Turkey likely faces more terror attacks in 2017
London - The killing of 39 people at an Istanbul nightclub by an Islamic State gunman was the worst possible start to 2017, but even if the jihadists are defeated in Syria and Iraq, Turkey will still face Islamist terror attacks as well as the threat from Kurdish militants.
Since the Turkish election in June 2015, 593 civilians, 533 soldiers and 303 police have been killed in terrorist attacks in the country. Add to that pro-government Kurdish militiamen killed on operations in the south-east, plus the police, soldiers and civilians killed in the July 2016 failed coup and troops killed in Turkey’s operation in Syria and the number of dead in such violence is 1,793, Turkish media reported.
That does not include the more than 5,000 militants, most of them separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighters, who pro-government media said had been “neutralised” in about the same period.
The Islamist government re-elected in 2015 promised to boost security under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. By any measure, the government has failed in that mission.
The latest victims were 39 revellers in one of Istanbul’s most exclusive nightclubs in a fashionable district beside the Bosporus. A lone gunman shot a policeman and security guards outside before entering the Reina club and firing up to 180 bullets into the crowd barely an hour into 2017.
ISIS said a “soldier of the caliphate” carried out the attack against people it called “apostates” celebrating the new year. It said the assault was to “let infidel Turkey know that the blood of Muslims that is being shed by its air strikes and artillery shelling will turn into fire on its territories”.
It marked the first time ISIS claimed responsibility for an attack in Turkey. The first attacks blamed on ISIS in Turkey reflected the jihadists’ fight against their most dogged adversaries in Syria — the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and its political wing the Democratic Union Party (PYD) — and targeted pro-Kurdish gatherings.
However, after Ankara joined the fight against ISIS and allowed US warplanes to use its Incirlik air base to bomb ISIS targets in Syria from July 2015, the jihadists began to hit non-Kurdish targets in Turkey.
The ISIS claim of responsibility for the Istanbul attack marks a shift into open confrontation following the direct intervention of Turkish troops in Syria last August and the intensification of the Turkish siege of the ISIS-held northern Syrian town of Al Bab.
“It’s a new phase,” security analyst Michael Horowitz was quoted as saying by the Associated Press. “What we saw before was an undeclared war, and now we’re entering an open war.”
Turkey aided rebel factions fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad for five years and ignored that hard-line foreign and home-grown jihadists were crossing the Turkish border to fight in Syria. Many of them joined ISIS. There are believed to be thousands of Turkish fighters with ISIS, many of whom will return home.
The arrest of about 40,000 people, including police officers and military personnel, in connection with the botched coup last July also weakened the security services in their fight against ISIS and Kurdish separatists.
“Nothing that the government is doing is helping make Turkey more secure,” the New York Times quoted Asli Aydintasbas, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, as saying.
“The crackdown on domestic dissidents is further destabilising the country and, when it is not destabilising, it is increasing the dangerous polarisation here,” she said.
Reacting to the Istanbul attack, Erdogan lumped all his enemies together as terrorists, be they ISIS, the PKK or erstwhile Islamist allies he blames for the July coup.
“We will fight to the end as a country and a nation not only against the terrorist groups and the powers behind them, but their economic, political and social attacks as well,” Erdogan said in a statement.
Just which powers behind ISIS Erdogan was referring to was unclear. Before the attack, he accused the United States and its allies fighting ISIS of supporting the group.
“They were accusing us of supporting Daesh,” Erdogan said at a news conference December 27th, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS. “Now they’ve all vanished and they’re giving support to terrorist groups including Daesh, YPG and the PYD. It’s very clear. We have confirmed evidence, with pictures, photos and videos.”
US State Department spokesman Mark Toner called the accusation “ludicrous”.
Erdogan’s policy in Syria has undergone a series of U-turns; from holidaying with Syrian President Bashar Assad in 2008 to backing rebels trying to oust him from 2011; from rivalry with Russia and Iran over their backing for Assad to joining Moscow’s diplomatic efforts over Syria; from largely peaceful co-existence with ISIS along the Turkish border to a direct offensive against the militant group.
One constant has been Turkey’s hostility to Kurdish ambitions in Syria and Turkey.
It was only when Syrian Kurdish forces, backed by US air power, looked set to push ISIS out of its last territory adjoining the Turkish border in August that Turkey sent in troops to push back ISIS and stop the Kurds from controlling the entire length of the Syrian border.
The YPG, backed by US air power, has proved the most effective fighting force against ISIS in Syria, capturing hundreds of villages in its drive towards the jihadists’ Syrian capital, Raqqa.
Turkey insists the YPG is part of the PKK, which has fought for more than 30 years for self-rule in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish south-east.
Turkey has called on US President-elect Donald Trump to drop US support for the YPG.
“The world talks about Daesh but does not fight [against it]. It is only Turkey that fights against Daesh. The United States and others do nothing. They just supply the PYD with weapons,” Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said on January 3rd.
“What we expect from the new administration is to bring an end to this shame,” Yildirim said.
Halting US support for the YPG would remove the main arm of the American effort against ISIS in Syria. Even if Trump were to do so and ISIS were defeated in Syria and Iraq, Turkey would face the threat from thousands of returning jihadists and, if the YPG were neutralised in Syria, Turkey would still have to deal with the PKK.