BACKGROUND: Turkey’s attitude towards the constantly shifting mosaic of Islamist extremists fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has long been characterized by confusion, shortsightedness, dissimulation and arrogant naivety. In its anxiety to facilitate al-Assad’s overthrow, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) made little attempt to stem the flow of foreign volunteers transiting Turkey to join extremist groups in Syria and, particularly until early 2015, often allowed the groups themselves to openly organize and procure equipment and supplies in areas on the Turkish side of the countries’ shared border. There is also evidence to suggest that Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT) facilitated the supply of weapons to extremist Islamist elements amongst the Syrian rebels. Most of the links were with organizations such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar ash-Sham and Islamist extremists from Syria’s Turkish-speaking Turkmen minority.
Although it is often portrayed as a cohesive, centrally controlled organization, the Islamic State is more of an alliance of different – sometimes even rival – groups under individual warlords united by ideology and a shared pledge of allegiance to the organization’s titular leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Although MİT had contacts with some of these groups, others remained hostile towards Turkey. Nevertheless, the AKP appears to have calculated that its support for the rebels fighting against Assad would protect Turkey from being targeted, whether directly or indirectly through attacks against foreign interests based in the country, such as international companies and diplomatic representatives.
Extraordinarily, in a country where access to around 80,000 websites is banned and even relatively mild criticism of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan frequently results in draconian sanctions – including prosecution and imprisonment – the authorities made no attempt to restrict the propaganda activities of extremist Islamists until late July 2015. The AKP appears to have calculated that any resultant radicalization of Turkish and Kurdish youths could be contained and would not pose a threat to the country’s security. Such confidence was made even more remarkable by what should have been the institutional memory of what happened in November 2003, when Turkish citizens who had travelled abroad and been trained in al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan in the late 1990s eventually returned to Turkey and staged four suicide bombings in Istanbul that killed 63 people.
Nor was the AKP persuaded to change its policy as evidence began to emerge that Islamist extremists active in Syria posed a threat to Turkey’s security. On May 11, 2013, two improvised explosive devices (IEDs) exploded in the border town of Reyhanlı. When rumors started to circulate that the attack had been carried out by Islamist extremists – and not, as the AKP had maintained, by forces loyal to Assad – the government imposed a news blackout on the incident. In January and February 2014, when the Turkish gendarmerie twice intercepted MIT personnel escorting trucks carrying weapons to Syria, the AKP again imposed a news blackout and the public prosecutors who had ordered the trucks to be halted were themselves imprisoned and prosecuted. On March 20, 2014, two members of the Turkish security forces were killed by alleged Islamist extremists at a checkpoint in the central Anatolian province of Niğde. Three suspects were arrested and formally indicted. The fourth hearing in their trial was held on October 7, 2015. But the authorities have repeatedly found excuses to avoid bringing the suspects to court and it is not even clear whether they are still in custody.
Ironically, far from convincing its critics that the AKP has not been actively supporting Islamist extremists, measures such as the imposition of news blackouts have had exactly the opposite effect by creating the impression that it has a lot to hide. Indeed, the government has probably inadvertently convinced many of its critics that its support for Islamist extremists has been considerably more extensive than has actually been the case.
It was only in early 2015 that the AKP finally began to realize that Islamist extremists pose a threat to Turkey’s security. Yet, even now, measures such as restrictions on foreign recruits transiting Turkey, tighter border controls and curbs on extremist propaganda outlets have primarily focused on the Islamic State rather than other organizations with a similarly radical agenda. Yet such measures have arguably been too little and come too late – not only as regards the number of Turkish citizens who have already been radicalized but also in terms of the alienation of those segments of Turkish society who feel under threat as a result, particularly Kurdish nationalists.
IMPLICATIONS: Although it has belatedly hardened its stance against the Islamic State – and even opened the airbase at İncirlik in southern Turkey for use by the U.S-led coalition targeting the organization with air strikes – the AKP regime remains reluctant for the Islamic State in Syria to be completely eradicated before the emergence of an alternative force to serve bulwark against the expansion of the de facto autonomous Kurdish enclave of Rojava in the north of the country. The Democratic Union Party (PYD), which controls Rojava, is closely affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been conducting an insurgency for greater rights for Turkey’s Kurds since 1984. The AKP is concerned that the expansion and consolidation of Rojava would both strengthen the PKK and further fuel similar aspirations amongst Turkey’s own Kurds.
Tensions have been exacerbated by the rhetoric adopted by Erdoğan. During the siege of the PYD-held border town of Kobane in late 2014 and early 2015, Erdoğan gave Kurdish nationalists the impression that he favored it falling to the Islamic State. Despite the constitutional requirement that he remain above party politics, in the run-up to the June 7, 2015 general election, Erdoğan campaigned openly for the AKP, fiercely attacking the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in the hope of pushing it below the 10 per cent threshold for representation in parliament – something which Erdoğan calculated would result in the AKP securing sufficient seats in parliament to change the country’s constitution and introduce a presidential system that would concentrate all political power in his own hands. Erdoğan’s attempts failed. The HDP won 13 per cent of the vote and the election resulted in a hung parliament. However, Kurdish nationalists believe that Erdoğan’s excoriating rhetoric was responsible for inciting the more than 150 attacks on HDP premises and meetings during the election campaign, culminating in the bombing of an HDP rally in the southeastern city of Diyarbakır on June 5, 2015, which killed four people. A Turkish national who had reportedly been trained by the Islamic State in Syria was subsequently arrested in connection with the attack.
On July 20, 2015, a suicide bombing at a meeting of young leftists and Kurdish nationalists in the town of Suruç close to the Turkish-Syrian border killed 33 people. The Turkish police later named the suicide bomber as a Turkish national who had fought for the Islamic State in Syria. Kurdish nationalists accused MİT of collusion in the bombing. Tensions rose still further when Erdoğan failed to express his condolences to the families of the dead. On July 22, 2015, PKK supporters assassinated two policemen in the southeastern town of Ceylanpınar. Turkey responded by launching a military offensive against the PKK, including hundreds of air strikes against its main bases in northern Iraq.
The October 10, 2015 rally in Ankara was organized by an alliance of mainly leftist NGOs and political parties, including the HDP, to call for an end to the fighting between the Turkish security forces and the PKK. Almost all of those who attended the rally were critics and opponents of Erdoğan and the AKP. On October 11 the Turkish police reported that the attack had been carried out by two Turkish citizens with links to the Islamic State.
However, many of the AKP’s opponents believe that Erdoğan and MİT were directly or indirectly responsible for the bombings in an attempt to intimidate the AKP’s opponents and reduce support for the HDP in the run-up to a fresh election on November 1. They note that, after Diyarbakır and Suruç, the Ankara bombing was the third fatal attack on a public meeting of leftists/Kurds in four months. There have been no similar attacks on public meetings of government supporters.
On October 12, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu announced that MİT had drawn up a list of 21 suspected suicide bombers who were preparing attacks in Turkey, 19 of them Turkish nationals and two foreigners. He then added that “in a country governed by the rule of law” it was not possible to arrest the suspects until they had committed an offense. Such an explanation is not only implausible in itself but does not explain why, unlike for pro-government rallies, there were almost no police providing security at the rally in Ankara. Nor does it explain why – particularly after what happened in Diyarbakır and Suruç – the organizers of the event were not notified of the potentially heightened security threat to the rally posed by the 21 suicide bombers.
On the morning of October 14, Davutoğlu declared that there was a “high probability” that the Islamic State and the PKK had jointly staged the attack in Ankara. Such patent dissimulation inevitably increased suspicions amongst the AKP’s opponents that the government was trying to conceal its own culpability – a perception that was hardly dissipated when, on the afternoon of October 14, the Public Prosecutor in Ankara imposed a news blackout on any media coverage of the attack.
CONCLUSIONS: In addition to the cost in human lives, the attack in Ankara has exacerbated the deepening divisions in society in Turkey between supporters and opponents of the AKP. From the perspective of many leftists, liberals and Kurdish nationalists, Erdoğan and the AKP are not only becoming more authoritarian and oppressive but are now also killing them or allowing them to be killed. Such a conclusion may be inaccurate but it is widely and increasingly believed.
Opinion polls currently suggest that the November 1 election will result in another hung parliament, which would probably lead to a coalition between the AKP and the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). Such a coalition would be unlikely to provide efficient government but it could reduce the tensions in society – or at least prevent them from becoming any worse.
The most likely alternative, namely an AKP majority, would risk severe erosion in the trust of the government’s opponents in the electoral system, which in turn could lead to widespread civil unrest. Most worrying would be if – contrary to the predictions of the opinion polls – the HDP failed to overcome the electoral threshold. If that happens there would be a high risk of a violent eruption of Kurdish nationalist anger that could plunge the country into crisis and have a devastating impact on political stability and social cohesion.
Gareth H. Jenkins is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.
Image attribution: www.ibtimes.com, accessed on Oct 16th, 2015