(14.October.2015) “We in Turkey will now lead the wave of change in the Middle East. We will continue to be the pioneer in this wave of change.” Thus did then-Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu define his country’s role in the Middle East in a speech to Parliament in April 2012, amidst the backdrop of the Arab Uprisings. Turkey’s leadership now finds itself in much the same position as the U.S. neo-cons in the post-2001 era, whose plans to export democracy to the Middle East foundered upon the doomed invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Unlike the U.S., however, Turkey lies right next door to the country where it has promoted “regime change.”
This fact was driven home Saturday when two suicide bombs went off at a peace rally in front of the main train station in downtown Ankara, within two miles of the Turkish Parliament, the Prime Ministry, the Chief of Staff of the Turkish Armed Forces, the headquarters of the Turkish National Police and the country’s National Intelligence Agency (MİT). The blasts, for which ISIS is believed to be responsible, killed 97 people and wounded over four times as many. Turkish police have reportedly identified the two bombers as Ömer Deniz Dündar and Yunus Emre Alagöz, who are both believed to have links to ISIS.
Despite the prime minister’s avowals to the contrary, it is clear that the civil strife and jihadism which have torn apart states like Libya, Iraq and Syria have now begun to menace Turkey as well. The AKP’s disastrous Syria policy of the past four years has come back to haunt its creators.
In 2011, as the first revolt broke out in Syria, Davutoğlu and Erdoğan assumed that Assad’s regime would be overthrown within months, despite the misgivings of then-President Gül, AKP cabinet ministers and members of Turkey’s opposition parties. However, this armed uprising, under the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood (which the AKP saw as its ideological ally) soon fell apart, leaving a void to be filled by radical groups including the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, the al-Nusra Front.
Ankara’s continued support for these groups has created an impasse in Syria and also led to friction with the U.S., especially after reports surfaced that Syria-bound jihadists had received many tons of weapons delivered via trucks belonging to MİT. (In a May 2013 White House meeting with Erdoğan, Davutoğlu and MİT Director Hakan Fidan, President Obama openly confronted Fidan on this issue, saying, “We know what you’re doing with the radicals in Syria.”) As a result, the U.S. repeatedly denied Turkey’s requests for military intervention in Syria as well as a no-fly zone and safe haven in the north of the country. Washington still has bitter memories of the 2012 attack on its consulate in Benghazi and the killing of its consul after helping to overthrow Qaddafi; fearing a similar outcome in a post-Assad Syria, it has chosen to avoid directly intervening in that conflict.
In 2014, the balance of power in Syria was further transformed when ISIS took control of a vast area stretching from the northern outskirts of Baghdad all the way to Aleppo. Despite these alarming territorial gains, the AKP has continued to insist that its highest priority is defeating Assad, not the Islamic State, which it views as a symptom rather than the underlying disease. This calculation is no doubt influenced by the fact that ISIS is waging war on the PYD, the Syrian branch of the PKK, against which Turkey has fought a bloody 30-year counterinsurgency campaign.
Over the past few years, the ISIS-Turkey saga has taken some extremely bizarre turns. Officially listed by Turkey as a terrorist organization, ISIS kidnapped 49 people from the Turkish consulate in Mosul (including the consul and other diplomats) in June of 2014. After three months of negotiations, Ankara succeeded in having the hostages freed, although the details of these transactions remain sketchy at best. Erdoğan merely stated that “diplomatic negotiations took place,” while Davutoğlu explained that “elements which ISIS … would not want to upset” had been a factor in the hostages’ release. It remains is still unclear how the state carried out “diplomatic negotiations” with a terrorist organization or who exactly it was that ISIS “would not want to upset.”
The Turkish authorities have even turned a blind eye to ISIS activities within Turkey on numerous occasions. Two years in a row, in 2014 and 2015, hundreds of ISIS sympathizers gathered in Istanbul to perform their prayers for the Eid al-Fitr holiday at the end of Ramadan; on neither occasion did the police intervene. ISIS militants wounded in Syria have been treated in hospitals in Turkey. Though Turkey’s health minister has declared it a humanitarian duty to care for all patients, terrorists or not, it remains unknown what happened to these militants following their treatment. The international media has run stories of ISIS’s recruitment centers in an Ankara shantytown and in other Turkish cities and of the hundreds of people bused to Syria in order to join the Islamic State.
And now ISIS is alleged to have carried out the single largest terror attack in Turkish history, right in the heart of Ankara. I say “alleged” because ISIS (which is notorious for filming its acts of violence and uploading them onto social media) has not claimed responsibility for any of the attacks it is said to have carried out in Turkey. These include a bombing of the Kurdish/progressive HDP election rally in Diyarbakır this past June, in which four people died; and another one the following month in Suruç, on Turkey’s border with Syria, with a death toll of 33. The targets in both the Suruç and the Ankara bombings were leftist/secular groups campaigning for peace and for closer ties between Turks and Kurds. Turkey’s police are known for their overzealousness in monitoring gatherings by such groups; however, they took no security precautions prior to the Ankara rally, which had been announced days earlier and was attended by thousands from all over the country. Both Davutoğlu and Minister of Internal Affairs Selami Altınok have since denied that any negligence took place.
Following each attack, the AKP has made a point of referring to ISIS, the PKK and the DHKP-C in the same breath, as if all three groups were equally likely culprits. The DHKP-C is a marginal leftist armed group without any popular support; as for the PKK, the AKP had been conducting peace talks with its leader Öcalan for two years prior to Suruç. As it well known by now, the PKK’s Syrian branch, the PYD, has been ISIS’s most redoubtable opponent in Syria and has received support from the U.S. and other Western countries. It is striking that the Ankara bombing occurred just a day before a planned PKK ceasefire; could it be that ISIS hoped to derail this ceasefire in order to prevent a large-scale PKK attack on its own forces in Syria?
All these mysteries and unanswered questions have left many Turkish citizens with a profound sense of distrust in their own government. The general feeling is that the AKP’s Syria policy — in particular, its unwillingness to take on ISIS — is endangering Turkey’s democratic, secular order. No part of the country, not even Ankara, is felt to be safe anymore.
Notably, no government representatives have attended the funerals of the bombing victims, perhaps out of fear of growing societal outrage against the AKP. Even after such a dire attack, at a time when all political parties should stand united, Prime Minister Davutoğlu has been unable to meet with his political opponents in Parliament. Turkey heads towards its elections next month amidst grave security risks and intense social polarization. In such a toxic atmosphere, the upcoming elections seem to promise little in the way of hope.