The violence in Turkey has subsided but at a huge cost
To the casual observer, the strife that rocked Turkey in 2016 may appear to have calmed. Gone are the regular headlines relaying terrorist attacks and political convulsions.
Despite the jailing of thousands of suspected Islamic State (ISIS) extremists and hundreds of Kurdish separatists over the past 18 months, Turkey is struggling to shake off the spectre of unrest. The threat of violence bubbles under the surface.
The arrest of nine left-wing Turkish extremists in Athens on charges of plotting to assassinate President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reveals that, while terror attacks have waned, threats remain.
Istanbul had a near miss in December when a mini-bus carrying 60 kilograms of explosives was found in the city. Turkish media reports said the failed attack, blamed on Kurdistan Workers’ Party insurgents, was to target world leaders attending the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation summit.
In the year since the Reina nightclub massacre, ISIS suspects are rounded up on an almost weekly basis across Turkey. While New Year’s Eve passed without incident, countless public celebrations were cancelled due to the heightened threat level.
These near misses show that a fall in actual terror attacks can’t be interpreted to mean the dangers have disappeared. These groups’ individual ability to conduct attacks has been curbed, including by a wall that runs for hundreds of kilometres along the Syrian border. It has played a role in stopping ISIS militants from entering Turkey.
If there is a single reason for the reduction in attacks, however, it is the state of emergency enacted following the botched 2016 coup attempt. Under the state of emergency, tens of thousands of anti-government suspects, many of them innocent, were imprisoned. Journalists and academics fled the country, were detained or silenced.
The state of emergency exacted a massive cost. Turkey’s most competent civil servants have been replaced with Justice and Development Party (AKP) lackeys with little experience or knowledge of how to run a country of 78 million people.
“In order to refill the ranks of the security agencies, Ankara has lowered the basic educational standards for police recruitment,” Ryan Gingeras wrote in Foreign Affairs. “New police have been sworn in without adequate training or vetting, casting doubt on the competency and professionalism of officers assigned to KOM (the anti-smuggling and crime department) and the Turkish National Police.”
Turkey’s parliament is a powerless, empty vessel.
A state of emergency suspends most elements of day-to-day governance in a nominally functioning democracy and there is little sign Erdogan is about to give up his power. “The most important feature of the state of emergency,” he proclaimed last August, “is to defeat terrorist organisations and bury them.”
With Turkey embroiled in a conflict with Kurdish separatists for decades and in battles with the deep state for even longer, the signs are not good.
Does this slide into authoritarianism sound familiar? It should. Syria was once lauded for being the “safest” country in the region, in large part because it was one of the most efficient and brutal police states in the world. Turkey’s spiral towards dictatorship is seeing its state institutions crumbling the way Syria’s did in the 1970s and 1980s: A hollowed-out media that reflect only a pro-government line? Check. Random police detentions and home arrests? Check. A thoroughly politicised judiciary? Check. A toothless parliament? You get the point.
If the price of an improved security climate in the short term means more arrests and ever greater power in the AKP’s hands, many Turks will be willing to pay up. Without doubt, better security in the past 18 months is something many people are thankful for.
However, the choice did not have to be so stark. Erdogan could have given a democratic voice to millions of conservative Turks who had been repressed for decades and allowed the country’s independent institutions to function properly. Instead, we’re looking at Syria Mark II. We know how that ended.