Analysis |

Istanbul Explosion Threatens Erdogan’s Political Position and Popularity

The last thing Turkey’s President Erdogan needs now, on top of an economic crisis that has caused the collapse of the Turkish lira and an inflation rate of over 85 percent, is to be viewed as having lost control of the country’s security situation, too

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Forensic experts at the scene an explosion on Istanbul’s popular pedestrian Istiklal Avenue on Sunday in Istanbul, Turkey.
Forensic experts at the scene an explosion on Istanbul’s popular pedestrian Istiklal Avenue on Sunday in Istanbul, Turkey.Credit: Ismail Coskun /AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Istiklal Avenue and Taksim Square in Istanbul have long been favorite targets for terrorist organizations that target Turkey. The former is one of the country’s busiest streets, packed with cafes, restaurants and businesses that have made it a popular tourist destination.

An attack like Sunday’s, which killed at least six people and wounded dozens, is therefore a severe blow to the country’s prestige, to a tourism industry that has been recovering quickly after almost collapsing due to the coronavirus, and to the position of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The government swiftly banned publication of any information about the attack, including photographs and videos that had already been posted on social media, “to prevent panic among the residents and enable the investigation to move forward without interference.”

Given Turkey’s lack of a free media, the government seems unlikely to provide answers to tough questions about what prior information, if any, its intelligence agencies had and, above all, how such an attack could be carried out in broad daylight on a street that Turkish intelligence has been closely monitoring for years, one where countless security cameras have been installed and dozens of police, both uniformed and plainclothes, patrol.

Turkish policemen secure the area after a strong explosion of unknown origin shook the busy shopping street of Istiklal in Istanbul on Sunday.Credit: YASIN AKGUL - AFP

The immediate suspects, as usual, are operatives from the Kurdish PKK organization and the remaining Islamic State cells still active in Turkey. But hostility toward the Turkish government isn’t limited to those two intelligence targets.

Turkey’s bloody account with Kurdish organizations has been accumulating for more than 40 years, and it has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people – civilians, police and soldiers. This is a Sisyphean war with no end in sight.

Turkish forces operate both in the country’s own southeast and in Iraq, where it bombs PKK bases. They control Turkey’s Kurdish districts with an iron fist; these districts have effectively become hostile zones, even if they haven’t officially been defined as such.

Syrian Kurds protest against Turkey and in solidarity with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), in the Kurdish-held city of Qamishli on Sunday.Credit: DELIL SOULEIMAN - AFP

The Syrian civil war that erupted in 2011 created another bloody front. Turkey has invaded part of Syria and occupied cities like Jarablus and Afrin together with large swaths of Syria’s Kurdish districts.

In the name of its war against the Kurdish movements, which Ankara defines as terrorist organizations that cooperate with the PKK, Turkey is demanding control over a stretch of land along the Syrian border that is 170 kilometers long and 30 kilometers wide. This ambition hasn’t yet been realized in full, but it has already resulted in friction and violent clashes between Turkish forces and residents of these districts.

Turkey enforces its control over parts of Syria with the help of some 40 armed militias that operate under an umbrella organization called the Syrian National Army. This offshoot of the Free Syrian Army was formed in 2017.

The latter was initially the largest military force in the popular uprising against the Assad government. But over the years, it split into dozens of militias. These benefit from Turkish support, funding and arms, but their obedience to Turkish commanders and the umbrella organization’s leadership have gradually waned.

Turkey therefore recently decided to subordinate this medley of militias to a unified, obedient and effective framework, shut down all the militias’ private operations rooms and reach an agreement with the Tahrir al-Sham organization (formerly the Nusra Front, which was affiliated with Al-Qaida).

Soldiers from the Syrian National Army near Afrin in northern Syria, last month.Credit: OMAR HAJ KADOUR - AFP

Not all of the militia commanders were willing to accept this Turkish dictate. Some even refused to attend the conference Turkey organized in early November. They are unwilling to accept the authority of either the Turkish high command or the “temporary government” established in northern Syria under Turkish auspices.

It’s not inconceivable that this split, and opposition to Turkey’s dictates, will open a new violent front between these militias and Turkey. Similar disputes in the past have already sparked violent clashes, though these militias aren’t known to have carried out any attacks on Turkish soil.

But as long as the perpetrators of the Istanbul attack remain unknown, the possible suspects must also include discontented Syrian organizations seeking to demonstrate their power and their ability to threaten Turkey.

An aerial view of a housing complex for internally displaced Syrians built with Turkey's support, near the village of Mashhad Ruhin, north of the town of Sarmada in the Syrian rebel-held northwestern province of Idlib, on Sunday.Credit: OMAR HAJ KADOUR - AFP

Turkey, which hosts more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees, has recently begun returning thousands of them to parts of northern Syria that aren’t under the Syrian government’s control. It has even promised to build tens of thousands of homes for them.

This move has generated enormous opposition among the refugees, who fear that their lives will be at risk in Syria, and that there will be no jobs or other sources of income. In Turkey, they enjoy government stipends and public services.

Reports of violent clashes between refugees and Turks are a daily occurrence, and Turkish pundits describe the Syrian presence in Turkey as a “time bomb” that threatens the country’s economic and security. But despite these clashes, no terrorist cells are known to be based in refugee camps or among refugees living outside the camps.

The question that is now worrying Erdogan and Turkish intelligence is whether this was a lone-wolf attack, regardless of its goal or pretext, or whether the country needs to prepare for a series of attacks like those that terrified it from 2015 to 2017, when hundreds of people were killed and thousands wounded. Those attacks shaped Turkey’s strategy of moving the front against Kurdish organizations out of the country and creating a geographic security zone that would keep terrorists from getting in.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to the media during a joint news conference with Sweden's new prime minister, Ulf Kristersson, in Ankara, Turkey, last Tuesday.Credit: Burhan Ozbilici/AP

This strategy has embroiled Turkey in a diplomatic conflict with the United States and Europe. But Erdogan has responded to his critics by touting its achievements – namely, a dramatic reduction in terror attacks inside Turkey.

The latest attack serves his demands that Europe – and especially Sweden and Finland, which are awaiting Turkey’s final approval to join NATO – extradite Kurdish activists from their countries and shut down Kurdish communications and welfare centers that he claims serve as bases for terrorist activity. At the same time, it shows that even his strategy of erecting a defensive shield inside Syria can’t completely ensure Turks’ security.

This isn’t just a security issue; it also threatens Erdogan’s political position and popularity, which has plunged over the last two years despite the fact that the opposition currently lacks a serious candidate to run against him in next June’s election. The last thing he needs now, on top of an economic crisis that has caused the collapse of the Turkish lira and an inflation rate of over 85 percent, is to be viewed as having lost control of the country’s security situation as well.

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