The Turkish capital, Ankara, is rocked with bombs yet again. The details of the attack on March 11 such as the perpetrators and their motive are important and intriguing to know, yet this latest terror attack reveals a more structural problem for Turkey. The country is becoming a hotbed of terror attacks.
Increasingly, Turkey is being viewed “as part of the Middle East rather an island of security outside of it.” The phrase, “Pakistanization of Turkey”, has been frequently invoked in the recent past, particularly within the context of Turkey’s relationship with jihadist groups in Syria. In most cases, such invocation served to point to a hypothetical possibility rather than what was happening on the ground. This is no longer the case. The Turkish capital, Ankara, faced its third major terror attack in the last five months. The total number of lives lost stands tentatively around 200 and many more injured (10 October, 2015 – 128 deaths, 17 February 2016 – 29 deaths, March 13, 2016 – 37 deaths).
Pakistanization of Turkey refers to the increasing ability of extremist and armed groups (often times supported by Turkey) to export violence into Turkey’s borders. Such groups can openly propagate violence and radicalism and face, subsequently, minimal repercussions. This is a symptom of weakening governmental authority and poor decision making. The central government is either unwilling or incapable of dealing effectively with such threats to its citizens and to the state authority.
Crucially, the effects of such a development do not remain within the borders of Turkey; by contrast, we observe, as in Pakistan’s case, that such a country becomes a breeding ground of radicalization itself and eventually undermines neighboring countries.
What’s Happening in Turkey?
This latest episode of terrorism in Ankara underscores several major problems as far as the Turkish government is concerned. Despite successive shows of “determination”, Turkish security forces suffer from serious weaknesses. Not only Ankara and its presumably most secure areas, but also different parts of the country have been subject to major terror attacks recently (i.e. Istanbul, Diyarbakir, Suruc).
These attacks have increasingly become part of the daily routine, and public opinion, consequently, is desensitized. Minister of Interior Efkan Ala, for example, explains such attacks as being “impossible to prevent 100%“, while pro-government journalists urge people to “get used to living with terrorism“, a sentiment shared by the chief justice of high court of appeal.
Ironically, the primary concern of a pro-government daily remained Erdogan’s presidential aspirations rather than the attacks. These are hardly signs of good governance. The American Embassy in Ankara, by contrast, warned its citizens to stay clear of parts of Ankara two days before the attack on Sunday.
On a related note, no public official has been held accountable for any of the attacks, reinforcing the conviction among critics that the government sees no problems with the way terrorism is handled, although gag orders and social media bans imposed after each terror attack leads to suspicions that the government systematically tries to evade responsibility by minimizing public discussion of such attacks. Moreover, the public witnessed virtually no state backlash against the organizations behind these attacks; typically the government’s response has been a muted one and statements such as this one by a government minister justifies the fatalism: “Rather than the perpetrators of the attack, I curse this mentality. The perpetrators of the attack already went where they will.”
Public perception of security and safety in Turkey has also taken a major toll. The sharp decline in tourism in Turkey is an indicator of this trend.
A closer look at recent waves of instability and insecurity in Turkey reveals that the common denominator is Turkey’s security and foreign policies do not reflect the interests of the country. Instead, they are subservient to President Erdogan and his AKP’s own interests. For example: Syria. The AKP government has been arguably the most vocal opponent of Syria’s Assad since 2011. In order to facilitate a regime change, the Turkish government under Erdogan’s leadership supplied various Syrian opposition groups with weapons, ammunition, and other logistical support. Most of such support went to globally-recognized terror groups. While the Turkish government supplied Syrian opposition, it was impervious to potential ramifications of its Syrian policy within its borders.
Russia and Iraq grew increasingly hostile to Turkey in recent months thanks to inconsistent and hostile Turkish policies such that Russia is going after the Erdogan family.
Islamic State (ISIS). Despite its rhetorical opposition to ISIS, Turkey has not taken serious action against the group to this day. Turkey became a recruiting ground for ISIS where domestic groups supporting the group met no scrutiny from security forces or the government. Likewise, Turkey served as a conduit between ISIS recruits from around the world and Syria. Serious allegations surfaced, accusing a close network of top Turkish officials of facilitating ISIS’ oil trade beyond Syria. Moreover, despite reports that ISIS undertook multiple violent terror attacks on Turkish soil, no action has been taken against the group besides sporadic air attacks. Turkey’s participation in the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS is in name only.
Kurds. Turkish officials continue expressing their determination and intention to eradicate PKK terror at all costs. What they refer to is the latest surge in PKK attacks within Turkey since the summer of 2015. What is missing from such characterization of recent developments is that Erdogan personally holds Kurds and the Kurdish party HDP accountable for preventing him from assuming even greater control of the country in the June 7, 2015 election. The extensive security operations in southeast Turkey targeting both PKK militants and Kurdish civilians in cities such as Sur, Cizre, and Diyarbakir are a form of payback. This zeal for retribution also undermines Syrian Kurdish groups’ involvement in the coalition against ISIS.
Syrian refugees. While Turkey has done its fair share for the refugee problem, it is worth noting that President Erdogan has been manipulating this issue tirelessly as leverage in Turkey’s relations with the EU. First, the refugee deal pushed to delay the announcement of 2015 Turkey Progress Report, which included serious criticisms of Erdogan and the AKP. Later, refugees were used to seek various benefits for Turkey such as visa-free travel to EU and resuming the EU accession process in the most recent agreement between the parties.
Purge of opposition. Erdogan’s efforts to reinforce his power domestically rest increasingly on suppressing various opposition groups, especially in the aftermath of the infamous 2013 graft scandal in which he was involved. Media groups have been taken over by the government, more than 1,800 Erdogan insult cases are making their way through the Turkish legal system, journalists are regularly prosecuted and jailed, schools are raided, and protests violently suppressed. Most importantly, it is becoming clearer by the day how the AKP’s campaign against police officers alleged to be Gulen-sympathizers hurt the country’s own security.
As part of this purge, many counter-terrorism experts have been dismissed, creating a major security lapse despite the government’s statements to the contrary, according to reports. Inexplicably, in a city that witnessed two major terror attacks since the October 10 bombings, the key position of Ankara chief of police has been filled only on an interim basis.
What Happens in Turkey Doesn’t Stay in Turkey
For a long time, the international community displayed, what we can call, a disinterested concern for developments within Turkey’s borders. Suppression of domestic groups was one that wrought some suffering but ultimately it was regarded as an internal problem. It did not carry international implications. We can no longer make this assumption. What happens inside Turkey does not stay within Turkey’s borders.
The Turkish government’s war against various domestic opposition groups such as the PKK and Kurds or the Gulen Movement affects vital regional issues; they have important ramifications beyond its border that can no longer be contained.
Erdogan and the AKP’s adventurism inside and outside of Turkey not only threaten the wellbeing of Turkey’s citizens and the democratic future of the country but also complicate vital issues throughout the region. The effects can be felt on the Syrian refugee crisis, the unfolding of the Syrian war, the status of many Kurdish minorities throughout the region, the Islamic State, and the possibility of an expanded, region-wide conflict. Having Erdogan’s token cooperation on the Syrian refugee crisis or in the coalition against ISIS does not suffice; his authoritarianism and adventurism will implode the entire region.
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