The War of All Against Turkey

Misguided policy has put Ankara in the unenviable position of being hated by all the actors in Syria.

By Soner Cagaptay
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The scene after a suicide bombing in Istanbul Saturday.

The scene after a suicide bombing in Istanbul Saturday. Photo: BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
 

Five of the six worst terror attacks in Turkey’s history have taken place in the past three years.

These attacks, which together have killed at least 250 people and wounded more than 800, are all the fallout of the war in Syria. It’s now not a question of if but when terror will strike again.

Indeed, on Saturday Islamic State bombed Istanbul, killing four people and wounding another 36.

Ankara’s Syria policy is so poorly conceived that Turkey is hated by all the major actors in the conflict, from the Assad regime and Russia to Islamic State (ISIS), the Kurdish Party for Democratic Unity (PYD) and the PYD’s Turkish affiliate, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Fighting four enemies simultaneously could bring Turkey to ruin.

The Assad regime, which Ankara has tried in vain to oust since 2011, has already been connected to the Reyhanli bombing in May 2013 that killed 52 people. That attack was carried out by Turks with links to Assad’s intelligence units.

Russia, meanwhile, upset with Turkey’s policy toward Assad and livid that one of its military planes was shot down by a Turkish jet fighter in November, threw its strength behind the PYD to defeat Ankara-backed, anti-Assad rebels in Syria. In return, Turkey has shelled PYD positions. Yet the PYD continues to hold large swaths of territory in northern Syria, including Rojava, which enrages Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Since the collapse of peace talks with the Ankara government last summer, the PKK has launched a number of attacks inside Turkey, including the Feb. 17 bombing in Ankara that killed 30 people. The Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), an offshoot of the PKK, claimed responsibility for that bombing.

The government has responded by going after PKK strongholds in cities in southeastern Turkey, shutting down entire neighborhoods for weeks in the hopes of crushing the PKK’s base.

Ankara’s war with the PKK is a retaliatory battle that will only escalate. Every time the government targets the PKK, the group hits a target in western Turkey, as they did with the most recent bombing in Ankara.

Yet the PKK isn’t even the biggest of Turkey’s concerns. Ankara must also contend with Islamic State. After Turkey agreed in October 2014 to cooperate with the U.S. against Islamic State, the group hit Turkey in three major attacks. Before this weekend’s bombing, there was the October 2015 attack in Ankara that killed 102. On Jan. 12 there was another attack in Istanbul that killed 13 German tourists.

With five terror attacks in the past five months, the signs suggest that fighting so many enemies simultaneously has brought this terror tsunami upon Turkey: the PKK now, Islamic State next, Assad after that, and so on. Meanwhile, Russia lurks in the background supporting the PYD, perhaps even the PKK.

When it comes to handling instability, Turkey survived a near civil war in the 1970s and a full-blown, Iran- and Syria-supported PKK insurgency in the 1990s. Yet this time things are different. The country isn’t ready to face a persistent wave of terror attacks. It is already deeply divided over Mr. Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government.

This polarization trumps even the terror threat, as each side blames the other after every bombing. Turkey is torn, with the pro- and anti-AKP blocks hating each other even more than they fear terror. Each new attack drives a wedge deeper into Turkish society.

Islamic State could take advantage of this polarization, deepening Turkey’s schism to distract Ankara from the fighting in Syria. Russia, too, would exploit Turkey’s divisions to undermine Mr. Erdogan.

Following November’s shooting down of the Russian aircraft, President Vladimir Putin criticized Mr. Erdogan personally. He thus curried favor with the anti-Erdogan Turks, at least some of whom will embrace Mr. Putin as their savior from Mr. Erdogan.

Given Mr. Erdogan’s authoritarian agenda to revise his country’s constitution and become an executive president, a deeply polarized Turkey overwhelmed by terror attacks and exposed to manipulation by Mr. Putin and Islamic State will only crumble. The Turkish leader himself further fuels the divide, demonizing and violently cracking down on groups that won’t vote for him. These include leftists, secularists, social democrats, liberals, Alevis, Kurds, Jews, Armenians and moderates. It’s a strategy that allows Mr. Erdogan to build a winning right-wing coalition at the expense of national unity.

What Turkey needs is a unifying politician to help the country survive the terror tsunami and avoid descending further into chaos. Mr. Erdogan could be that man, if only he could resist the temptation to crown himself executive president. Otherwise, he may go down in history as the leader who broke Turkey while trying to become a king.


Mr. Cagaptay is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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