The casualties of the twin bombing attack on protesters at a peace rally in the Turkish capital, Ankara, have been estimated at 95 dead, with hundreds more injured. The attack on a peace demonstration urging for an end to the conflict between Kurdish separatist groups and the Turkish government has further escalated tensions within Turkey. This attack could prove decisive in shaping Turkey’s participation in the United States-led coalition to resolve conflict in the Middle East, particularly in neighboring Syria.
Although no groups have come forward to claim responsibility for the attack, the fallout has been immediate, with speculations that the Islamic State (ISIS), the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), or the Turkish government are responsible for the devastating attacks. The Turkish government was quick to deny its involvement, and the Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu immediately declared three days of national mourning in response. The PKK also moved swiftly to declare a ceasefire (except in cases of self defense) on the Saturday of the attacks. On Sunday, the Turkish government launched a successful airstrike attack on Kurdish militia in the southeastern parts of the country and northern Syria, killing 14 fighters and key targets.
The symbolism of the attack on a rally campaigning for peace between the Turkish government and Kurdish separatists is profound. The attacks have escalated the deeply entrenched tensions between the two forces — tensions which date back to the formation of the Turkish state in 1923 — into yet another flare of conflict. The timing could not be more unfortunate, with Russia launching its own airstrikes in Syria. Cooperation among the U.S.-led coalition is essential in the establishment of any form of stable governance that does not involve the maintenance of the brutal al-Assad regime, or the regressive ISIS.
This attack raises key questions about the role that Turkey will be willing to play in the establishment of this peace. With more than two million Syrian refugees currently residing in Turkey, the Turkish government has great incentive to participate in the U.S.-led mission against ISIS. Turkey and Kurdish militia forces, such as the People’s Protection Units (YPG), are the bedrocks of the United States’ regional strategy in Syria, and cooperation between these two crucial regional groups is essential to eliminate the scourge of ISIS from Syria.
Turkey has been participating in the U.S.-led coalition since July, in the same month that there were reports that Turkish forces had attacked Kurdish militia fighting ISIS. Although Turkey denied intentionally targeting Kurdish forces in that instance, continued tensions between the Kurdish forces and the Turkish state undermine the objectives of coordinated multilateral action in Syria.
The attack in Ankara is therefore an attack on the very attitudes of peace, solidarity and cooperation that are needed to resolve conflicts and end suffering in the Middle East. While we may speculate about the identity of the perpetrators of the despicable attack and the nature of their motivations, we must not lose sight of the real tragedy: The deaths of 95 peace activists who were seeking to reconcile two historical foes, whose cooperation remains essential in resolving the conflict in Syria and the Middle East.
Written by Sahra Magan