Funeral in Ankara: Attacks Highlight Turkey’s Vulnerabilities
Image: LEFTERIS PITARAKIS AP
ANKARA—It is remarkable, in hindsight, how confident Turkey’s government was about regime change in Syria. In 2012, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan framed the country’s mission in religious terms: “We will go [to Damascus] in the shortest possible time, if Allah wills it; and embrace our brothers. That day is close. We will pray near the grave of Salahaddin Ayyubi and pray in the Umayyad Mosque.” Three years later, Turkish government officials are yet to pray in the Umayyad Mosque. But funeral prayers for victims of terrorism are being performed on daily basis in mosques all over Turkey.
At least 95 people died in the twin suicide bombings that took place in Ankara last Saturday, targeting a peace rally organized by unions, some political parties, and Kurdish-affiliated civil society groups. This terrorist attack was very similar in style to the bombing that took place in July in the Suruç district of Şanlıurfa near the Syria border, claiming the lives of 33 people who were giving a press statement on their planned trip to reconstruct the Syrian border town of Kobani.
The criminal investigation of Saturday’s attack is still underway and no organization has claimed responsibility. However, the self-proclaimed Islamic State group (ISIS) is the prime suspect, as it is one of the few organizations with both the capability and motivation to conduct such an attack. Moreover, one of the two suicide bombers is identified as someone from the ISIS network in Turkey. ISIS may have had two motives. They might have been trying to punish Turkey for joining the anti-ISIS coalition and giving the U.S. Air Force access to the İncirlik airbase for strikes against ISIS targets. Their other objective may have been to provoke further conflict between Turkey and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). A ceasefire between the two could enable the PKK to shift resources from Turkey to its Kurdish partner in Syria, which happens to be the most credible counter-ISIS force in Turkey’s neighborhood.
The terrible attack in Ankara has highlighted Turkey’s vulnerabilities. The war in Syria — and Turkey’s approach of overthrowing the Bashar al-Assad regime at all costs, even at the expense of its own security — have made their border highly permeable. Turkey not only pursued an open border policy toward Syrian refugees, but also allowed armed Syrian opposition forces to use the Turkish frontier for logistical purposes. For its efforts, Turkey was internationally blamed for not doing enough to prevent the flow of foreign fighters, mainly from Europe, to Syria. Several security analysts had also warned Turkey about the implications of weakening border controls for national security. The attack in Ankara showed that these concerns were justified.
The attack also showed how unprepared Turkey is to deal with the new wave of terrorism it is facing. It should be acknowledged that Turkey has significant experience in dealing with rural guerilla groups thanks to its three decade-long fight against the PKK. It also has significant experience, dating from the Cold War, in containing ultra-left wing ideological terrorist organizations. However, none of these experiences are totally transferable to the new situation that Turkey is facing: the ever-evolving threat of radical Islamist terrorism.
Last but not least, the latest terrorist attack has also demonstrated how polarization has made Turkish society vulnerable to terrorism. While most cohesive societies would have been united by such an attack, Turkey has only been further divided. The leaders of the four political parties could not even come together to express condolences, and instead blamed each other for the situation.
Turkey should take the Ankara terrorist attack as a wake-up call. Its Syria policy, based on supporting armed groups to overthrow the Assad regime, should be replaced with one aimed at securing its border. A comprehensive counterterrorism strategy that would be effective against radical Islamist terror should be developed and institutions should be reformed accordingly. And all political parties, but particularly the governing party, should refrain from using divisive and polarizing rhetoric. A new peace process with the Kurdish political movement should be launched that takes into account the lessons learned from prior engagements. The new government that will be formed after the upcoming elections will provide an opportunity for all of this. Turkey cannot afford to miss this opportunity.
Özgür Ünlühisarcıklı is the director of the German Marshall Fund’s office in Ankara, Turkey. Follow him @OzgurHisarcikli.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.