Opinion

Can Turkey Cope With Its Terror Threat?

With a security apparatus critically weakened by his own post-coup purges, President Erdogan offers Turkish citizens one 'compensation': That victims should be considered martyrs.

This handout picture released on December 11, 2016 by Turkish Presidential Press Office  shows Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) talking with relatives of the victims of Istanbul terror attacks during a funeral ceremony at Istanbul Police Department headquarters in Istanbul.
KAYHAN OZER/AFP

Turkey’s security situation is at best tenuous. Its security forces are embattled, overstretched and unable to deal with Turkey’s multiple terrorism threats.

Saturday night’s double bombing of the Besiktas Vodafone soccer stadium was a brazen and audacious attack. Not only did it inflict maximum carnage, killing over 38 people of whom most were riot police, but it also hit a central Istanbul landmark, just a few minutes walk from the popular Taksim square and the country’s presidential offices.

It was timed just as the country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had arrived from Ankara to visit Istanbul and attend weekend meetings.

Fingers are being pointed at the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its offshoot the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK). It was they who claimed responsibility for February’s car bombings against a police convey in Turkey’s capital of Ankara.

These attacks which not only took the lives of 33 people, but it also directly targeted a convey of Turkish military personnel passing through the neighborhood that houses the military’s headquarters and Turkey’s parliament, the Grand National Assembly.

Four weeks later, the PKK bombed Ankara again, killing dozens more.

Indeed, since the Turkish government’s ceasefire with the PKK broke down in the summer of 2015, a real all-out war is being waged in the southeast of the country.

According to the International Crisis Group, since July 2015 the renewed fighting has claimed the lives of 2,393 people, of whom 372 were civilians, 986 PKK militants and 816 members of the security services.

However, it is not just the PKK which is at war with Turkey. In August, 51 people were killed while celebrating a wedding  in the province of Gaziantep, close to Turkey’s border with Syria. Just two months earlier, Istanbul’s Ataturk airport was hit by suicide attackers  whose onslaught left 43 dead.

In October 2015, just a few weeks before parliamentary elections, a double bombing hit a rally co-hosted by the Kurdish oriented Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). 103 civilians were left dead. In all of these cases the so-called “Islamic State” (or ISIS) was held responsible.

To put Turkey’s dire security situation into perspective, in 2015 alone there were 416 reported incidences of terrorism, and over the past 18 months there have been at least 330 fatalities from such attacks. This figure excludes Saturday night’s outrage.

Partly as a response, in August 2016 Turkey intervened in Syria, an operation it called ‘Euphrates Shield’. Its targets: the Islamic State, the PKK’s Syrian Kurdish affiliate the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and, according to President Erdogan  none other than Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad. It was only after an irked Russia sought clarification that Erdogan scratched out Assad from the target list. 

Islamic State, the PKK, Assad, and not to mention other smaller terrorist groups such as the Marxist Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front (DHKP-C) - one could be forgiven in thinking that Turkey’s security forces are overstretched.

But to make matters worse, since July of this year, Turkey has been under a state of emergency following a failed military coup allegedly organized by members of the armed forces loyal to the Pennsylvania based Islamic preacher Fetullah Gulen.

Since the failed coup, purges have taken place across Turkish society and state institutions. However, it is the military and police which are bearing the brunt of the crackdowns.

Since August, thousands within the armed forces including generals, officers and non-commissioned officers have been dismissed or arrested, as well as many thousands from the police force.

This, at a time of a heightened security threat. This compounds the doubt that the country’s security forces have the capabilities to deal with the terror threat.

The outpouring of patriotic sentiment since the failed coup, the cities and towns adorned with banner slogans declaring: “We are Turkey, we will not allow the country to be taken over by coups or terror” may have declarative value, but certainly not operative effect in fighting terror.

Many Turks nod their heads in agreement with Erdogan’s statement after Saturday’s attack that roughly translates to: “With the help of God we will overcome it, and if we die we are martyrs and if we survive we are veterans.”

These are sentiments that he and other ministers have often made after terrorist attacks. Erdogan seems to be preparing Turkish civilians for the inevitability of more attacks, and without  free public debate about whether he has overplayed his hand in the post-coup purges, weakening Turkey’s police and military capacity to prevent attacks, its civilians may be more exposed than before.

This language of martyrdom, together with the overwhelmed security forces, indicate, sadly, that more terrorist attacks like Saturday’s outrage are unavoidable in the foreseeable future.

However, the question remains: for how long will Turkish citizens have to endure them? As the father of one of Saturday’s victims, a teenage medical student, stated in Turkish, “I didn’t want my son to be a martyrtomorrow they will just leave flowers and thennothing”.   

Simon A. Waldman is the co-author of the recently published ‘The New Turkey and Its Discontents’. Follow him on Twitter: @simonwaldman1