Turkey lashed out Monday at Kurdish targets, bombing military positions in northern Iraq and rounding up dozens of militants at home after a suicide car bombing in the heart of the capital drew the country even deeper into the complex Syrian conflict.
The Ankara bombing, the third attack on the capital in five months, killed at least 36 people.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said there were “strong indications” that Sunday’s attack was carried out by the rebels of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.
Davutoglu added that authorities had detained 11 people directly connected to the suicide bombing near a line of bus stops that killed 37 people. DNA tests were underway to identify the bomber and another body believed to be that of a person who assisted, he said, while a senior government official has said the bomber was a woman.
“There are very serious, almost-certain indications that point to the separatist terror organisation,” Davutoglu said, referring to the PKK.
The attack further complicated Turkey’s place in the region as it battles a host of enemies across its borders including the Syrian government, Kurdish rebels in both Iraq and Syria, and the Islamic State group, even after being forced to absorb 2.7 million refugees from the conflict.
Turkey is also battling the PKK, a Kurdish group fighting for autonomy in south-eastern Turkey for three decades. A fragile, 2-year peace process broke down in July. Turkey blames the PKK, saying it was inspired by the success of the Kurdish militia forces in Syria against IS in the city of Kobani and elsewhere. The PKK blames Turkey for failing to deliver on promises.
More than 200 people have died in five suicide bombings in Turkey since July that were blamed either on the Kurdish rebels or IS. Sunday’s attack was the second suicide bombing in the capital- a February 17 attack for which a PKK offshoot claimed responsibility killed 29 people.
“All five attacks are linked to the fallout of the Syrian civil war,” said Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey expert at the Washington Institute. “Ankara’s ill-executed Syria policy … has exposed Turkey to great risks.”
Bill Park, a lecturer on Turkish foreign policy and security at King’s College London, said Ankara’s aggression toward the Kurds in Syria has angered Kurds inside Turkey and inspired attacks.
“Bombings in Turkey now look like a campaign and we have to assume that there will be more,” he said.
If the bombing was the work of a PKK-affiliated group, it could mark a shift in tactics, since the group had previously targeted Turkey’s security forces instead of civilians, said Otso Iho, a senior analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre.
Turkey considers the PKK and the Kurdish militia in Syria to be one and the same, and has been pressing its U.S. allies to stop helping the Syrian Kurds. Washington considers the PKK a terrorist organisation but has backed the Kurdish militia in Syria, which has been effective in fighting IS.
Both the U.S. and Turkey have generally good relations with the Kurds in northern Iraq; Monday’s airstrikes in northern Iraq targeted PKK bases rather than installations of the Iraqi Kurds.
Nine F16s and two F4 jets raided 18 PKK positions, including the Qandil mountains, where the group’s leadership is based, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported. Ammunition depots, bunkers and shelters were among the targets.
Police carried out raids in the southern city of Adana, detaining 38 suspected PKK rebels, while 15 suspected Kurdish militants were detained in Istanbul, the agency reported. In addition, authorities were searching for 10 suspects connected to the female bomber, Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said.
Turkey already had plans for large-scale operations against Kurdish militants. Anadolu said an operation in Nusaybin, on the border with Syria, began Monday, while tanks were deployed for another operation in the town of Yuksekova, near the border with Iraq. Authorities also imposed a curfew in the city of Sirnak, near the Iraqi border, signalling the military was preparing an offensive there as well.
Davutoglu vowed that Turkey’s struggle against the PKK would continue until the group is wiped out.
“After (the links) to the terror organisation were determined, our Armed Forces conducted a comprehensive operation in northern Iraq. Our struggle against the terror points in Nusaybin and Yuksekova are continuing,” Davutoglu said. “We will not shy away from taking the necessary steps.”
Curfew imposed in Turkey
Turkey has ordered curfews in flashpoints in the southeast since August in its fight against the PKK, which had set up barricades, dug trenches and planted explosives. Tens of thousands of people have been displaced, and human rights groups have criticized the military for scores of civilian deaths.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan cancelled a visit Tuesday to Baku, his office said, adding that Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev would instead travel to Ankara in a show of solidarity.
In a speech later Monday, Erdogan urged the government to “redefine” terrorism and terrorists so that legal action can be expanded against anyone supporting terrorism including lawmakers, academics, journalists or activists.
“Either they are on our side, or on the side of the terrorists,” Erdogan said.