Turkey violence: How dangerous is Turkey's instability?

  • 22 August 2016
  • From the section Europe
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Relatives grieve at hospital August 20, 2016 in Gaziantep Image copyright AFP
Image caption Many of the 51 victims of the August attack on a wedding in Gaziantep were children

Turkey's biggest cities have witnessed a spate of deadly bombings and a bloody attempted coup this year.

For so long a beacon of stability between Europe and the Middle East, Turkey has entered a period of high tension.

It has long fought Kurdish militants in its restive east. Now it is trying to prevent Islamist militant violence spreading up from Syria and is cracking down on thousands of people suspected of supporting the failed coup.

How dangerous is the current crisis?

The latest bombing, on 20 August, targeted a wedding in Gaziantep, close to the south-eastern border with Syria, well away from the main population centres.

But Istanbul and Ankara have seen a series of deadly attacks too, and the failed coup took place on the streets of both cities, with the loss of 240 lives on 15 and 16 July. Tanks rolled on to the streets and fighter jets targeted parliament in Ankara, as rebel troops commandeered the bridges across the Bosphorus.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Turks tried to challenge rebel tanks as they took to the streets of Ankara

The message for Turks is clear: that the risk of violence is not limited to the border and it is on several fronts.

The biggest attacks, including the Gaziantep bomb, have been blamed on jihadist group Islamic State (IS):

  • IS killed 45 people in a coordinated attack targeting Turks and foreign visitors alike at Ataturk airport in Istanbul
  • IS suicide bombers murdered tourists from Germany, Israel and Iran in attacks on Istanbul in January and March
  • The bloodiest attack blamed on IS was on a peace rally near Ankara station in October 2015, when more than 100 people died. Many of the victims were Kurds

But Kurdish militants have been behind a string of bombings since a ceasefire collapsed in July 2015:

Media captionFootage shows the chaotic aftermath of the 13 March attack in the Turkish capital, Ankara
  • The TAK (Kurdistan Freedom Hawks) killed seven police and five civilians when it blew up a bus carrying riot police in Istanbul in June
  • The group murdered 37 people in a car bomb attack on a transport hub in Ankara in March, close to Turkey's justice ministry and the prime minister's office
  • The TAK killed 29 in February in an attack on military buses in central Ankara. Among the victims were staff streaming out of government offices after work
  • The main Kurdish militant PKK is blamed for the deaths of 600 Turkish security forces in the year since the ceasefire collapsed.

Until recently, the bloodshed was largely confined to the mainly Kurdish areas of the east and south-east, where the Turkish military has battled the militant Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) for decades.

Violence in the main cities tended to target party offices, particularly those of the left-wing and pro-Kurdish HDP (Peoples' Democratic Party). The banned Marxist DKHP-C has periodically carried out attacks on police and Western embassies.

Turkey is no longer the safe destination that made it one of the world's biggest tourist draws.

France has urged its citizens to exercise great vigilance in tourist areas and the UK warns that the situation "remains potentially volatile", while pointing out that things have calmed since the attempted coup.

The US warns its citizens of "increased threats from terrorist groups throughout Turkey".

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The Ankara attack in February hit five military buses in a convoy during the evening rush hour

Turks themselves have become afraid of going to shopping centres and open spaces.

"I think we are seeing a downward spiral towards more violence," warns Prof Menderes Cinar of Baskent University in Ankara.

Turkey's tensions: Read more

Why is Turkey challenged on so many fronts?

Turkey sees itself targeted by three groups of "terrorists": IS, Kurdish militants and coup-plotters.

Since the failed 15 July coup, Turkey's government has detained thousands of suspected sympathisers in the security forces and removed many more from their jobs in public life. The focus of the crackdown is a shadowy movement described as a "parallel state", that is said to owe its allegiance to cleric Fethullah Gulen, in self-imposed exile in the US.

Who are the Gulenists?

Turkey - after the coup

But as the coup inquiry continues, so too do Turkey's internal security threats.

A long-running internal conflict with Kurdish militants had been quiet for a couple of years, until an IS suicide bomber targeted a rally of young Kurdish activists near the Syrian border at Suruc in July 2015.

Media captionCemil Bayik says the PKK is open to negotiations, but will not surrender

Profile: Kurdistan Workers' Party - Turkey's decades of armed struggle

Contagion from the Syrian conflict had been feared for some time. Kurds had long battled the spread of IS militants in Syria without any help from Turkey. The Suruc bombing sparked new attacks on both sides, triggering the Turkey-PKK ceasefire's collapse.

For IS, there was a clear benefit in seeing Turkey drawn into renewed domestic conflict. Turkey's security forces have become bogged down in a military campaign against the PKK in the east and south-east. Curfews were imposed on towns and cities for months this year as the Turkish military hunted down Kurdish militants.

Image caption Swathes of Turkey's south-east were left in chaos as the military hunted PKK militants

Although reluctant to help the Kurds fight IS and carve out territory in Syria, Turkey nevertheless agreed in 2014 to take part in the US-led operation against so-called Islamic State. IS considered Turkey part of a Nato alliance carrying out air strikes on its Syrian and Iraqi bases.

And Turkey has worked hard to seal off the supply of militants crossing a previously porous Turkey-Syria border to join IS.

Although PKK leader Cemil Bayik has accused President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of "protecting IS", to stop Kurds advancing against the jihadist group, Turkey is supporting the campaign by Syrian Arab rebels to oust IS from the city of Jarablus.

The Gaziantep bombing has been seen as an IS reprisal for losing ground in the border areas, and Turkey's foreign minister has spoken of fighting "Daesh (IS) to the end".

Are the main cities safe?

The coup is over and life in Istanbul and Ankara has returned to normal. However, the threat from IS and Kurdish militants remains, security is very high and the US has gone as far as urging its citizens to reconsider travelling to Turkey at the moment.

Ataturk airport was an attractive target for IS, as it has become one of Europe's busiest transport hubs, attracting almost 42 million passengers in 2015. It was a deadly reminder of the Brussels airport bombing in March and, after 12 German tourists were killed in Istanbul's Sultanahmet tourist area in January, a clear warning that tourists were seen as potential targets.

However, Turkey continues to be a leading draw for tourists and the main coastal resorts have avoided the violence seen elsewhere.

Tourists are not a target for Kurdish militants. And until now the PKK has carried out much of the violence against government and military targets in the south-east. But its offshoot, the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK), is more hardline and its attacks have become more deadly and more focused on Ankara and Istanbul.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Kurdish militant splinter group TAK admitted carrying out this June attack in central Istanbul

Turkey's government does not differentiate between the PKK and its hardline offshoot, arguing that there is a crossover of personnel. The March bombing in the centre of Ankara lends that theory credence, as the government says the bomber joined the PKK and was trained over the border in Syria.

Is the Syrian conflict to blame for the unrest?

Much of the IS violence inside Turkey in recent months can be listed as reprisal attacks for the Ankara government's policy on Syria.

But the Kurdish question is more complex and most of the Kurdish attacks within Turkey are down to long-running internal issues that have flared up since the end of the ceasefire.

Turkey is worried by the rise of Kurdish groups in northern Syria, particularly the Syrian Kurdish Popular Protection Units (YPG) militia and its political arm, the Democratic Union Party (PYD).

"Turkey is feeling a very serious existential threat from the PYD and PKK," says Burhanettin Duran, executive director of Turkey's pro-government Seta research institute. "It's a very solid fact that the PYD and the PKK are the same."

When Russia intervened in the Syrian conflict in September 2015, the Syrian Kurds found common cause with the advancing Syrian army and its Russian allies and made territorial gains north of Aleppo, fighting the Arab rebels. Now Syria's Kurds have declared their own federal system.

Part of the problem for Turkey, a Nato member, is that while the US sees the PKK as a terrorist group, it backs the Kurdish YPG over the border in Syria.

Tears and destruction amid Turkey's PKK crackdown

Syrians in Turkey: 'We just want a normal life'

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