The suicide bomb that ripped through a Kurdish wedding in the southeastern Turkish city of Gaziantep over the weekend killed 51 people, roughly half of whom were children, and wounded dozens more. Turkish officials say the assailant acted in the service of the Islamic State. If they're right, that would make the blast the worst jihadist strike on Turkey since the extremists' brazen assault on Istanbul's main airport in June.
Yet, as funerals for dozens of victims were held the next day, angry relatives and onlookers hurled water bottles at police and chanted invective at Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whom they called a "murderer."
Some accuse Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party, known by the Turkish abbreviation AKP, of tacitly enabling the spread of jihadist militancy in the years since the Syrian civil war flared while focusing instead on quashing Kurdish separatism. (It's a charge rejected by ruling party officials.)
The disquiet among Kurds in Gaziantep reflects the chaos and crisis of the moment. Turkey is still in the grips of a nationwide purge after a coup attempt to oust Erdogan and his allies was thwarted on July 15. Tens of thousands of people have been arrested, jailed or suspended from their jobs in state bureaucracy, the military, universities and other institutions on grounds that they are connected to the movement of Fethullah Gulen, the self-exiled Muslim cleric accused of being the shadowy ringleader of the coup plot.
Meanwhile, in recent weeks, armed Kurdish separatists linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, have launched a string of attacks and car bombings against security forces in the country's restive southeast that have claimed dozens of lives. For the past year, a low-running civil war between state forces and Kurdish separatist militias has seen curfews installed in a number of towns and led to hundreds of deaths and the wholesale destruction of neighborhoods.
Moreover, in the wake of the coup attempt, pro-government media and AKP officials have attempted to link the PKK to Gulen's movement — a connection that seems highly dubious, in part because the Gulenists are also accused of attempting to sabotage Turkey's fledgling peace process with the Kurds. If nothing else, the suggestion is an illustration of how confusing the state of play may seem.
As WorldViews discussed earlier, in the middle of a messy region, Erdogan's government is fighting multiple battles: against the PKK and other armed Kurdish groups operating within Turkey; against the clandestine remnants of the Gulenist network supposedly still operating in the country; against the jihadist Islamic State, which has built up cells in various Turkish cities; against Syrian Kurdish militias linked to the PKK but which receive support from Washington as part of the American strategy to defeat the Islamic State.
On Monday, Turkish forces shelled Islamic State positions in Syria as well as those belonging to the YPG, the most prominent Syrian Kurdish militia. The Sunni extremist group and the secular Kurds are at war with each other, as well as both at war with Turkey.
Gaziantep sits near the border with Syria and has become one of the main points of arrival for Syrian refugees and departure for foreign jihadists, smugglers and others seeking to enter the ruinous conflict. The wedding party that was hit over the weekend was attended by members of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party, or HDP, a leftist faction which commands seats in parliament and is a thorn in the side of the AKP.
It's also not the first time a suspected Islamic State bomber has targeted the HDP and those connected to its brand of pluralist politics. Horrific bombings last year, first in the heavily Kurdish border town of Suruc, and then at a leftist rally in Ankara, killed scores and fanned anti-government sentiment in certain corners. The Suruc attack, in particular, signaled a collapse of the fragile process between the Turkish state and separatist Kurds.
Erdogan and the AKP accuse the HDP of being proxies of the PKK, designated a terrorist group by the United States and Turkey. This is a claim rebuffed by HDP leaders, who constantly call for peace. But in the wake of the coup attempt — even as other opposition parties joined in unity with the elected government — the HDP has been kept at arm's length by Erdogan and his allies.
“They are performing strong opposition in the parliament as well," Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said of the HDP on Monday, urging it to repudiate the PKK. "In order for us to work with them, the first thing that they have to say is: ‘We defy this heinous organization, we condemn it and do not accept what it has been doing.’ If they say this, they would be more than welcomed."
The HDP countered with a statement posted on its website, pinning the smoldering tensions and Turkey's vulnerability to terrorism on Erdogan.
"The ruling party's hate speech, discriminating and dividing attitude in democratic political arenas furnishes the conditions for such attacks," the statement said. "Those sparking and encouraging hate and hostility against the Kurds have committed a great sin."
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