Likely PKK attack in Turkey’s black sea region leaves three soldiers dead

Originally produced for Armed Politics in August 2016

An attack yesterday in Ordu province, in Turkey’s northern black sea region, left three soldiers dead and two wounded. The attack came on an army outpost in a mountainous, forested area in the Mesudiye district of the province. The assailants reportedly escaped. The attack came within hours of another attack in Hakkari province in Turkey’s south east which took the life of one soldier. In the panic following the attack in Mesudiye, an armoured vehicle reportedly crashed and overturned, causing one of the injuries.

The attack was blamed on members of the PKK and bears the hallmarks of the group and similar organizations’ style. While the area is within the historic reach of the organization, this last year’s round of fighting has been concentrated mainly in the country’s south east, where yesterday’s second attack occurred. Moreover, Mesudiye is not a strategic location in the current conflict. The area within the district where the attack occurred, Topcam, was described as quiet and out of the way by locals.

One Kurdish nationalist group, Hawks of Kurdistan Freedom (TAK), has for a long time been threatening to bring the conflict out of the south east of the country and to hit all of Turkey. This is not to say TAK is behind the attack but the motive to this attack is likely something similar to this. This is an easy target for the PKK and similar groups, in that the terrain is mountainous and forested, and the soldiers were not expecting an attack and so likely not as alert as their counterparts in the south east. By striking in an unusual and un-strategic area, the group behind the attack is threatening Turkey broadly. It is a statement of power, demonstrating their reach. All police and soldiers across the province were ordered to wear bullet-proof vests after the attack, especially with the attackers still at large. Attacks such as this threaten stability across Turkey and create an atmosphere of tension. It also represents an escalation which will doubtless draw a response from the Turkish armed forces.

Identities of Turkish commandos who tried to kill Erdoğan will tell us more about coup plotters’ motives

Originally produced for Armed Politics July 2016

Members of an elite Turkish commando unit who attempted to assasinate President Erdoğan are still at large and are being hunted by Turkish security forces. The search operation has been underway since the night of the coup but the remaining members have still managed to evade capture. The teams, from among the Turkish army’s elite, descended on to the hotel where the president was staying from helicopters on ropes and immediately opened fire, reports say.

The president escaped but a number of his aides were killed in the attack. The soldiers subsequently fled. Some were captured last week but others remain at large. The surrounding forests, villages and coastlines are being intensively searched. Turkish coast guard reportedly searched a small boat which had put to see from the nearby coast but to no avail.

The fact that these soldiers are still at large and may try to complete their mission and kill the president must be a worry for the Turkish government. But even more that this, the fact that such elite units took part in this attack poses a longer term problem. A lot of the army’s institutional knowledge was wrapped up in those who the government has removed. This will inevitably have an effect on the operability of the Turkish army. Not only will these units have to be replaced, collective knowledge and abilities, things which cannot easily be recorded, will doubtless be lost.

Another aspect worth considering is the motivations and loyalties of these soldiers. Being charged with one of, if not, the most critical parts of the coup, means they would have been carefully selected and integral to the operation. As we find out more about these soliers’ backgrounds, we will gain a better understanding of exactly how and why the coup plotters struck when they did.

One member of the team, Zekeriya Kuzu, who was captured last week, was claimed to have had no connection to the Gülen movement, which the government claims was behind the attack. This stoked conspiracy theories that the government organized the coup itself to shore up its support. However, more details have emerged which do in fact link Kuzu to the organization. In this way, the more we know about this key team in the attack, the better we can understand the events surrounding this historic night for Turkey.

A spate of ISIS-claimed attacks in France and Germany is indicative of ISIS strategy

Originally produced for Armed Politics in July 2016

Seemingly not a day has gone by over the last weeks without an ISIS-affiliated or inspired attack in France or Germany. To some extent, this is because the ISIS narrative has given licence to those who want to express their frustration with the world through violence, and does not require the group even to act. However, this ‘spill-over’ effect is arguably heightened by ISIS’ greater strategic focus on these countries.

But if this is the case, why does ISIS focus more on these countries in particular, as opposed to say the UK? France and Germany have the largest Muslim populations of any Western European country, representing the largest minority communities in their respective countries by significant margins. For both countries, these communities are their contemporary archetypal ‘other’. Both are experiencing increasing right-wing resurgences deploying Islamaphobic rhetoric.

France’s North African-origin community, which makes up at least 10% of the country’s population, while not necessarily all Muslim, but often all facing the same discrimination, has a complicated relationship with the state. France’s far right has long engaged in scaremongering up the idea of a Muslim insurrection.

Germany’s largest minority group by a huge margin is its Turkish community. Now with an influx of Syrian refugees, numbering as many as one million, the German far right has been playing on a similar theme to that in France. The UK, while it has seen a stark increase in Islamaphobic rhetoric and actions, has a relatively much smaller Muslim community, compared to other minority groups in the country. This is not to say it is not a target.

ISIS is seeking to fuel the rhetoric of the far right in France and Germany. In doing so, it hopes to engender a racist backlash against Muslim (or perceived as Muslim) communities in both countries. This would play into ISIS’ narrative of a war between Muslims and the West and it would use this in its recruitment activities. Moreover, it would propel ISIS’ global strategy of inciting chaos and societal instability, ultimately leading to societal collapse, leaving a tabula rasa upon which it can build a new world order.

Where next for Turkey after failed coup d’état?

Originally produced for Armed Politics in July 2016

After Turkey’s recent attempted coup d’état, the country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has been enjoying an ascendance in power. The defeat of the coup d’état and subsequent euphoria among a large swathe of the population have allowed Erdoğan to clamp down on his opponents and to shore up his position.

These events have brought Turkey to a crossroads. Reactions among the opposition have been mixed. Most condemn the coup as an affront to democracy but many are also fearful of Erdoğan taking his post-coup clamp down too far. There has been much talk of this being the start of a dangerous new era in Turkish politics, of an authoritarian regression.

There is another possible direction. Erdoğan could use his new reinforced power base to indulge in some good will and democratic openings. Seeing that the coup plotters had seemingly hoped to build off the societal tensions that have developed over the last years of his government, Erdoğan might see some value in working to sow harmony.

Indeed, the speech given by leader of the largest opposition party, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, this weekend, at a pro-democracy rally in Istanbul was broadcast by pro-government channels, in an unprecedented move. The speech condemned the coup but criticized Erdoğan’s crack down. With his position so assured, perhaps Erdoğan will return to some of his earlier, softer years. However, the likelihood of this is low, and if done, would likely consist of skin-deep actions designed to bolster his narrative of the defender of democracy.

Beyond the concerning impacts to the political system in Turkey, perhaps more troubling are the effects this has had on Turkish society. The already strongly polarized camps of Turkish society saw an expression in the make-up of the participants in the counter-coup actions, or perhaps, more significantly, in their perceived make-up.

Since last Friday’s events, a narrative has emerged that cites particular groups of society taking an especially significant role in the counter-coup, namely Islamist and/or nationalist, working class men. Whether this is true or not, it has had one effect of adding a dynamic of class and political division to the anti-coup actions that has already seemingly exacerbated existing social divides.

Images of surrendered soldiers being beaten and killed by civilians have shocked some segments of Turkish society more than any other aspect of the coup. It is this mutual fear, of a perceived violent mob on the one hand and an imperious, arrogant, urban elite on the other, which more than anything has worsened divisions in society. These fears stoke reactions from and threaten to make a reality of these opposing camps. This will likely have far-reaching consequences for Turkey.

US support for Kurdish advances on ISIS in Syria strengthening Kurdish autonomy

Originally produced for Armed Politics in June 2016

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) group, an alliance of Kurdish, Arabic and Syriac Christian militias, continues to make strategic gains against ISIS. The SDF appears poised to capture Manbij, to the west of the Euphrates, further impinging on ISIS’ reach. Moreover, these continued advances have led to increased speculation that the SDF will indeed make a push on ISIS’ de facto Syrian capital, Raqqa.

Since the SDF began making significant headway against ISIS forces last year, there had been speculation as to whether they would move on Raqqa. The SDF is dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the armed wing of the self-declared autonomous largely-Kurdish government of northern Syria. The formation of the SDF last year was a significant moment for the YPG: the inclusion of Arab and Syriac groups was used to attack claims that Kurdish forces had been ethnically cleansing parts of northern Syria and to make it easier for their forces to occupy ethnically Arabic areas. However, the SDF has largely followed the aims of the YPG, carving out a contiguous Kurdish homeland along the Turkish-Syrian border. Raqqa is farther south than any majority Kurdish areas, and thus lies outside the remit of this project.

However, the SDF has managed to garner significant US support in its operations, from air strikes to suggestions of Special Forces presence on the ground. This support has been predicated on the SDF attacking ISIS. Moreover, this support has led to a massive strengthening of the Kurdish mini-state, Rojava, in northern Syria, to the dismay of the US’ allies in Ankara and to a lesser extent in Baghdad, given Turkey and Iraq’s complicated relations with their Kurdish regions.

The move on Manbij is significant as it is a major supply line for Raqqa and an ISIS stronghold. The SDF has committed months of fighting time and troops to the assault, demonstrating their dedication. There is likely a back-door quid pro quo arrangement between the US and the SDF. Every time the US strengthens its support for the SDF, it puts greater distance between itself and Ankara, and commits itself further to the Kurdish state-building project. The entry of US Special Forces into Syria earlier this year, likely signals the US is upping its support for the SDF. On the SDF’s part an advance on Raqqa in reciprocation is looking increasingly likely, as is Kurdish autonomy in the North. This in turn is sending shockwaves across the region.

ISIS likely behind deadly attack on Istanbul airport

Originally produced for Armed Politics in June 2016

Yesterday evening, three gunmen attacked Istanbul’s Ataturk airport, shooting many, before blowing themselves up. The death toll now appear to have passed 40, with as many as 230 injured. Shockingly, this does not even make this the deadliest attack in Turkey in the last 12 months, with the death toll from last October’s bombing in the capital surpassing 100. In Turkey’s complicated security environment, a variety of groups have been carrying out deadly attacks. However, the style of this attack means it was almost certainly perpetrated by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Firstly, this was a mass-casualty attack, with many of the dead civilians. This is typical for an ISIS attack, and there is no other group which carries out attacks in quite the same way in Turkey. While Hawks of Kurdistan Freedom (TAK) carried out a mass-casualty attack in March this year in Ankara, the attack was aimed at a police target. TAK was willing to kill civilians as part of their attack on the police, whereas civilian casualties appear to have been the main aim of this attack, based on its execution. TAK’s attacks have almost all targeted Turkish military or police.

Secondly, it is the execution that also strongly suggests ISIS was behind the attack. Each attacker was armed with an AK-47 assault rifle and a suicide bomb vest. The first attacker began firing in the car park of the airport to distract security. Ataturk airport has two layers of security, one, outer layer, before check-in and one after check-in before boarding. The second attacker then struck at the outer layer of security. Finally, once the outer layer was weakened, the third bomber sought to slip through into the check-in area but thankfully was prevented by the heroism of a security guard who tackled the attacker to the floor and died when the attacker detonated his suicide vest.

The carefully-planned staged nature of the attack, exposing ever more civilians, smacks of ISIS. Moreover, the target of the attack is typical of ISIS in Turkey, namely tourist-related infrastructure. TAK did strike Istanbul’s second airport, Sabiha Gokcen, with a mortar attack in December last year, killing one. However, this was not in the same style as the ISIS mass casualty attacks. ISIS’ targets in Turkey until this year were Kurdish, leftist groups; ISIS’ aim here to drive the Kurdish conflict and rifts in Turkish society. This year it has switched focus, seeking to disrupt Turkey’s tourist infrastructure. This latest attack fits clearly in that agenda. These attacks have all been mass-casualty suicide attacks.

ISIS’ new strategy in Turkey in this respect appears similar to its strategy in North Africa: disrupt the tourism industry and damage the economy, fuelling disenfranchisement and driving ISIS’ already strong support in the country.

Clashes and attacks in Turkey’s south east adds to spiral of violence

Originally produced for Armed Politics in June 2016

This morning a car bomb hit an armoured police transport vehicle in Dicle in Turkey’s south eastern Diyarbakir province, killing one policeman and injuring seven people, six of whom were civilians. The strength of the blast was so great that it damaged surrounding roads and buildings. Security forces subsequently began a sweeping operation in the area to seek out militants.

The perpetrators of the target are likely members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, fighting the Turkish government for greater autonomy in Turkey’s largely Kurdish south east. Dicle, like much of the south east, has a strong Kurdish population, and has been the site of many clashes and attacks over the last year.

This attack follows clashes yesterday in Hakkari province, another south eastern Kurdish area, in which security forces reportedly killed two militants. According to the province’s governor, the two militants refused to stop when ordered and a firefight ensued. Security forces claim to have found two AK-47 rifles and hand grenades on the militants.

Violence in Turkey’s south east has now become a near-daily occurrence since fighting resumed in earnest last summer. Crisis Group International estimates that 350,000 civilians have been displaced and 250 killed in this most recent round of fighting. The violence has not only been confined to the south east, with Kurdish independence groups launching bloody attacks in Istanbul and the capital, Ankara.

Crisis Group International, along with a range of rights groups, as well as the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, have voiced concerns over the civilian cost of the recent fighting. The Turkish military has reportedly use heavy weaponry in civilian areas. The Turkish military has been accused of massacring 60 civilians, who were found dead in the basement of a building in the south eastern town of Cizre, which has borne the brunt of some of the worst of the fighting. The Turkish military is quick to claim any killed in clashes as militants.

Turkey’s Kurdish conflict is taking place against a background of fighting in Syria, in which various groups within Turkey are involved. Yesterday two shells hit the Turkish side of the border in Hatay province, a reminder that this conflict is not going away. And it is not just Turkey’s Kurds who are drawn into this fighting; Turkish nationalist groups are fighting in support of Turkmen militias clashing with government forces in the north of Syria. This level of sustained violence, drawing in and affecting so many different areas of Turkish society, will have consequences for years to come.