By Kamran Bokhari
On Feb. 17, a bomb exploded in Turkey’s capital, killing 28 people and wounding 61 others. This, by itself, is not a geopolitically significant development. Whether or not this attack turns out to be the handiwork of Kurdish rebels, events like these do not matter in the larger scheme of things. The more significant issue is how Turkey will manage the various challenges (in particular the Islamic State) that await it in Syria and limit the fighting’s spillover into Turkish territory.
So far, no group has claimed responsibility for the attack that targeted a convoy of military buses near the headquarters of the Turkish Armed Forces, parliament and other key government buildings. Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş said that authorities were investigating the matter but suspicion has fallen on Kurdish separatist group the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK and other groups, like the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), have attacked Turkish military buses before. In the wake of the bombing, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan cancelled his trip to Azerbaijan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu canceled his visit to Brussels.
Most terrorist attacks attract a great deal of media attention, but very few of them – such as those on the scale of 9/11 – really have an impact on how global events unfold. Take for example the recent IS attacks in Paris. As terrible as they were in terms of casualties, they did not alter much. Europe was already tampering with the Schengen zone and the French were already carrying out airstrikes in Syria.
Likewise, this latest incident will not lead to a major shift in the behavior of the Turkish government. Ankara is already engaged in a major offensive against the PKK at home. Separately, Turkey has already been striking across the border at the PKK’s Syrian counterpart, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) – the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party, which is seeking an autonomous Kurdish region in northeastern Syria. Therefore, yesterday’s attack is unlikely to force the Turks to do something they were not already planning on doing.
That said, it could be used to help justify any action that the Turks were planning on taking against the Kurds, especially in Syria. The United States and France have been critical of the cross-border artillery barrages that the Turkish military has been conducting over the past few days. While Washington and its European allies do consider the PKK to be a terrorist entity, they do not appreciate Turkish hostility toward the Syrian Kurds. After all, the YPG is leading the Syrian Democratic Front, which is the only major Syrian rebel militia that is not jihadist and has actually taken territory away from IS.
At most the attack in Ankara could help the Turks’ public relations efforts regarding their fight against the Syrian Kurds. It does not do much to change the abyss across the border that the Turks are staring into. The Turks are already well aware of the magnitude of the military effort needed to contain the Syrian Kurds and have been ever since the early days of the Syrian civil war. It is one of the key reasons Ankara has not taken the lead role that the United States wants it to play in the fight against IS.
While IS is a threat to Turkey and has carried out a number of attacks on Turkish soil, the Syrian Kurds are a much bigger threat from the Turkish point of view. IS cannot subvert the Turkish republic the same way the Kurds can. Furthermore, the areas of Syria controlled by the Kurds are right on the border with Turkey whereas most of IS-held territory is south of the Syrian Kurds.
Additionally, the Syrian Kurds have been taking advantage of the Russian air campaign and expanding westward toward Aleppo. This has led to Arab rebel groups losing control of areas they have held for some time and has left a vacuum that is being filled by the YPG. This is a double threat for the Turks. Not only are Syrian Kurds expanding their holdings along the Turkish border, they are undermining the original Turkish objective in Syria – toppling Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Syrian rebel groups are a key tool that the Turks can use to achieve their goal of regime change in Damascus. Therefore, together with Qatar and (to a lesser extent) Saudi Arabia, Turkey has been backing an array of rebel groups, including Syrian nationalists, Muslim Brotherhood-style Islamists, ethnic Turkmen and a variety of Salafist-jihadists who form the majority. For the longest time, Ankara had been hoping that these groups would be able to fully seize control of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and commercial hub. With Aleppo fully in rebel hands the Turks could establish a corridor deep into Syria, running more or less parallel to its border.
Such a corridor would have been the staging ground for the rebels to push further westward into Assad’s Alawite core of Latakia and southward through the Syrian heartland toward the capital. It could also serve the purpose of containing the Syrian Kurds. And when the time came it could have been used to strike at IS. The entire Turkish strategy for Syria has been badly disrupted by Russia providing air support to Assad regime troops.
Since last September, the hundreds of sorties flown by Russian warplanes have altered the landscape. The Syrian regime has staged a comeback and Aleppo is at risk of falling back into the hands of the Syrian army. Meanwhile, Turkey’s relations with Russia have taken a major hit, especially after Ankara shot down a Russian fighter that violated Turkish airspace in November. That incident obviously did not deter the Russians from pushing on with their mission in Syria. In fact, the Russians have been carrying out airstrikes specifically designed to aid Syrian Kurds who took over an air base in Aleppo’s countryside last week.
Explosions are easy to write about, even when they don’t mean anything. The news stories write themselves when something explodes and people die. A rigorous understanding of Turkey’s strategic situation is not as flashy or as simple to describe, but it is more important than bombings, which happen in Turkey multiple times every year. Considering that Turkey has to confront both the Kurdish separatists and IS jihadists it is only reasonable to assume that there will be more bombings on Turkish soil in the future. But unless it becomes a strategic necessity for Turkey to respond, the occasional bombing will not have a bearing on Turkish imperatives in Syria. Turkey’s actions are not dictated by well-covered yet ultimately meaningless events; rather, they are being constantly shaped by underlying geopolitical issues that are significant even if they don’t necessarily always make for eye-catching headlines.