By Barbara Slavin
Turkey is accustomed to political violence.
Coups and assassinations were common in the 1970s and 80s; in the 90s, a war broke out between Kurdish separatists and government forces that devastated southeastern Turkey and led to terrorism in major Turkish cities.
But there is something particularly depressing and ominous about the spate of attacks that have hit the country in the past 18 months, including a New Year’s Eve shooting spree at an Istanbul nightclub that has been attributed to the Islamic State (ISIS), killing at least 39 people.
After the rise of the ruling Justice and Development Party in 2002, Turks lived in relative peace and prosperity for more than a decade. Now security forces are contending with multiple enemies at a time when those forces have been crippled by political purges following a failed coup attempt against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan last year.
Thousands of members of the military and intelligence establishment have been arrested or dismissed for their alleged allegiance to Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim spiritual leader who lives in self-exile in Pennsylvania and who Erdogan has blamed for the coup attempt. As a result, Turkey is having great difficulty uncovering and thwarting terrorist plots.
Just prior to the attack at the Reina nightclub came the December 19 assassination of the Russian ambassador in an art gallery in Ankara. The culprit, a 22 year-old off-duty policeman, was apparently motivated by Russia’s brutal bombardment of the Syrian city of Aleppo. The ambassador, Andrey Karlov, appears to have had no bodyguards with him, a remarkable oversight given the lack of stability in the country.
In the Reina nightclub massacre, for which ISIS has claimed responsibility, Turkish authorities have arrested more than a dozen suspects; there are reports that the shooter was a Central Asian. Terrorists from former Soviet republics and the Russian Caucasus are among the best-trained fighters for ISIS and were also linked to suicide attacks at Istanbul’s international airport last summer that killed more than 40 people.
For several years after the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Turkey was spared such horrific violence, perhaps in part because it turned a near-sighted eye to foreign fighters entering Syria through Turkey. Now Turkey is a target: pressured by the United States and Europe to close its borders to these militants, Turkey joined the anti-ISIS campaign in Syria last year.
Compounding the security crisis is a renewed war between the Turkish government and a Kurdish militant group, the PKK, which seeks more autonomy for Turkey’s large Kurdish minority. Erdogan had negotiated a truce with the group in 2013, but it unraveled two years later. Turkish forces have struck PKK camps in northern Iraq and Kurds in Syria said to be affiliated with the PKK. The PKK has retaliated with horrific violence directed primarily against Turkish military personnel, including suicide bombings on December 10 that killed at least 38 people.
Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, estimates that there have been 33 major terrorist attacks in Turkey since the summer of 2015, which have killed more than 730 people. The violence is frightening away foreign investors and tourists who have been major contributors to a Turkish economic boom and deepening divisions between religious and secular Turks who reject Erdogan’s Islamist cultural agenda.
Unfortunately, the government’s response has been to seek scapegoats, including the Barack Obama administration. After the nightclub massacre, a pro-government newspaper incredibly headlined a story on the shootings, “America is the top suspect” for the Reina attack. Other newspapers assert a grand conspiracy between Gulenists, ISIS and the Kurds, allegedly backed by the U.S.
The Erdogan regime has repeatedly blamed Washington for Kurdish violence and demanded the extradition of Gulen. On Jan. 3, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım told parliament that the incoming administration of Donald Trump should stop supplying weapons to Syrian Kurds who Turkey asserts are affiliated with the PKK. While Trump has in the past expressed admiration for Erdogan, it remains to be seen how the new U.S. president will respond to these requests.
In an era of fake news and conspiracy theories, it is becoming increasingly hard to work constructively with Turkey against mutual enemies. Despite its NATO membership, Turkey has sought closer ties to Russia in an apparent effort to convince Moscow to oppose Kurdish aspirations for self-rule in Syria. Yet Kurdish forces remain the most reliable fighters against ISIS there.
As the death toll mounts, Erdogan, who already rules as a near-dictator, is continuing a massive crackdown on political opposition and pursuing a plan to increase the powers of the presidency through a constitutional referendum. He should devote his energy instead to seeking new negotiations with the Kurds and reconciliation with Gulenists and secular parties to preserve the gains his country has made since 2002.
Turkey is a country of incredible beauty, with matchless archaeological sites and a magnificent, rich culture. For Erdogan to put his country back on a sustainable path, he needs to shorten his enemies’ list, not keep adding to it.