New dimension to Turkish war with ISIS
Istanbul - With a suicide attack in the heart of Istanbul, Turkey is facing a new dimension in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), as the jihadist group is lashing out at Syria’s northern neighbour after coming under increasing pressure in its own strongholds.
“It is a war without borders,” respected columnist Murat Yetkin wrote in the Radikal news portal the day after the January 12th attack, which killed ten people, including at least eight German tourists, in Istanbul’s historic old city.
Ergun Babahan, a writer at the Ozgur Dusunce newspaper, warned the Istanbul attack was a “clear sign that the Syrian war has been brought to Turkish soil”.
The leadership in Ankara quickly blamed ISIS for the attack. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said a Syrian man set off an explosive device in the midst of a tourist group. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, using an Arabic acronym for the extremist group, said the suicide attack had been committed by a “foreign member of Daesh”.
Davutoglu also promised Turkey would find the people behind the attack and continue its fight against ISIS. News reports said Turkish security forces detained 59 suspected ISIS supporters in raids in several cities in the hours following the attack.
Critics inside and outside Turkey have long accused the government in Ankara of employing a softly-softly approach towards ISIS. Western diplomats, such as Francis Ricciardone, a former US ambassador to Ankara, have said that Turkey supported radical groups in Syria at the start of the war in 2011 in the hope that they would be a boost for Turkish plans to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The Istanbul attack near the famous Blue Mosque, known as Sultanahmet Mosque in Turkey, meant that this strategy had failed, Babahan wrote. “Those who dreamed of praying in Damascus within six months when the Syrian civil war started now are not even able to pray in peace and safety in Sultanahmet Mosque,” he wrote.
Turkey hesitated for months before joining the US-led military alliance against ISIS last summer, when it opened its airbases for use by US warplanes and drones for attacks on the group in Syria. Some even say that Turkey was hoping to use ISIS as a force to check the increasing power of Syrian Kurds, who are suspected by Ankara of planning to carve out their own state in northern Syria.
The Turkish government rejected the accusations and stressed that its country is suffering from ISIS more than others and that it regards the group as a national security threat. There have been signs recently that Ankara was shifting to a more determined position against ISIS, after the group staged several attacks on Turkish soil, killing more than 130 people in 2015.
Just one day before the Istanbul attack, the pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper reported that Turkish artillery and tanks, firing from the Turkish side of the border, had supported the advance of a rebel alliance against ISIS near Jarabulus in northern Syria. Davutoglu and Erdogan have repeatedly called for the creation of an ISIS-free buffer zone in Syria to enable refugees to return.
At the same time, Turkey has been working with the United States to make it more difficult for ISIS to move goods and fighters over the 900km Turkish border into Syria. US Secretary of State John Kerry said in November that 75% of the border had been sealed and that Washington and Ankara were cooperating to close remaining loopholes.
Turkish police have rounded up dozens of suspected ISIS supporters in an effort to destroy a network of support for the jihadist group. In late December, police arrested two Turkish citizens suspected of planning suicide attacks in Ankara in the name of ISIS on New Year’s Eve. ISIS challenged Ankara’s authority over its own territory by killing anti-ISIS Syrian journalists in Turkey.
These developments come as ISIS is under constant attack by alliance aircraft. Russian warplanes have attacked ISIS positions, although Turkey and others say the brunt of the Russian war effort in Syria is directed against non-radical foes of Assad, a close Russian ally.
With ISIS under attack from several fronts, the jihadist group was trying to hit its enemies abroad, Soner Cagaptay, director of the Washington Institute’s Turkish Research Programme, was quoted as saying by Time magazine. Killing Germans in Istanbul could increase the pressure on Chancellor Angela Merkel, under fire at home for her open-door policy towards hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who entered Germany in 2015. “By bringing the war to Istanbul, ISIS also aims to preemptively undercut Turkish-US cooperation against that group,” Cagaptay said.
More ISIS attacks in Turkey are to be expected. News reports in December, quoting intelligence sources, said the jihadist group had sent six potential suicide bombers from Syria to Turkey. Speaking after the January 12th attack, government spokesman Numan Kurtulmus said Turkish authorities had “thousands” of ISIS supporters under surveillance but that the 28-year-old Syrian who carried out the suicide attack in Istanbul had not been on that list because he only recently entered Turkey from Syria.