Global Independent Analytics
Joshua Tartakovsky
Joshua Tartakovsky

Location: USA

Specialization: Israel and the Middle East, US politics

Impressions from Istanbul: Terror shatters Istiklal Street

Istanbul is tense but it seems that more difficult days are to come. 

Merely several days after the suicide bombing in Ankara, today a suicide bomber hit again, this time in Istiklal Street, Istanbul’s busy and modern commercial and touristy area, right by Taksim metro station and Gezi Park. 5 were killed and 37 wounded. 2 Israelis were among those killed.

A visit to Istiklal Street a day prior revealed a street relatively empty in comparison to its glory days. People were going out and guitarists played in the square by the metro, but the streets were not packed as they usually are. The restaurant was nearly empty and closed early. Security was on high alert and Turks were nervous following the explosion in Ankara. By and large, it was sad to see Istanbul in this state. Near Istanbul University on Friday a policeman standing by the traffic held his gun up in the air.

Turks are generally confused these days. Erdogan is supposed to be a proud and tough leader, and the rural uneducated religıous masses feel that he made them proud again. Finally, we have a tough leader, they think. However, unlike Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, Erdogan did not develop the countries he conquered nor are the arts flourishing under his rule. Instead, he has been allying himself with the ISIL gang whose members frequently come to Istanbul, hardly a noble or sultanic thing to do, while the educated university students and liberal middle class are past the stage of concern. They are depressed and scared. Hundreds have been arrested for insulting the President.  Various newspapers have been closed and now even Hurriyet is taking a careful line, fearful of being shut down. The modern day Turkish liberals, fans of Jane Austin and Alexandre Dumas, are shocked to see the Europeans cuddle with Erdogan. They are now orphans and devoid of protection; they no longer have faith human reason will prevail over fanaticism or greed or that Europe actually stands for anything. Passing by the bookstores with pictures of film actresses from the 60s and offering the best of the classical European literature tradition, one cannot help but wonder if these shops will still find buyers for 5 years. A growing number of shopkeepers don’t speak English and many middle-class professionals who could do so left the country for the USA.

Ataturk must be rolling in his grave hearing Istanbul’s first lady praise the Harem and seeing Erdogan’s Islamization fervor.

Now terror attacks are hitting Turkish cities and talks with the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party HDP - through which Turkey has been negotiating with the militant group the Kurdistan Workers' Party -  PKK, have broken off for months. Erdogan vowed to annihilate the terrorists, but if Erdogan is so strong, why are Turkish citizens in urban areas so vulnerable?

The attack in Istanbul was widely expected both since the Kurdish holiday of Nowruz, the new year, will take place on Monday, April 21, and since a Kurdish terrorist action in response to the massacres committed by the Turkish army in Cizre and Sur was to be anticipated.  But is it possible that the Kurds did not carry out the attack?

Israel seems to be very suspicious that ISIL was behind the attack, as a group of Israeli tourists was hit. But why would ISIL target its benefactor Turkey (the latter fact one which most Turks are kept in the dark on)? And is it not possible that the Israeli group was not targeted intentionally due to being Israeli? After all, Istiklal street is a bristling area. If ISIL did carry out the attack, however, this means that the policy of supporting terrorism in Syria is starting to backfire at home.

The argument that TAK (Kurdistan Freedom Hawks) was behind the attack has more merit and seems more likely.  Following the ongoing crackdown on Kurdish civilians in the country’s southeast, Erdogan’s plans to strip HDP members of impunity and his escalating threats, the Kurds are keen on striking back and hard, seeking to resume negotiations with the Turkish government. The Ankara attack had been the first period of a long time if not a precedent when the PKK-affiliated group or PKK itself attacked civilians directly, but in light of the recent massacres of Kurds, and of the PYD’s (Kurdish Democratic Union Party) growing confidence in northern Syria, this was to be anticipated. The timing - right before Nowruz - makes it likely too. TAK is for all purposes the PKK, only that the PKK does not wish to involve itself openly.

Istiklal Street, where the attack took place,  means independence in Turkish.

However, all signs indicate that Erdogan will not negotiate but in fact will escalate the military actions in the southeast and probably will even invade North Syria at some point. After all, both the PKK and TAK train in northern Syria. For now, Erdogan did not bother to respond to the attack. Social media went down following the attack and access to it has not been restored, as of now, 12 hours later.

Istanbul is tense but it seems that more difficult days are to come. 

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