After the Arab Spring started in the Middle East in 2011, Turkey was seen as an inspiration for aspiring democracies in the region. It was a democratic government that leaned towards political Islam, but did so in a seemingly moderate way, a member of NATO, a growing economic powerhouse, and an island of stability in the region.
But the recent attack on the Ataturk international airport clearly indicates that Turkey is slowly moving in the direction of becoming yet another chaotic country in the region. ISIS first began targeting people it thought were Kurds sympathizers, whom they were fighting against in Syria. Later, it turned to tourists in Turkey. Then IS attacked Turkey’s security forces. The next level was to target Turkey’s civilian population.
The latest attack at Istanbul’s Atatürk International Airport demonstrates that ISIS regards the Turkish government and people in their entirety as enemies. By hitting its airport, ISIS also struck at Turkey’s pride, damaging Istanbul’s status as a major international hub. The airport bombing was a wake-up call for Turkey that Islamic State was no longer just its neighbour’s problem. ISIS is refocusing its strategy in Turkey towards destabilizing the Turkish state.
Turkey’s ISIS problems originated from its Syria policy. For the early part of the Syrian civil war, Turkey was focused on trying to oust long-time foe President Bashar al-Assad. It offered its support to opposition groups, some of whom became increasingly radical over time.
When ISIS, the most extreme and effective of them all, showed its presence by exerting brutality rather than condemning them, Turkey’s ruling Islamic rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) kept quiet.
Turkey instead tolerated ISIS as a vector to apply indirect pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and hasten the overthrow of his regime by opposition groups supported by Turkey. ISIS also provided Turkey with a means to contain the Syrian Kurdish YPG, which Turkey views as a major threat due to its affiliation with secessionist agenda of the outlawed Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
In the early phases of the Syrian civil war, Turkish officials allowed great quantities of arms and thousands of extremist foreign fighters to pass through its border into Syria, which helped these jihadists to established deep roots and infrastructure inside Turkey. For years, Islamic State fighters in the war next door in Syria had effectively used Turkey as a rear base.
The situation began to deteriorate when Ankara made the decision to allow the US-led coalition use of its army base to conduct airstrikes against the jihadists. The penetration of Turkey by the Islamic State is a legacy of Ankara’s misguided open door policy on the Syrian border.
While Turkey classifies the Islamic State as a terrorist group, it was late to seal its borders to jihadists crossing from Turkey into Syria, focusing instead on Kurdish militants and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as the primary threats to its national security. Turkey’s border policies are no longer merely fuelling the war in Syria. They are coming back to haunt Turkey, too.
The Islamic State has well-established networks in Turkey, with clusters of people based in Istanbul, Ankara, Konya, Adana, Izmir, Şanliurfa and the Gaziantep. Many analysts now believe that some elements within Turkey’s Islamist-leaning government stomached, or even fostered, jihadist groups in Syria that tallied with their beliefs, creating a domestic environment in which IS could grow. Even intelligence experts are now saying that Turkey, like many European countries, is struggling to counter radicalization at home and to adapt to the group’s new tactics.
The capacity of jihadists in Turkey is set to grow as long as the country allows political Islam to grow unfettered.
No matter what Turkey does, it will be hard to stop the Islamic State in the short term.
The group has networks and sleeper cells inside the country. It is also aware of weaknesses within the Turkish security system. ISIL has deep roots in Turkish society and links to other jihadi hotpots around the globe.
In a country like Turkey, with a 500-mile-long (800km) border with Syria and 200 miles (320km) with Iraq, IS has easier passage and fertile ground. The Turkish government has attempted a crackdown on the jihadist outfits by tightening security along its border, raiding known cells and arresting and deporting suspected jihadists.
Many other effective measures should also be taken by the Turkish authorities to reduce the menace of the Islamic State, such as a water-tight sealing of the Syrian-Turkish border, action against other radical groups (for example, Jabhat al-Nursa and Ahrar al-Sham), or cutting off IS access to financing and funding. Moreover, the Turks should realise that the biggest beneficiary of the resumption of violence between Turkey and the PKK is ISIS, which is now Turkey’s top national threat.
The country is in a dire situation, and needs to get its act together and fight the real terrorists while holding talks with Kurds.