Relatives mourn for Korkmaz Tedik, who was killed during the bomb attack in Ankara.
TUMAY BERKIN, ZUMA PRESS/TNS
The horrific suicide bombings that killed 95 people at a peace rally in the Turkish capital on Saturday showcase a growing crisis for a crucial U.S. ally in a region that's on fire over conflicts that have proven too divisive and complex to resolve.
The United States has long looked toward Turkey as a rock in a storm because of its strategic location — bridging Europe and Asia and sharing borders with Syria and Iraq. In Syria, civil war rages into its fifth year, and the rampaging Islamic State has seized large portions of both Syria and Iraq. Not far beyond Turkey's borders, new violence spreads among West Bank and Gaza Palestinians.
Here are four questions about the complicated rifts revealed by Saturday's explosions outside a train station in Ankara and what's at stake for the United States:
Who would carry out such an attack and for what reason?
No one has claimed responsibility, but there are no shortage of suspects. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu quickly said it was either Kurdish separatist rebels or Islamic State militants, both recent targets of Turkish military strikes. Leaders of the largely Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party or HDP — which rocked Turkey in June by capturing enough votes to gain a bloc of seats in the parliament — are deeply suspicious of the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for failing to prevent the massacre.
Even the Syrian government would have a motive for destabilizing a neighboring giant that has called for the removal of Syrian President Bashar Assad. "The Turks have threats coming at them from multiple directions at a level of political complexity that even those of us who spend an inordinate time ... looking at Turkey have a hard time with," said Steven Cook, an expert on Turkish politics at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Why is the Turkish government a target of suspicion in the wake of the blasts?
Erdogan has for four years worked to consolidate power, suppress political freedoms and transform Turkey from a secular to an Islamic nation. With a parliamentary supermajority he could push through necessary constitutional changes. But those plans were dashed by the June election results, which failed to give Erdogan the mandate he sought. Instead, the results showed the Kurds a peaceful avenue of influence through democratic rather than violent means.
Machinations by Erdogan has produced a second round of voting on Nov. 1, a sort of do-over, Cook said. But surveys show the Kurdish HDP party will likely repeat its gains in June, and Erdogan's opposition fears a campaign of intimidation by the government in response. Journalists and academics have been jailed. The bombs exploded against this backdrop of suspicion and fear. Meanwhile, Turks are growing increasingly impatient with Erdogan's political maneuvering. "The country cannot be holding elections until Erdogan sees an outcome he likes," said Oguzhan Ozbas, an associate professor of business and expert on Turkey at the University of Southern California.
What's at stake for Turkey in the short term?
There's fear of growing instability in a nation of 80 million that is a member of NATO. If the government holds Kurdish rebels responsible for the bombings and the HDP is routed at the polls Nov. 1, it "would send a message predominantly to Kurds: You have played by the rules ... (but) you are not actually welcome to play politics," Cook said. Analysts worry that if Erdogan sees himself once again likely to be denied a supermajority at the polls, he will postpone the elections or even suspend the constitution — steps further polarizing the nation.
Meanwhile, Kurdish successes against the Islamic State on Syrian and Iraqi battlefields, while one of the few bright lights for the U.S. goal of defeating the extremist group, are heightening fears among Turkish nationalists of growing Kurdish power to carve out an independent state from parts of Turkey, Syria and Iraq.
Why is Turkey so important to the U.S.?
Turkey has struggled to control its borders with Syria, allowing jihadist recruits from Western countries a pathway to join the Islamic State and, in turn, providing the terrorists a way to the West potentially to the United States. Turkey has also been hit hard by one of the largest refugee movements since World War II, as more 2.2 million fleeing Syria and other conflicts enter the country on their way northward to Europe.
The U.S. has a direct interest in seeing stability for its ally, but it also has a traditional desire to see rights of peaceful protesters safeguarded. "I think in this case, our strategic interests in the region ... and our commitment to democracy are probably on a head-on collision course," said Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, an associate professor of political science and an expert on Turkish politics at Northwestern University. "I think it's probably going to get darker (for Turkey), before it gets lighter."