By Patricia H. Kushlis
On February 1, Ecevit Sanli, a Turkish suicide bomber, blew
himself up at the entry to the US Embassy compound in Ankara. He also murdered a Turkish guard and wounded
several other people who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Sanli
turned out to belong to a far left Turkish organization – called the
Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front – which first appeared in the
1970s when left and right political extremes engaged one another in pitched
gun-battles on city streets.
time, Turkey’s parliamentary government was weakening by the day until
September 1980 when the country's generals stepped in and stopped the violence that was
wreaking havoc on the population. Life
for normal citizens had been difficult enough during the preceding years so
that most welcomed a return to stability imposed by the country’s historically
well respected military: gas lines had extended
for blocks – even coffee was in short supply – the internecine violence
designed to destabilize the regime had just worsened the already bad situation.
Locally grown produce was the mainstay sold in the markets. The Turkish lira had become worthless in the
international marketplace as a result of the political instability, domestic
unrest and weak economy.
That this small illegal terrorist organization had gone
through several reincarnations and name changes since its beginnings in the
1970s and Sanli had previously served time in jail for committing acts of
terrorism makes one wonder about its reappearance. This was not a half-crazed man operating
alone. Nor was Sanli an Islamic
militant. Far from it. The group had introduced
suicide bombers to its repertoire about ten years ago. So what were Sanli’s
motives, what was the purpose of the attack and who was the instigator lurking in
From the scanty evidence thus far, it’s pretty clear that Sanli
was dispatched on his last mission by someone looking to publicize a cause, to
embarrass or frighten the Turkish government or the US – a NATO ally which had
recently brought Patriot antimissile systems into country’s south to help
protect the Turks and the Syrian refugees flowing across the border from the
civil war raging next door.
Or could the bombing have been to register negative reaction
to the Turkish government’s recent arrests of nearly 100 people accused of
having ties to the outlawed Revolutionary People’s Liberation Front and in
protest of the government’s harsh anti-terrorism laws? What kind of message was attached to this
human detonator? Was the reason for his
actions purely home grown – or not?
Conspiracy theories and spy stories
Speculation, of course, covers the gamut. Turkey is part of the Middle East where
conspiracy theories run rampant and spy stories have natural homes but the real
question is who or which country, countries or groups were behind this recent
incident and why. Terrorism of this sort
comes cheaply – particularly when the individual in question is deranged to
begin with. But what exactly does a one-off suicide of this sort represent in
the larger picture of Turkish or Middle Eastern politics in 2013?
Turkey is one of the most
politically and socially complex countries in the Levant. The successor state to the Ottoman Empire,
modern Turkey has changed much since those fractious and difficult days in the
1970s but its economic successes over the past decade paper over deep internal
rivalries that cut to the nature of the state.
Not only is the Erdogan government at war with its own
powerful military but the Ergenekon trials resulted not just in purges of the
high ranking military (one in five Turkish generals are in jail – based some
say – on questionable trials) leaving the country militarily weaker than it was.
The government has also convicted a record number of opposition journalists all
the while fighting seemingly never-ending battles with Kurdish separatists – yet
the economy does remarkably well.
Kurds make up approximately 20 percent of Turkey’s
population although the numbers are guestimates because the census counts
people by religion, not ethnicity. Most
Kurds, like Turks, are Sunni Muslim. The
Turkish government, previously a supporter of the Syria’s Alawite Assad regime,
changed course by 180 degrees over a year ago – housing thousands of its neighbors’
war refugees, advising rebel leaders, arming the fighters and publically
calling for the regime to abdicate.
The Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front (DHKP/C)
is not just a left wing organization on the US list of terrorist organizations
known for targeting American military and diplomats in years past but also an
organization with past ties to the Assads. So was Syria the instigator in Sanli’s attack
on the US Embassy in Ankara? Did Putin’s
KGB play a murky behind the scenes role or did Russia simply watch it happen
like most everyone else?
The Russian government continues to support Syria’s Bashar Assad
for prestige reasons and likely also historical ones – Russia’s ties with Bashar’s
father during the Soviet period fit well with his Ba’athist regime’s leftist lean. The Assads, themselves, are not Communists and
did not impose a Communist economic system on the country, but they represent
the military wing of the Syrian Ba’ath Party whose ideology combines Arab
nationalism, socialism, pan-Arabism and anti-imperialism.
Over the years, the
Assads have supported Syria’s minority religions as well as wealthy Damascus
merchants for practical reasons: the
Alawites are a minority Shiite sect in a Sunni Muslim majority country and even
though the Assads have ruled the country with an iron fist for decades, they
still need the support of other minorities to stay in power.
Russian Support for the Assad Regime
Putin’s current argument for Russia’s support of the Syrian
regime is that the country’s rebels have been infiltrated and are increasingly
dominated by militant, anti-western Islamic Salafists financed by Saudi Arabia
and Qatar. He likely has a point. But perhaps
had the Russians been less enthusiastic about supporting Assad during the early
days of the uprising, Salafists from elsewhere would not have moved in –
because there’s little evidence that the majority are home grown. Unfortunately, the longer the civil war
continues, the more likely the Salafists will grow.
During the 1970s, it was pretty clear that the Soviets had a
finger – or more – in left wing Turkish extremist terrorist groups – like
Devsol (the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front’s precursor). One has to wonder then whether any ties still
exist – albeit with Russian not Soviet intelligence – even though the
Communists no longer rule Russia and the Soviet Union is long gone.
So who did send Ecevit Sanli to his early grave in the name
of left-wing revolutionary anti-imperialism martyrdom? And was his death a solitary event or a sign of things to come?