bombing, the HDP party headquarters reportedly issued a statement saying that Kurds would have to defend themselves.
The call contrasted with a statement by Selahattin Demirtas, the HDP leader, for government and opposition to unite in their grief and mourn the dead.
Kurdish indignation reflects exasperation that the authorities have failed to uncover conspirators behind the other bombings in the past year and put the perpetrators on trial. When a Turkish suicide bomber from IS killed five people at an election rally last year, it turned out that he had been released from custody by police only the day before.
The government, however, is unlikely to listen to calls for any kind of deal with Kurdish moderates, whose existence it denies. Instead, it has two strategies, in addition to its military campaign against the PKK.
It has placed the HDP leaders on trial on charges of encouraging terrorism in their speeches, allegations firmly denied by the HDP which says it has consistently denounced violence on all sides and criticized terrorist operations by the PKK.
If convicted, Demirtas and his colleagues will face long prison sentences, just as an earlier generation of Kurdish parliamentarians did in the 1990s, serving ten-year jail terms.
Along with this, Ankara is seeking a deal in Syria whereby the soldiers of President Bashar al-Assad act as its military proxies, attacking key points in the autonomous Syrian Kurdish enclaves just south of the Turkish border.
The enclaves are run by close allies of the PKK and many of its fighters are currently fighting in the YPG, (Peoples Protection Units), which is allied with the United States and spearheads ground force attacks on IS positions around Manbij in Syria.
This week, Syrian air force jets bombed Kurdish positions in the northeastern Syrian town of Hasakah, evidently trying to demonstrate to Turkey their usefulness as allies.
Against this background, the Gaziantep bombing looks like a calculated attempt by IS to encourage a war in a region already in flames.
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