On Sunday afternoon, a bomb exploded in Istanbul’s İstiklal Avenue, a busy pedestrianised artery in the heart of the city, killing six and injuring 81 more. The Turkish government immediately imposed a reporting ban and slowed down the internet. By early Monday morning, the police had arrested a ‘culprit’, declared to be a Syrian national named Ahlam Albashir, and Home Minister, Süleyman Soylu announced that the arrested woman had confessed to being sent by the “PKK/YPG terrorist group”. The police stated that the bomber claimed to have taken instructions from “the headquarters of the PKK/PYD/YPG terrorist organization in Kobani” Turkey refuses to make a distinction between the PKK and the Syria-based Peoples Defence Units (YPG) and Democratic Union Party (PYD). The story being presented was like a form of terrorism bingo, ticking off almost every one of the Turkish State’s perceived adversaries. Turkey is straining to attack Kobanê, and Soylu claimed that Albashir was going to escape to Greece (though also that it had been intended that she would be eliminated). The United States was condemned for working with the YPG, and the American link was underlined by the New York sweat-shirt worn by Albashir when she was arrested. Soylu even declared that Turkey rejected America’s condolences, but President Erdoğan seems to have thought better of this when he met President Biden at this week’s G20 summit.
With a few clicks of a mouse, the PKK attribution was shared around the world’s media, with no journalists seeking a response from PKK or YPG sources, or even stopping to interrogate if such a scenario made any sense. Later that day, firm denials were issued by the PKK, the PYD, and the YPG, and also by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), of which the YPG is now part, and from the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria; but, as everyone knows, mud sticks.
By the end of the week, some 50 suspected conspirators had been detained, including – according to some accounts – a general sweep of the workers in the clothing workshop where the bomber worked, and 17 of these had been remanded in custody. Meanwhile, official statements had been repeatedly exposed as full of contradictions and of unevidenced claims that defied logic.
When Albashir was arrested, the clothes she was wearing on the CCTV footage from İstiklal Avenue, were still in her flat (hardly the act of a highly trained asset), and her cowed demeanour in her post-arrest photograph reads as the opposite of PKK defiance. She was supposed to have come through Afrîn or – according to a later account – through Idlib, both areas effectively under Turkish control and bristling with Turkish soldiers and Islamist militants who treat YPG members as traitors. Her own background seems obscure, and the social media of one of the people smugglers who is accused of playing a leading role in the arrangements shows support for the jihadi groups who act as Turkey’s mercenaries in Syria. Most startling of all, Albashir’s phone showed that she had received a couple of phone calls from Mehmet Emin İlhan, a district president of the National Movement Party (MHP), which is in alliance with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and provides the government with vital support. İlhan is said to be involved in the drugs trade and cross-border smuggling and to work with a close assistant of Home Minister Soylu. Responding to this discovery, İlhan vacillated between admitting and denying that he had been called to testify to the police, and also between claiming that there was simply a similarity of names, and that the phone account which had communicated with the bomber was the result of stollen identity. (The internal machinations behind the public release of this information can only be guessed at.)
In trying to make sense of all this, it is vital to focus on the question of who stands to gain – as well as on the nature and history of the various parties. For both the YPG and the PKK, carrying out an attack of this kind would be hugely counterproductive, and also completely out of character.
The SDF functions like a national army, and fights alongside the US-led coalition against ISIS. Their main battles have been against ISIS, but they have also had to defend their land against Turkish invasion and aggression. In doing this, they have always been very careful to demonstrate that their role is a defensive one and that they pose no threat to Turkey. The very few times that they have attacked across the border have been in specific retaliation for Turkish attacks and have been directed at military targets.
The PKK controls a guerrilla army that is at war with the Turkish State. They are careful to comply with the Geneva Conventions and they explained in their statement on Monday, “it is well-known by the public that we would not target civilians directly or approve of actions directed at civilians.” When the PKK does carry out an action, it admits responsibility. An unclaimed action on a civilian target would not fit PKK history or character. It would also be an act of self-sabotage by an organisation that is currently suing the European Union on the grounds that they have been unjustly included on the EU’s terrorism list – a case that the PKK have a realistic possibility of winning.
At the same time, blaming the PKK for actions carried out by others is something for which the Turkish government has a long and dirty history. When I interviewed Brussels-based lawyer, Selma Benkhelifa about these issues, she gave, as examples, the attack on Diyarbakir in November 2016, which was claimed by ISIS, and an aerial bombardment carried out by the Turkish army themselves in 1994, which killed 34 villagers and which they tried to pin on the PKK, even though the PKK have never had any aircraft.
Returning to the question of who benefits from the Istanbul bombing, a terrorist attack blamed on the Kurds would be hugely beneficial both to ISIS and the other Islamist groups that attack the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, and also to the Turkish government, which needs to boost its flagging support before next year’s general and presidential elections. Turkey works closely with the Islamist groups and has been shown to have supported ISIS, and their interests overlap. Erdoğan described the failed 2016 coup as a ’gift from God’ because it gave him an excuse to take actions that would not otherwise have been possible. A bomb attack such as this can serve as another heavenly gift.
There is a strong thread of opinion that points the finger at government involvement and that draws parallels with the bomb attacks that preceded the elections of November 2015. This was the time of the most devastating terrorist attacks on Turkish soil, and although most of the attacks are believed to have been carried out by ISIS, many argue that they were facilitated by the state. After the attack on the Labour Peace and Democracy Rally in Ankara, which killed over 100 and injured 500, a European Union intelligence report noted, “Given the circumstances (arriving buses with demonstrators not searched, police almost absent at the huge demonstration), there is reason to believe that in this case, forces within the AKP commissioned the Da’esh operatives.”
Of course, having a motive and past offences does not prove guilt, and there is no smoking gun. But there is circumstantial evidence: the rapidity with which Soylu laid out what appears to be the government’s dream scenario, and the contradictions that have since appeared, including the militant jihadi links and that MHP phone call. The wonder is that the story being presented seems so unconvincing, but perhaps it doesn’t need to be. It will still serve to smear the PKK and YPG, and to solidify support from those already predisposed to believe their government.
There is fear that the attack will be used as an excuse for further crackdowns on the Kurds and Kurdish politics, and for a full-scale attack on Kobanê. In any such aggression, the main opposition alliance, around the Republican People’s Party (CHP), would be guaranteed to support the government, making it impossible for Kurdish voters to support the CHP: and without the Kurds the opposition cannot beat Erdoğan.
If one purpose of the attack is to discredit the PKK internationally, and to keep international authorities hostile, then this will have been aided by much of the reporting by the mainstream media. Even when acknowledging that the PKK and YPG had denied the attacks, these reports repeat the allegations, and they are often written in such a way as to cast doubt. Every element may be factually correct but combine to present a story that is totally misleading. Thus, Reuters writes: “Turks are concerned that more attacks could occur ahead of elections set for June 2023, which polls suggest Erdogan could lose after two decades in power. A wave of bombings and other attacks began nationwide when a ceasefire between Ankara and the PKK broke down in mid-2015, ahead of elections that year.” By omitting to explain that the ceasefire was called off when Erdoğan rejected (and denied) the putative agreement that had been negotiated between the PKK and the government, and by failing to mention that most of the 2015-16 bombings (including a previous fatal bombing in İstiklal Avenue) have been attributed to ISIS, this report leads readers to associate the PKK with bombings and not with peace-making. (There were also some bombings by the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK), but these always had military or police targets.)
Certainly, any suspicion of dirty tricks does not seem to have affected Turkey’s international relations. President Biden met with Erdoğan on the side-lines of the G20 summit on Tuesday, and, according to the Turkish press briefing, mention was made of the administration’s continued support for the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey, and for pushing this through Congress. Sweden appears to have made a new deal to export military equipment to Turkey; and António Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations, was effusive in his thanks for Turkey’s role in negotiating the Black Sea Grain agreement between Russia and Ukraine.
We can, however, note one critical development with respect to Turkey that is taking place at a government level. The recently-installed government of Iraq has announced that they are establishing a committee to investigate the growing allegations of Turkish use of chemical weapons against the PKK in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. They plan to visit the area to collect evidence, and to present this to the UN. If done thoroughly, this could be important, as a state has rights to get responses from international organisations that are denied to non-state groups.
Turkey has been accused of resorting to chemical weapons in response to the failure of their military to reach the guerrillas hidden in their mountain tunnels. In a new interview for Sterk TV, PKK Executive Committee Member, Murat Karayılan, has emphasised the scale and importance of the PKK’s ongoing struggle, pointing out how, for the first time, the guerrillas have been under constant attack day and night for seven months, and that, for the first time, too, they have been able to hold their ground against comprehensive Turkish attacks.
A petition launched by women from different parts of Iraq, and calling on the UN and Iraq to close the Hewlêr airspace to Turkey, has gathered more than a million signatures; Turkey’s attacks are being discussed by Iraq’s politicians; and the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs) – semi-independent militias that form an important part of Iraq’s defence forces – are champing at the bit to attack the Turkish invaders.
While there are PMUs of different backgrounds and allegiances, many are sympathetic to Iran, so might not show the same enthusiasm for resisting Iranian incursions. But, on Monday, it was Iranian missiles that (again) targeted the bases of Iranian Kurdish organisations exiled in Iraq. The attacks on the headquarters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (PDKI) and adjacent refugee camps in Koya, and on the Komala headquarters in the district of Suleimania, left two PDKI members dead and several people wounded. Both organisations have taken the tactical decision not to intervene militarily in Iran for the present, so as not to give the Iranian regime a pretext for even greater violence, but that hasn’t stopped Iran from targeting them.
In Iran itself, and especially in Rojhelat – Iranian Kurdistan, the revolution continues to gain momentum, despite the brutality of the crackdown, and despite the issuing of the first death sentences for protestors. Actions this week especially commemorated the protests three years ago, which were brutally suppressed with the deaths of 1,500 people. Twitter feeds show burning buildings belonging to unyielding seminarians or to state paramilitaries, and massive crowds of protestors. Each death produces a bigger gathering at the following funeral. Hengaw Human Rights Organisation recorded that in just 24 hours, between Tuesday and Wednesday evening, nine protestors were killed in Rojhelat, and also three members of the state security forces; and in Bukan alone, six people were shot fatally on Thursday, and five more yesterday.
Kurdish flags make their appearance, along with chants in support of all minority groups. On Thursday in Mahabad, the slogan was “Kurd, Baloch, and Azari, Freedom and Equality”. And this remains a women’s revolution. In Bukan, the father of Mihemed Hesezade raised widespread cheers and calls of Jin Jiyan Azadi when he told the crowd gathered for his son’s funeral, “We used to say that someone is manly if they are particularly brave, upright and fearless. Today, I say we should say someone is womanly – they are the fearless ones.”
Meanwhile in Europe
I had thought to end with that rallying cry, but there have been a couple of developments in Europe that need a mention. Yesterday, my Medya News colleague, Mark Campbell was in court in London, along with Beritan Silêmani, a Kurdish activist from Liverpool, charged under the Terrorism Act for displaying a PKK flag. This was the first hearing, and the trial date has been set for 22 February, when they will argue that carrying the PKK flag does not constitute a crime.
Meanwhile in Sweden, where there used to be much greater freedom of expression, the parliament has passed a constitutional amendment to bring in stricter anti-terrorism laws, which the Left Party has described as a “genuflection to the Turkish president” to get him to lift Turkey’s veto on Sweden joining NATO. Only the Left and the Greens voted against the amendment, while journalists protested outside.
The NATO deal has prompted concerned politicians, scholars, and artists to create a new international solidarity organisation. https://kurdishsolidaritycollective.org/ The Kurds, and the democratic freedoms they fight for, are going to need all the solidarity they can get.