ISIS Is at War With Its ‘Other’ — Turkey’s Secular Democracy
Behlül Özkan, Assistant professor at Marmara University; Author
PICTURE: Erdogan attends the opening ceremony of Fethiye Hasan Gumusdag Mosque in Istanbul on July 1. (Onur Coban/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ISTANBUL — Tuesday’s triple suicide bombing on Ataturk airport, which killed at least 44 people, now stands as a monument to the gravest national security crisis in the history of Turkey.
With about 61 million passengers a year, Ataturk airport is the third busiest in Europe, exceeded only by London’s Heathrow and Paris’s Charles de Gaulle. Over the past three years, thousands of international jihadis have traveled down the “
Jihadist Highway” through Turkey to join the array of radical groups fighting for supremacy in war-torn Syria — especially the so-called Islamic State and the Nusra Front (al Qaeda’s Syrian branch). For many of them, that journey has included
traveling through Istanbul or Ankara airports. Turkish and U.S. officials agree the massacre was likely the work of ISIS, though the group has not claimed responsibility as they have in other bombings.
Until recently, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was able to pursue two contradictory policies: first, safeguarding Turkey’s $35 billion tourism revenue, which is the backbone of the country’s economy, and second, maintaining his influence over
Syria by controlling part of the flow of Syria-bound jihadis and weapons. All this changed over the past year, in which about 290 people have lost their lives in 15 major bomb attacks carried out at times by ISIS and at times by Kurdish militant groups.
Since January, ISIS has begun to attack tourist areas in Istanbul, harming tourism in Turkey and potentially triggering a serious economic crisis.
At present, Turkey is extremely isolated in its foreign policy. Having aspired to become the de facto leader of the Middle East after the Arab Uprisings of 2011, Erdogan ended up at odds with nearly every regional player: Egypt, Israel, Syria, Iraq,
Libya and Russia. A few years ago, this might have been termed “precious loneliness;“ at present, Turkey’s geopolitical loneliness is no longer sustainable. That much was clear from the forced resignation last month of Ahmet Davutoglu, the former
prime minister and the chief architect of Turkey’s disastrous Middle Eastern adventure. Davutoglu’s post was filled by Binali Yildirim, who signaled this shift in Turkey’s foreign policy with the words, “We will increase the number of our friends
and reduce the number of our enemies.”
This week, Ankara has done a complete U-turn in its stance towards Israel and Russia. Ties with Israel — which were nearly severed following its raid on a Turkish ship in 2010 — have been normalized after Israel agreed to apologize for the raid and
pay compensation to the families of the victims. Turkey, in turn, dropped its demand that Israel lift the embargo on Gaza.
In November 2015, Turkey did something that no NATO country had done since the Korean War: it shot down a Russian fighter jet that crossed into its air space from Syria. Turkey suffered greatly from the resulting sanctions imposed by Moscow, eventually
compelling Erdogan to apologize to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Yet it is difficult to foresee any long-term improvement in Turkish-Russian relations as long as Turkey continues to support the jihadis in Syria who are intent on overthrowing Russia’
s ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad.
While Turkey may be taking steps to “increase the number of its friends,” there is one group that remains its implacable enemy: ISIS. At first, Turkey avoided serious confrontation with ISIS as the latter acquired large amounts of territory in Iraq
and Syria in 2014. Ankara regarded the group as the “enemy of my enemies,” given that ISIS was fighting against three forces opposed by Turkey: the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (known as the PKK)’s Syrian branch, the PYD; the Shiite government in
Baghdad; and Assad’s regime in Damascus. During this period, Turkey turned a blind eye to the passage of thousands of militants through its territory on their way to join ISIS and permitted wounded ISIS fighters to be treated in Turkish hospitals.
When clashes re-ignited between Turkey and the PKK in 2015, ISIS began targeting Turkey’s pro-Kurdish political party, the HDP, in its attacks. In October, ISIS carried out the bloodiest act of terrorism in Turkish history, killing more than 100 people
at a gathering of Kurds and leftists in Ankara. Through such carnage, ISIS has hoped to increase its popular support by triggering Turkey’s main fault lines: Kurds versus Turks, secularists versus Islamists.
Erdogan’s party, the ruling Justice and Development Party (known as the AKP), was careful not to portray ISIS - which made appeals to the Islamist AKP’s own base — as its main enemy. Instead, it assigned at least part of the blame for ISIS’s
attacks to the PKK and other radical leftist groups. According to figures provided by Turkey’s Police Intelligence Department, more than 3,000 individuals from Turkey are on record as having joined ISIS, while the number of Salafis in Turkey is 20,000
ISIS’s attack on Ataturk airport was unprecedented in several ways. Rather than targeting Kurds, leftists or tourists, this latest atrocity targeted people from all walks of life in Turkey. Having recently lost territory in Iraq and Syria, ISIS is
becoming increasingly desperate. The group has long been firing rockets onto Turkish border towns in retaliation for Turkey’s support for rival jihadi groups like the Nusra Front. But this new large-scale, highly coordinated attack shows ISIS to be a
deadly menace to all of Turkey. It may strike again at tourist hubs or places of worship belonging to other religious groups and sects, attempting to destroy Turkey’s already unstable social equilibrium.
Turkey’s back is against the wall when it comes to fighting ISIS. Over the past two years, Erdogan has dismissed hundreds of police and intelligence officers, whom he accuses of plotting a coup against him. Moreover, there is a serious lack of public
trust in Turkey’s police and intelligence forces, which, for the most part, have been put to work against Erdogan’s opponents rather than ISIS members.
Equally damning is Erdogan’s backing of the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front against ISIS. Just last week, Erdogan criticized the European Union’s failure to classify the PYD as a “terror organization,” saying, “The Nusra Front is fighting tooth-
and-nail against ISIS: why do you call it a ‘terror organization’?” (The Nusra Front’s parent organization, al Qaeda, murdered 59 people in its 2003 bombings in Istanbul, to say nothing of the attacks of September 11, 2001.)
It has long been clear that Turkey’s Syria policy has come back to haunt it. ISIS is attacking Kurds, secular groups and leftists and using sectarian discourse. Its aim is to destroy the secular republic, which is the “other” to its caliphate. The
only possible remedy is to revitalize Turkey’s secular democracy; instead, Erdogan is intent on dismantling it and setting up an authoritarian, Islamist, one-man regime. ISIS’s attack on the Ataturk airport, named after the founder of the secular
Turkish republic, occurred on the second anniversary of its own self-proclaimed caliphate. In declaring war on Turkish modernity, the benighted medieval ISIS has made it clear what is at stake. It is doubtful whether Erdogan can prevail in such a
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