The Ankara Embassy Bomber and Why He Matters

On the afternoon of 1 February, a middle-aged man named Ecevit Şanlı approached the side door of the United States Embassy in Ankara, Turkey and within minutes, had not only thrown a hand grenade into the building, but also detonated the TNT strapped to his body, killing himself, a security guard, and injuring a journalist.


Image courtesy of US State Department, public domain.

Image courtesy of US State Department, public domain.

The following day, the outlawed Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front (known as the Devrimci Halk Kurtuluş Partisi-Cephesi, or the DHKP-C) claimed responsibility for the bombing. Widely considered a relic of the Cold War, the group espouses a fiercely anti-U.S., anti-NATO, and anti-imperialist ideology and considers the Turkish government a pawn of U.S. imperialism. In a rambling, disjointed statement posted on a website affiliated with the group the DHKP-C praised the “self-sacrifice” of Şanlı and pointed to the Turkish Government’s “collaboration” with the United States in supporting the Syrian opposition as the impetus for its attack, adding “Down with imperialism and the collaborating oligarchy!”[1]

If that last sentence sounds as if it were lifted from a statement published in 1970s, that’s because it may as well be. According to Howard Eissentat, an expert on modern Turkey at St. Lawrence University, sourced by AP for their coverage of the story, the DHKP-C’s message isn’t just anachronistic, it’s laughable: these Marxist-Leninist terrorists are trapped in “an ideological time warp,” and concludes that actions such as the embassy bombing only have a glancing connection with the wider picture of contemporary Turkish politics.

While the ideological ramblings and actions of a marginal, ideologically extremist group such as the DHKP-C cannot be taken as an accurate temperature reading of the Turkish public’s feelings on foreign policy matters, especially ones as complicated as the Syrian uprising, the bombing is a prime example of how Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Syrian foreign policy has backfired in unexpected ways.

In a piece of foreign policy trivia often forgotten by those caught up in the fervor of the Arab Spring and its less-than-rosy outcomes, Erdoğan was initially criticized for how quickly he took up with the equally untested Bashar al-Assad when the Justice and Development Party, of which Erdoğan is leader, came to power in 2003. Erdoğan and his foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, espoused a foreign policy of “strategic depth”: turning away from Turkey’s formerly Eurocentric foreign policy goals (i.e., European Union membership), they sought to cultivate richer relationships with their eastern neighbors in order to become a key regional player in the near Middle East and the Black and Caspian Sea regions. Syria, with whom Turkey shares of border, was the most important of these new relationships.

Despite their previously glowing relationship with Assad’s Syria, Erdoğan and Davutoğlu backtracked with remarkable alacrity when the popular uprising, which began in March 2011, soured. Since then, Erdoğan has become a staunch champion of the Syrian opposition. He has even gone so far as to say that “Whatever is necessary, we must do that… Syria is as important as our domestic affairs,”[2] and accused France of being motivated by Mali’s oil resources as impetus for intervention, claiming that the reason France would not intervene in Syria was “Because there is no oil or gold in Syria. There, you only have people who are struggling for independence.”[3]

Soner Çağaptay, the director of the Turkish research program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, published a report on 29 January detailing how Turkey’s support of the Syrian opposition has served as a rallying point for the extreme left.[4] “Turkey’s radical leftist groups and other extremists have mobilized against Ankara’s cooperation with NATO and Washington during the Syria crisis,” Çağaptay wrote, pointing to Turkey’s fraught history with militant leftist groups. In the 1970s, the streets of Istanbul and other major Turkish cities were a battleground for ultranationalist and communist militants, and some of these groups, such as the DHKP-C which was founded in 1978, still exist, hanging by the skin of their teeth and their “deeply anti-American ultranationalism.” Çağaptay reported rallies against the deployment of Patriot missiles in the south of Turkey, an attack on Patriot teams arriving in the Turkish port of Iskenderun (near the Syrian border) in which the leftists fired smoke grenades at NATO soldiers and burned American flags.

By monitoring the movements of these “small but active” leftist groups, Çağaptay was able to predict what would happen: he predicted that though these groups, including the DHKP-C, are representative of a just “marginal political current,” they could have a much larger impact than predicted. For example, he cited the undue amounts of attention that Russian and Iranian media outlets have given to these incidents in order to bolster anti-NATO sentiments and “increase Ankara’s political costs for supporting the Syrian opposition.” Additionally, Çağaptay warns, this media narrative could amplify perceptions of instability and cause further unrest throughout Turkey.

As strange and borderline humorous as some analysts claim the bombing was (Eissentat in particular finds amusement in the group’s clumsy Turkish acronym and anachronistic use of hammer, sickle, and red star symbols, pointing to them as evidence of how grossly out of step with contemporary politics they are), this incident throws into sharp relief the unexpected and deadly results of Erdoğan and Davutoğlu’s Syrian policies, and should be taken as a warning.

Ankara has met the expected problems related to the civil war in Syria–the influx of refugees across Turkey’s southeastern border, public displeasure with the increasing number of Syrians in Turkish cities, and violent skirmishes on either sides of the border–with competence, if not grace or finesse. Considering the gravity, delicacy, and complexity of the Syrian uprising, this is to be applauded. However, it is unfortunate that Erdoğan has been playing fast and loose with Turkey’s hard-won stability and prosperity for the sake of regional influence that, based on his performance, it clearly isn’t ready for.

[2] Daloğlu, Tulin, “Whispers of Change in Turkey’s Syria Policy,” Al Monitor, 22 January 2013

[4] Çağaptay, Soner, “Syria’s War Affecting Turkey in Unexpected Ways,” The Washington Institute PolicyWatch202, 29 January 2013