Turkey’s Islamic State Dilemma
Turkey has an Islamic State dilemma and, over the course of the past week, it has been getting worse. On Monday, July 20th, a suicide bomber blew himself up during a rally of the Socialist Party of the Oppressed Youth Wing in the southern Turkey town of Suruç, killing 32 and injuring hundreds others. The activists targeted were mainly university students who had been planning to travel to Syria to help rebuild the town of Kobane. The suicide bombing, one of the deadliest attacks in Turkey in recent years, has been attributed to the Islamic State. This attribution of responsibility is more significant than it may first appear: the usual reaction of Turkish officials to such attacks has been to blame them on agents of the Syrian government, however unlikely that might be. Indeed, prior to the latest bombing, three Turkish journalists had asked the local provincial governor if Islamic State militants had crossed from Syria into Turkey and had been promptly jailed for their pains. The Suruç bomber, a 20-year-old Turkish student, had reportedly had links to the militant organization, and the Islamic State had allegedly taken the decision to pursue more active operations in Turkey just days before the attack. This was the first attack by the Islamic State on Turkish soil.
The reaction to the suicide bombing has been strong, not only on social media but on the streets. In over 10 cities, protests have been held by thousands of people, with many chanting claims that the government has not been doing enough to combat the Islamic State. Still, the government was quick to condemn the attack and point the finger at the Islam State, and operations have recently been held in several cities across Turkey against Islamic State recruiters and would-be jihadists. Just a week ago, 30 people were detained. Yet some argued that such operations and the increasing military presence along the Syrian border could have led the Islamic State to change tactics and stage attacks within Turkish territory. Attacking university students hoping to help rebuild war-stricken Kobane may have been an attempt to create a further sense of terror inside Turkey.
Two Turkish police officers were then found shot dead on Wednesday in the town of Ceylanpinar, which is in the same province of Suruç and close to the Syrian border. The military wing of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) claimed responsibility for the attack, calling it a revenge operation against “policemen collaborating with Daesh.” The killing was an ominous development, coming two years into a supposed truce between the Kurdish militants and the Turkish security forces. The suicide bombing in Suruç has clearly aggravated tensions, leading to angry demonstrations and clashes between pro-Kurdish protestors and riot police. The murder of the police officers has been seen by some as revenge for the Suruç bombing, and will either way only add to the growing tension in southern Turkey.
Some opposition figures in Turkish politics say that the government’s main concern is not the Islamic State threat, but the threat posed by the increasingly powerful Kurdish presence in the north of Syria. Indeed, pro-government papers have recently come out with headlines suggesting that the Kurdish militias in Syria were more dangerous than the Islamic State. The long-standing conflict between the Turkish government and Turkey’s Kurdish population has confused the situation in northern Syria and southern Turkey, where some Kurdish militias combat the Islamic State but also oppose Turkey; Ankara has watched with much concern as Kurdish groups have come to control some 250 miles of the Syrian side of Turkey’s southern border. As such, the spill-over effect of the Islamic State’s attack in Suruç will surely only serve to aggravate the Kurdish-Turkish issue at a time when Turkey’s security situation is already increasingly under threat.
Meanwhile, on Thursday, gunfire from across the Turkish border with Syria killed a Turkish non-commissioned officer and wounded two sergeants in the southern Kilis province. According to official sources, a pickup truck carrying 10 heavily armed Islamic State fighters opened fire on Turkish troops stationed at a mountain border outpost. In response, Turkish forces responded by targeting positions across the border, killing at least one Islamic State militant and capturing another. In the meantime, security forces maintained fire on Islamic State positions in Azaz town in northwestern Syria, and armored vehicles were reportedly sent to the border region.
Clearly, the situation in southern Turkey is growing increasingly tense. Many fear that the attack in Suruç could be a turning point for Turkey, a sign that the Syrian war is spilling over the border. Of course, many others argue that it already has. In a move to lessen fears and increase border security, Turkey has announced plans to construct a major wall along its southern border. Few would doubt that the ability to move backwards and forwards across long Syrian-Turkish border has been crucial for the growth of Islamist movements in Syria since 2011. Thousands of the foreign volunteers who have flooded into Syria have almost all come from Turkey. Even those unable to speak Turkish or Arabic have had little difficulty in making their way across. Of course, Turkish leaders furiously deny this, saying it is impossible to police such a long border. At any rate, the modular wall will include reinforced wire, floodlights, and extra ditches, and will better secure at least 560 miles of border. Already, roughly half of Turkey’s 40,000 border guards are now deployed along the border with Syria. Meanwhile, President Obama told Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday that the United States would help “stem the flow of foreign fighters.”
Violence is spreading inexorably into Turkey. Yet, as some fear, targeting Islamic State militants could trigger further attacks within the country. Of course, not targeting them could fuel the opposition’s accusations of suspected links between the government and the Islamic State. Meanwhile, Turkey will continue to struggle with its Kurdish population, which has become even more hostile following the suicide bombing in Suruç. With the growing developments over the past week, it seems all too clear that Turkey’s government has found itself in a complicated dilemma.