Analysis

Turkey: String of Terror Attacks May Signal War of All Against All

The perceived success of massive attacks by ISIS and Kurdish groups in Turkey could spur disenfranchised entities to join the terrorist ranks – including the lone assailants that Israel is so familiar with.

Turkish police stand guard outisde the Reina nightclub by the Bosphorus, which was attacked by a gunman, in Istanbul, Turkey, January 1, 2017.
HUSEYIN ALDEMIR/REUTERS

The string of attacks in Turkey last month and throughout the past year point to a new strategy being adopted by terror groups against soft targets. If so far one could distinguish between attacks carried out by Kurdish groups that focused primarily on military targets, as opposed to attacks by ISIS aimed at civilian targets, Turkey is now liable to find itself tied up in a war of all against all. 

There is no certainty that this division of targets will remain in effect and that additional entities won't join the terrorists’ ranks. In addition to nearly 3 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey, there are many Turkish citizens who don’t necessarily belong to any group are furious about the continuing Syrian civil war. Furthermore, political rivals like operatives in Fethullah Gulen’s organization, who have suffered a strong blow from the Turkish regime, aren’t lacking in motivation to undermine its stability. None of these movements has ever announced a defined strategy of dividing up targets among them. The nature of the past year’s attacks show that these groups pick their targets by availability and convenience, with their ideologies coming out winners no matter what the type of attack.

As of yet, no group has taken responsibility for the New Year's Eve attack in Istanbul. Trying to determine who is behind it based on the target may be misleading, especially when these groups have already studied the way the Turks respond. When an attack is attributed to the Kurdish Workers Party, the PKK, Turkey launches its troops against Kurdish enclaves in Turkey, Iraq and Syria. When the attack is attributed to ISIS, the response is attacks on ISIS bases in Syria. From here the road is short to “changing places.” An attack on the Kurds is welcome as far as ISIS is concerned, and because that organization has suffered some impressive defeats at the hands of the Kurds in Syria and Iraq, “enlisting” the Turkish army to battle the Kurds by carrying out an attack on military targets serves their purpose. Likewise, the Kurds might also attack civilian targets to bring Turkey’s wrath down on ISIS.

The problem is that so long as massive attacks are perceived as successful operations, other potential attackers may be tempted to join, including lone attackers of the kind now familiar to Israel. It is enormously difficult to obtain intelligence on such attackers, and even if there is intelligence, as evidenced by the warnings that were received before this latest attack, the security forces have difficulty operating against a sole attacker carrying an assault rifle who decides to gun down dozens of people.

Along with motivation to attack Turkey, some of the terror groups have an interest in harming Russia, which until now has enjoyed relative quiet. Apparently the ability of these organizations to operate in Russia is limited because access is more difficult. But given the military cooperation between Russia and Turkey in the Syrian conflict, and the perception of them as a single enemy, an attack on Turkey is considered an attack on the military alliance between the two countries. Thus Turkey has become a new target for anti-Russian operations, as evidenced by the assassination of the Russian ambassador in Turkey last month.

Turkey could largely neutralize at least one of the centers of terrorism if it would change its policy toward the Kurds within its territory, and resume the diplomatic talks with them that were frozen a year-and-a-half ago. Such negotiations, which the Kurds want, in addition to some gesture toward the Kurdish leadership, like releasing jailed Kurdish parliamentarians and compromises on culture issues, could at least calm the domestic struggle in Turkey. But there’s little, if any, chance of resuming reconciliation talks now, because Turkey insists that it won’t negotiate with terrorists and certainly not when Kurdish groups are carrying out terror attacks.

As a result, Turkey is trapped in a vicious cycle in which it thinks a political solution would make it look weak, which could also encourage more violence. It seems Turkey will simply take more drastic steps of the same type, which will include mass arrests and choking off the Kurdish areas along with massive bombardments of ISIS enclaves in Syria and Iraq.

A Turkish police officers stands guard on the site of an armed attack January 1, 2017 in Istanbul.
YASIN AKGUL/AFP

Another possible channel for calming the terror could be Turkey, Russia and Iran launching diplomatic negotiations between the Syrian regime and the rebel militias, which they plan to do in Astana, capital of Kazakhstan, this month. Some quiet in Syria and cooperation with the rebel militias could also at least soothe the enormous anger over Turkish and Russian operations in Syria.

Many Turks now believe that the country will turn into a war zone, which would allow Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan an even freer hand in conducting an uncompromising battle against rivals of any type. The regulatory regime will be tightened, the media will become a tool for conveying government messages, entertainment areas might be closed or subject to stringent security checks, and the economic problems will become a full-blown crisis, since planning for the summer tourist season is supposed to begin now. If last year it was Russian sanctions that emptied Turkish tourism coffers, this time it could be terror attacks, which, as in Egypt, could shut down the industry. Foreign investors might also shy away from Turkey, since a lack of security is a proven formula for reduced investments.

Rebel fighters walk near damaged buildings in al-Rai town, northern Aleppo countryside, Syria December 30, 2016.
Khalil Ashawi, Reuters