Trading Claims and Blame in the Ankara Bombing

3 MINS READFeb 18, 2016 | 19:50 GMT
Turkish army service buses burn after an explosion on Feb. 17, in Ankara, Turkey. Turkish authorities blamed Kurdish groups for the attack.

The Turkish government has directly implicated the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its militia, the People's Protection Units (YPG), in the Feb. 17 detonation of a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device, which left 28 dead and dozens injured in downtown Ankara. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said at least nine people have been arrested in relation to the attack and identified the bomber as Saleh Najar, a man born in northern Syria who the government claims has links to the PYD and YPG.

The attack, which targeted military transport buses near barracks, suggests — but does not confirm — a Kurdish link, since military convoys are a popular target of Kurdish militants belonging to Turkey's Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Given the military’s offensives against the PKK in Turkey and northern Iraq, as well as against the YPG in northern Syria, Kurdish militants have an incentive to stage such attacks. Notably, the Ankara bombing resulted in far more casualties than typical PKK attacks against military convoys in the southeast. Furthermore, Syrian Kurdish militants do not have a history of attacking Turkey's urban areas. Details related to the explosive device's composition have yet to be released.

The Turkish government was quick to implicate the PYD, and the state-controlled Daily Sabah even published a full timeline of attacks labeled as "PYD-linked PKK terrorist attacks" that have taken place since the July 2015 cease-fire. Despite Turkey's accusations, the PYD and PKK have denied any involvement in the incident. It is clear that the Turkish government is trying to use the terrorist attack to fortify its long-standing message that PYD,YPG and PKK are terrorist groups and should be treated as such.

However, the Turkish government is not going to fundamentally change the United States' position on Syria's Kurdish groups. Washington needs reliable ground proxies in Syria to fight against the Islamic State. YPG fighters are integral to that effort, particularly those concentrated east of the Euphrates River who would be employed in an eventual operation to retake the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa. There is room for Ankara and Washington to negotiate the parameters of YPG operations west of the Euphrates to try to ease Turkey's concerns over Syrian Kurds' advances on Azaz along the Turkish border. Still, it is unclear if the United States can even effectively control the YPG's actions, especially when the Russia-backed loyalist offensive in Aleppo has handed the group an opportunity to expand its territorial claims. Increasing clashes between the YPG and rebels in the Aleppo pocket could further complicate the U.S.-Turkey relationship if their respective partners come into further confrontation. In addition, the increasing tension between the YPG and its Arab allies could damage the U.S. relationship with the YPG.

It will be important to assess to what extent Turkey will be able to leverage the Ankara bombing to promote its military plans for northern Syria. Turkey and Saudi Arabia are preparing for a coalition-led advance of ground forces into Islamic State-held territory west of the Euphrates, but they still require coordination and clearance from the United States to help mitigate potential skirmishes with Russian forces operating in the area. The United States and Russia are reportedly going to hold military talks on Feb. 19, which could open the door to negotiations that enable Washington to de-conflict the battlefield to prevent accidental armed collisions. But progress is by no means guaranteed. In return for cooperation on Syria, Russia will likely demand concessions related to Washington's support for Kiev and plans for a NATO buildup in Eastern Europe. 

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