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Bombing in Turkey: Another chapter in the Kurdish conflict?

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Murad Sezer/Reuters

(Read caption) Police secure the area following a suicide bombing in a major shopping and tourist district in central Istanbul March 19, 2016.

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A suicide bomber rocked central Istanbul Saturday, killing himself and four others in a shopping and tourism district, as well as wounding at least 36.

The attack is the latest in a wave of bombings plaguing the nation, reportedly carried out both by Kurdish militants and Islamic State, with neither so far claiming responsibility for the latest.

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Turkey finds itself in an increasingly precarious position, its peace being torn apart largely by the conflict between government forces and the Kurds, but also with the threat from Islamic State, its housing of millions of Syrian refugees, and the repression of dissent.

“This surge of terrorist violence in Turkey has no recent precedent,” notes The Economist.

A suicide car bombing killed 37 last Sunday in the capital Ankara, and another took the lives of 30 four weeks earlier, both claimed by a Kurdish splinter group. Islamic State suicide bombers in October were blamed for killing more than 100 at a rally in the same city.

Turkey responded to last Sunday's attack with airstrikes the next day on Kurdish military positions in northern Iraq and by rounding up dozens of militants across Turkey.

The conflict between government forces and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has raged for three decades, killing 40,000 people, and a struggling peace process broke down in July 2015, and hasn't recovered. 

While these latest bombings appear to have been conducted by offshoots of the PKK, the change in tactics they represent - a willingness to target civilians - is likely to tar the entire organization.

“Its decision to abandon that policy [of avoiding civilian targets] would do major damage to both the legitimate Kurdish struggle for new rights and autonomy, of which the PKK claims to be the sole spokesperson, and its role in the international coalition against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria,” continues The Economist.

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The international dimension is complicated.

The United States supports the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, as an ally in the fight against Islamic State, but it also values the Turkish government’s contribution to that same conflict.

Meanwhile, the European Union is desperate to see the implementation of a migrant deal reached with Turkey only on Friday, something for which it has already paid a heavy price.

Taken together, this leaves both the United States and the European Union reluctant to voice too much disapproval, despite the “Turkish government’s onslaught on Kurdish towns and neighbourhoods, which… is putting the lives of up to 200,000 people at risk and amounts to collective punishment,” according to Amnesty International.

But the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) refuses to shoulder any of the blame, seeking instead to simply stifle dissent, writes Firat Demir, an economist at the University of Oklahoma, in Foreign Policy.

The party’s unwillingness to complete the peace and disarmament process with the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), its suppression of individual liberties, press freedom, and freedom of speech, its contempt for parliamentary democracy and its embrace of authoritarian rule, its determination to polarize society, its disregard for the law, its dismissal of every criticism as treason, its reckless support of extremists in Syria — all of this has contributed to the dismal state of the country today.

Is there a credible path out of this conflict?

Each side is claiming that the other is alienating the population: the government points to the PKK’s increasingly urban warfare, while the Kurds highlight the authorities’ use of heavy weapons in towns and cities across the south-east of the country, the area with the greatest concentration of Kurds.

Yet neither side is winning many hearts and minds, as the destruction escalates and more lives are lost, both through the government’s crackdown and the Kurdish bombings.

“The only way toward a durable solution is peace talks with the PKK accompanied, on a separate track, by ensuring further democratic rights for Turkey’s Kurdish population, including full mother tongue education, further decentralisation, a lower electoral threshold for parties to enter parliament and an ethnically neutral constitution,” writes the International Crisis Group.