Islamic State Carries the War Into the Heart of Turkey

Tuesday's Istanbul attack differs from past attacks: It was motivated by nationalism, not sectarian or ethnic concerns. Turkey now finds itself hemmed in on three violent sides and one heavily weighing diplomatic front.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Members of the Istanbul Medical Chamber place carnations near the blast site at Sultanahmet square in Istanbul, Turkey, January 12, 2016.
Members of the Istanbul Medical Chamber place carnations near the blast site at Sultanahmet square in Istanbul, Turkey, January 12, 2016.Credit: Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Sultanamet Square and its surroundings are one of the most popular tourist magnets in Istanbul. A short distance sway is the ancient covered market, the magnificent Blue Mosque and hundreds of shops and restaurants normally packed with tourists from all over the world. Numerous police patrols both open and undercover also make it one of the most highly secured places in the country.

In previous attacks in other parts of the country, one in Soroc and the other at the central bus station in Ankara, in which a total of over 100 people were killed and the target was mainly groups of Turkish Kurds and human rights activists, the attackers were motivated by sectarian or ethnic concerns. But in Tuesday's killing of at least 10 people in Sultanamet Square, the suicide bomber, identified by the government as an Islamic State activist from Syria, was motivated by extreme nationalism.

Thus we may conclude that ISIS has a new strategy toward Turkey. A controlled attack against a specific target like the Kurds aims to upset the already fragile ties between the Kurds and the government, and to plant suspicions of government provocation, as happened in the two previous attacks. Those assaults could also be seen as revenge against the Kurds working against ISIS in Syria. This time, though, it seems the state itself has become a target, in response to Turkey’s joining the Western coalition, attacking ISIS targets and clearing American and British fighter planes en route to hitting ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

Turkey was justifiably afraid of this in the 18 months when it refrained from actually joining the Western coalition, and only after heavy pressure agreed to allow Western coalition forces to operate in its territory. Turkey had for months allowed ISIS members and volunteers from abroad to cross its territory into Syria. When it joined the coalition, it began to work against ISIS, alongside the bloody war it is waging against the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) and against Kurdish rebels in Syria.

Turkey has now imposed closures and curfews on cities and villages in the southeastern part of the country and has arrested hundreds of Kurdish citizens and killed more than 500 activists and civilians. At the same time, the Turkish authorities have arrested dozens of suspected ISIS members, uncovered cells and weapons caches and intercepted ISIS communications in Turkey.

The decision to act against ISIS, which came infuriatingly late, puts Turkey on a dangerous front line because of its border with Syria, a border that is still not sealed against crossings by armed militants. Thus Turkey finds itself hemmed in on three violent sides and one heavily weighing diplomatic front. The war against internal terror is not new. But so far it has been defined as a war against PKK, the goal being to prevent Kurdish territorial contiguity on the Syrian side of the border that could develop into an independent region and influence Kurdish national aspirations in Turkey.

The fight against ISIS expands the borders of internal fighting that threatens every city and population center in the country. This war must now take into consideration the potential that ISIS has to enlist activists from among the more than 2 million refugees from Syria now in Turkey. Some are under the watchful eye of the authorities in refugee camps, but many live in the cities, in rented apartments and in harsh conditions without work permits, and thus are easy prey for ISIS activists seeking to conscript them. The authorities have trouble keeping track of every Syrian citizen not living in the camps and conducting interrogations at crossing points, most if not all controlled on the Syrian side by rebel groups.

Beyond the military campaign, Turkey is also enmeshed in diplomatic complications due to its decision to join the Sunni Muslim coalition established by Saudi King Salman. Tension with Iran on Turkey’s eastern border could also have military implications if Iran becomes a convenient crossing point for Kurdish activists, and Turkey has to stretch its troops on that border as well.

Turkey has joined countries, among them Israel, Egypt, France and Belgium, where lone attackers can undermine not only civilian security but also the economy. Tourists are already canceling hotel reservations, following a year in which tourism had been suffering mainly from the loss of visitors from Russia. These economic threats could push Turkey into changing its foreign policy strategy and attempting to renew ties with Egypt, restore relations with Israel and find alternatives to the Russian market.

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