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The attack that brings Turkey back to the past

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The attack that brings Turkey back to the past

November 14, 2022 3:56 pm

At 16.20 on November 13, 2022, an explosion broke the tranquility of Sunday afternoon on the well-known Istiklal avenue, in the center of Istanbul, a commercial artery very frequented by Turkish and foreign tourists, full of restaurants and shops. A witness interviewed by Al Jazeera TV said she heard a boom, which seemed to come from a construction site, but was actually caused by a bomb that, in addition to shattering the windows of the surrounding shops, killed six people. (including children) and another eighty injured.

The next day, passersby paid tribute to the victims by placing red carnations at the site of the explosion. Half of the injured have been discharged from hospitals, but the others are still hospitalized, including two in very serious conditions. It was the bloodiest attack on Turkey in the last five years. In this last period, the country has enjoyed relative calm, after having experienced a long season of terrorism between 2015 and 2017, culminating in the attack on New Year’s Eve in 2017, when a gunman broke into a nightclub in Milan. Istanbul killing 39 people.

On the evening of the attack on Istiklal Avenue, just before leaving for the G20 summit in Indonesia, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan spoke publicly, speaking of a terrorist attack and promising to punish those responsible. No group claimed responsibility for the attack, but the day after Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu pointed the finger at Kurdish groups in northern Syria and had 46 people arrested, stating that the order to attack came directly from Kobane. The city is known for the 2015 battle in which Kurdish forces repelled the advance of the jihadists of the Islamic State group.

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Today Kobane is controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which are largely formed by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), allies of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The organization, which for decades has opposed the Turkish government in a fight that has cost the lives of thousands of people, has denied any involvement, stating that it does not target civilians in its operations.

According to the Turkish police, the main suspect, a woman who allegedly left her bag with explosives near a bench along the boulevard, admitted that she was trained by Kurdish militants and entered Turkey from the Syrian province of Afrin, currently occupied by Turkish forces. The spokesman for the Turkish presidency, Fahrettin Altun, immediately highlighted that the incident could undermine relations between Ankara and its Western allies. In fact, he wrote on Twitter that the November 13 attack is a consequence of “the support of some countries for terrorist groups”. Interior Minister Soylu rejected condolences offered by the United States, accused of supporting the Kurds.

The pro-government Turkish newspapers urge the president not to let his guard down and to annihilate his enemies once and for all. “Turkey has crushed the heads of terrorist groups,” Mehmet Barlas writes on Sabah. In particular, he defeated “the followers of Fethullah Gülen (the Muslim cleric who for years has lived in exile in Pennsylvania, accused by the Turkish government of having masterminded the failed coup of 15 July 2016), the PKK and the Islamic State group. We are clear about the causes of terrorism and the ways in which it must be fought. Attacks on civilians highlight the desperation of these organizations. It is when Turkey is strong that these episodes seek to undermine its stability. Perhaps the terrorists believe they are still in 1990s Turkey. But they will not be able to bring us back to the past ”.

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Cumhuriyet also calls for a strong response: “We must take seriously the fight against the supporters of terrorism, at home and abroad. And above all we must strengthen border controls and prepare a list of terrorists who entered Turkey disguised as asylum seekers ”.

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For Zvi Barel, an analyst for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the war in Syria has opened a new front in the ten-year conflict between Ankara and the PKK. Today Turkey aspires to control a strip of territory in northern Syria, precisely to keep an eye on the Kurdish populations of that area. But the inhabitants of those places are not willing to fold easily. Furthermore, Turkey, which is home to more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees, has recently begun resettling thousands of people in the parts of northern Syria that are not administered by Damascus. This decision has sparked opposition from refugees, who fear for their lives and their ability to find a livelihood. Barel recalls that some Turkish commentators have spoken of the Syrians in Turkey as a kind of “time bomb”, even if there is no knowledge of terrorist cells in the refugee camps.

In any case, the attack on Sunday represents “a severe blow to the prestige of the country, to the tourism that was recovering after the pandemic and to the position of President Erdoğan”. Immediately after the incident, the government banned the publication of information, including photos and videos that had already been disseminated on social networks, officially to “prevent panic from spreading” and not hinder investigations. At this moment Erdoğan cannot show himself weak: there is the economic crisis, with the Turkish lira collapsing and inflation at 85 percent. Also, in June 2023, elections will be held and the president’s popularity is in free fall. “For this”, Barel writes, “he cannot show that he has also lost control of the security of his country”.

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