Turkey Pulse

Bomb scare ends century-old run of Turkish soccer match

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Article Summary
Turkey's postponement of a major soccer match reveals much about the country's failure to combat terror, and cancellations of other public events are likely to follow.

Normally a jovial people known for their sense of humor, Turks are becoming increasingly somber. The climate of violence and the government's helplessness against terrorism — which can hit the country's nerve centers at any time — have made the Turkish public so tense that many are staying home out of fear.

The avenues of Turkey’s capital are no longer bustling. The hotels in Istanbul and tourism centers are losing their customers. All the service sectors are suffering because of the climate of violence.

Adding to the prevailing depressive mood among many Turks, a major soccer competition was postponed at the last minute March 20 in Istanbul. The most recent casualty of terrorism in Turkey, the game was called off for the first time in 107 years.

Officials made the decision just one day after a suicide bomber believed to be affiliated with the Islamic State blew himself up in the center of Istanbul. The explosion killed five, including an Iranian tourist and three sightseers from Israel, and wounded 39. That attack came less than a week after a suicide mission by the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, a group allegedly affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), shed blood in the heart of Turkey’s capital, Ankara.

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President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that intelligence officials had made the dramatic decision to cancel the long-awaited soccer game. Intelligence sources informed the Turkish media that a suicide bomber, supposedly another IS affiliate, was planning to blow himself up at the end of the match, when the stands were packed, to maximize the death toll and its dramatic impact. Shortly before the game was to start, as the stands were filling up, fans were ordered to evacuate.

The Turkish authorities knew a terror attack was likely to happen and its rough timing, but not who was behind it, an indicator of Turkey’s helplessness in the face of increasing terrorist acts in its metropolitan centers. 

As Kurdish towns in the southeast are under curfew and have witnessed fighting between pro-PKK elements and government forces, the cities in the west are losing their vibrancy. Sirri Sureyya Onder, a well-known opposition deputy from the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party, put it bluntly during a March 21 speech: “The Kurds are not able to enter their domiciles, while the Turks are not able to get out of their homes.”

Most worryingly, the worst might be yet to come. The leaders of the insurgent PKK have been issuing threats for some time from their Qandil stronghold in the mountains on the Iran-Iraq frontier. They warn that when the snow melts and the weather permits them to enter Turkey from northern Iraq, they will take revenge against Turkey for destroying Kurdish towns in the southeast. They have stated openly that they will spread the armed struggle to the Kurdish countryside as well as in the urban centers. In a veiled threat, they implied that violence could reach past Ankara to the western cities.

The postponement of a major soccer game is likely to be followed by similar moves as such scares become more common. The Swedish national soccer team, apparently for security reasons, declined to bring its superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic for a friendly March 24 match against Turkey in the Mediterranean town of Antalya. As the terrorist acts continue and increase, any public event could be canceled.

But what these cancellations reflect is a lack of direction. To a country faced with terrorism on multiple fronts, a leadership that does not know what to do and resorts to simple measures such as suspending public events does not inspire much optimism that it can overcome the violence, despite the fiery statements issued by its leaders each day.

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Found in: turkey terrorism, tak, soccer, pkk, istanbul, is, football, ankara

Cengiz Candar is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. A journalist since 1976, he is the author of seven books in the Turkish language, mainly on Middle East issues, including the best-seller Mesopotamia Express: A Journey in History. Currently, he is a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at Stockholm University Institute for Turkish Studies (SUITS) and a Senior Associate Fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI). On Twitter: @cengizcandar

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