A short time before the mass terrorist attack on Sunday in the Turkish town of Suruc, just beyond the Syrian border, dozens of young people were sitting around tables at the Amara cultural center. They were apparently debating the best way to provide assistance for the rebuilding of the Syrian city of Kobani, which has been under Kurdish control for several years but was captured, albeit temporarily, by the Islamic State in January.
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Within moments, the center, which usually hosts delegations of volunteers, journalists and visitors seeking information on events across the border in Syria, was transformed into a scene of carnage. At least 31 people were killed and about 100 others injured, some of them critically, in an explosion that was probably carried out by a female suicide bomber, although the identity of the perpetrator is still not known.
At the same time, in Kobani, about a 10-minute drive away, another explosion occurred that killed three people.
Turkish intelligence officials believe Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, launched the Suruc attack and had two reasons for doing so: to make it clear that the battle for Kobani is not over, even though Kurdish forces have in recent months regained full control of the city (after many residents initially fled to Turkey), and also to send the Turks a violent message that it is not immune from ISIS attack.
Turkey, which the United States suspects of facilitating the passage of radical Islamist forces from Turkish territory into Syria, had enjoyed relative quiet up to now. Terrorist attacks within Turkey had been committed mostly by forces identified with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or by the Marxist movement which, for example, carried out the attack near the American embassy in Ankara in 2013. Moreover, the artillery shells that had hit Turkey occasionally over the past two years had actually come from the Syrian army rather than Syrian rebel groups or ISIS.
Nevertheless, Turkey is deemed a dangerous country for tourists, and Britain recently issued a warning in which it cautioned against travel to roughly nine Turkish provinces, in addition to Istanbul.
If up to now Turkey was concerned mainly over Kurdish terrorism, thinking it was protected from the ISIS threat, apparently due to the ease of passage it has provided to members of the violent Islamist organization – now there is a concern that Turkey is becoming an area of combat for the Islamic State. For its part, the latter could try to strike at the Saudi-Turkish coalition that has coalesced in recent months in order to fight ISIS and Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Meanwhile, ISIS is concerned that Ankara will alter its military cooperation policy with the United States and allow the U.S. Air Force to use Turkish territory for attacks on ISIS bases.
While disseminating various strategic messages, however, ISIS is also trying to "dissuade" Turkish citizens, particularly Kurds, from assisting in the reconstruction of Kobani, where ISIS suffered one of its worst defeats. That thinking probably also dictated the decision to target the cultural center in Suruc, a town with a predominantly Kurdish population, where assistance and rescue teams have been organized for refugees from Kobani.
Turkey now finds itself caught between militia battles in Syria, and is concerned about a strengthening of the Kurds there and about the prospect that the latter could set up an independent Kurdish enclave on the Syrian side of the border. At the same time Ankara fears that Turkish Kurds could drag the war against ISIS across the border into Turkey.
Indeed, the Turkish army, which is now deployed along portions of the border with Syria, could theoretically invade Syrian territory to fight ISIS and the Kurds, but it is terrorist attacks such as the one on Monday that truly underscore the problematic nature of Turkish military action in Syria.
Turkey’s hands are tied, not only militarily but also politically. With increasing numbers of reports of preparations for a new round of elections due to delays in forming a new government in Ankara, a dilemma has emerged as to whether military action in Syria would increase the popularity of the ruling Justice and Development Party or play into the hands of the Turkish opposition, which up to now has opposed involvement in Syria.