Amid ongoing opposition to the Turkish government’s cooperation with Syrian rebels, speculation is growing in Turkey that Syria may have had a hand in the February 1 suicide bombing attack at the US Embassy in Ankara.
An outlawed radical-leftist group, the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front (known in Turkey by its acronym DHKP/C), has claimed responsibility for the attack. In a long, rambling statement posted on the DHKP/C’s website, the group cited the recent deployment of NATO’s Patriot anti-missile system along the Turkish-Syrian border as a reason for its embassy attack.
The group threatened to carry out further attacks against American targets. An anonymous US embassy official quoted by Turkish media said that the threat is being taken seriously.
The Patriot missiles, deployed in January by the United States, Germany and the Netherlands, are ostensibly intended to protect Turkey from errant Syrian fire and the possible use of chemical weapons by Damascus in its war against rebels. But many see the missiles as part and parcel of Ankara’s robust support for the Syrian opposition, a steadfast loyalty that has drawn Damascus’ ire.
In the wake of the February 1 bombing, Turkish media has begun to draw connections between that anger and the DHKP/C itself. Deniz Zeyrek, a political columnist for the Turkish newspaper Radikal, cited intelligence sources who claimed that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had sanctioned financial and logistical support for outlawed leftist organizations, including the DHKP/C.
Damascus, in fact, has a long history with the DHKP/C. “This group has a Marxist-Leninist ideology and during the Cold War . . .Syria provided a lot facilities, safe haven, training and, also, weapons,” said terrorism expert Nihat Ali Özcan, a retired Turkish army officer. “Even after the Cold War, I think Syrian intelligence kept its link with this group.”
Ankara has already accused Damascus of occasionally providing both direct and indirect support to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, in its fight against the Turkish state for autonomy and greater minority rights. In the past 18 months, the PKK has increased sharply its operations against the Turkish state. According to data compiled by the International Crisis Group, 2012 marked the highest level of causalities since the 1990’s when the PKK conflict was in its hottest phase.
In January, the Turkish government announced it had initiated peace efforts with the PKK. To Kadri Gursel, a political columnist for the daily newspaper Milliyet, the Turkish government’s engagement with the PKK could have prompted Damascus to turn to the DHKP/C to act as a “terror instrument” inside Turkey.
“The signs are strong for the DHKP/C connection to Damascus; their statement is clear, the sympathy is there, the past is there, and, so, old channels can be revitalized,” Gursel reasoned. “And since Turkey has actively been involved [in] activities to topple the Syrian regime, the DHKP/C has stepped up its terrorist activities.”
Security expert Özcan estimates the DHKP/C has between 200 to 300 active members or “cadres,” and up to 7,000 sympathizers in Turkey, as well as among Northern Europe’s large Turkish migrant populations.
“It’s possible we will see more attacks. They certainly have the means,” warned Ozcan, who works for the Ankara-based Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey. “Terrorist actions don’t need many people.”
Such a campaign could find sympathy, if not support, among sections of Turkey’s population with close ethnic or religious ties to Alawites, a Shi’a group to which Assad belongs, he alleged.
In the past year, a number of protests in support of the Syrian regime and against the Turkish government have been held by Turkish Alawites in Hatay Province, which borders Syria.
The strong Sunni Islamic roots of Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party adds another dimension to the Turkish-Syrian dynamic, a prominent Istanbul political analyst suggested. “There is a strong perception in Turkey and the region [that] the government is pursuing a pro-Sunni-orientated policy,” cautioned Sinan Ulgen, chairperson of the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy, or EDAM.
The risk of “a polarization between Sunni and Alawite Muslims in Turkey, especially in the Hatay region that borders Syria,” is “more dangerous” than any popular opposition to Turkey’s Syria policy, commented columnist Gursel.
Turkish opinion polls indicate that the growing opposition to Ankara’s robust support for the Syrian rebels has matched the deepening crisis in Syria.
“The government can’t even convince a majority of its own supporters of its policy towards Syria,” charged columnist Gursel. “If Turkey is vulnerable to terrorist attacks connected to the Syrian situation, of course, the government could be blamed by the public for creating such a chaos.”