Turkey wedding attack exploited local tensions, experts say

Relatives grieve at hospital August 20, 2016 in Gaziantep following a late night militant attack on a wedding party in southeastern Turkey. (AFP)

Less than a week after the liberation of Mambij in northern Syria, formerly an ISIS stronghold, a suicide bomber attacked a wedding in Turkey on Saturday evening, leaving at least 50 people dead.

Although no one has yet claimed official responsibility, ISIS is believed to be behind the blast as the suicide bomber is reported to be linked to the May attack by the militant group in the same city killing two Turkish policemen.

What should have been a joyous occasion was marred by an attack that killed scores and injured 94 people, the provincial governor said.

The wedding of an influential Kurdish tribe member was attended mostly by Kurds in Turkey’s southeastern city of Gaziantep that is bordering Syria.

Since the bloody attack in Istanbul Ataturk airport on June 28 that killed 42 people, ISIS attacks regained momentum in the country that is part of the international coalition against the terrorist group.

Experts interviewed by Al Arabiya News underline that the attack is the first of its kind in Turkey during a crowded wedding.

“The target population, the type of attack and the location of the blast show that it is an ISIS attack aiming to reach one of the most vulnerable ethnic and religious nerves of Turkish society,” Metin Gurcan, a security analyst and a former special-forces officer who previously worked in Kirkuk and Baghdad, said.

Gurcan, who paid a field visit two months ago to Gaziantep, says that one can witness a significant tension between the ethnically and politically conscious Kurds and the religiously conservative local people.

“Recently some ISIS militants carrying plans of such an attack were caught in the city. And local people were aware of that. So the threat should have been monitored more closely,” Gurcan said.

“As a common trend, ISIS doesn’t target countries but specific segments of the societies. Its foremost strategic target is to create a cleavage in Turkey between radical Sunnis who support it and the others who are alienated from the society, in this case Kurds.”

Vahap Coskun, a professor at Dicle University, said this attack was aimed at triggering a serious chaos in Turkey and sought to undermine the country's international image.

“This cosmopolitan city is home to about 350,000 refugees from Syria and there has been some conflicts in the past between Syrians and local people,” Coskun told Al Arabiya English.

However, Coskun said, due to the awareness of the people about the provocative nature of the attack and the statement of politicians emphasizing this aspect, the attacks is not likely to cause inflammation of societal conflict.

In fact, the EU’s High Representative and Vice-President Federica Mogherini acknowledged the city’s symbolism in relation to the war in Syria, saying: “Turkey has been dramatically targeted once again, and in a city - Gaziantep - that is a symbol of the pain caused to thousands of people from the conflict in Syria.”

In northern Syria, which is very near to the south of Gaziantep, ISIS militants are in heavy fighting with Syrian Kurdish forces, while the border town of Kobane was also released from ISIS by Kurdish forces in January 2015.

Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek, whose hometown is Gaziantep, called the attack "barbaric". Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said “we will continue our determination in fight against ISIS.”

The latest developments in the Northern Syria, and Turkey’s own domestic challenges following the failed coup attempt on July 15, are considered to be the primary factor of the attack. The recent liberation of Manbij from ISIS in northern Syria following a 10-week offensive is seen by the terrorist group as a strategic loss, that should be recovered by revenge acts.

According to media reports backed with aerial photos, following the liberation of Manbij, ISIS militants used civilians to escape the town towards the Turkish border.

How this renewed wave of terrorism in Turkey can be brought to an end is another big question.

According to Gurcan, there is a need to regain politically alienated Kurds into the society, especially considering the renewed hatred on the social media against the victimized Kurds.

“It would be a very important step if all political parties, including pro-Kurdish HDP, pay a visit to the victim families immediately tomorrow as a first step to create a common language with the Kurds,” he said.

Gulden Kap, a teacher living in Gaziantep for nine years, was very anxious for a while due to the continuous terrorism threats to the city.

“Although there is a strict police presence in the streets, I don’t prefer going to the shopping malls unless I have an urgent need. Many jihadists infiltrated in our city alongside Syrian refugees,” Kap told Al Arabiya News.

“I don’t feel myself secure and at peace especially after this atrocity,” she added.

In June, pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) asked for a parliamentary inquiry to investigate the ISIS presence in Gaziantep and to take necessary precautions. But the demand was rejected with the votes of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 12:05 - GMT 09:05
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