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.
At that 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 the shadows?
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?
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?