The Russian ambassador to Turkey, Andrey Karlov, was gunned down on December 19, 2016 in Ankara by an off-duty policeman chanting Islamist slogans and “Do not forget Aleppo,” in what Russia has labelled a terrorist attack. The shooting, just the latest incident in a wave of violence that has swept Turkey in recent years, poses difficult questions for a government intent on showing that it is more than a match for the terrorist threat. Caught between both Islamist, Kurdish and extreme leftist terrorism, Turkey has suffered 18 terror attacks since June 2015, leaving more than 275 soldiers, policemen, and civilians dead. Unlike these attacks, the ambassador’s killing appears to be the work of a lone, unaffiliated gunman, angry at Russia’s involvement in the Syrian civil war. But while Turkey is no stranger to terrorism, the war in Syria has been the focus of both the threat and the response.
The Shadow of the Black Flag
Since the rise of Islamic State (IS) in 2014, a new front in Turkey’s war against terrorism has opened. Despite evidence of Turkish state collusion with IS or at least tolerance of its activities inside Syria, Ankara has been a key figure in the fight against the group. Anti-IS coalition jets fly from the southern Incirlik Air Base, and Turkey has made efforts in recent years to stem the tide of thousands of foreign fighters transiting through the country to fight in Syria. But as pressure has mounted on IS, Turkey has come under the greater threat of retaliatory attacks. In December 2016, IS’ new spokesman, Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, instructed IS supporters to attack “the secular, apostate Turkish government in every security, military, economic and media place even every embassy and consulate that represents it in all the world’s countries.”
IS attacks have largely targeted civilians, particularly in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish South East, near the Syrian border, where a wedding party was struck by a child suicide bomber in August 2016. The most deadly attack in recent years was carried out by IS militants against a Kurdish peace rally in Ankara in October 2015, with a death toll of 103 civilians, while a particularly brazen assault against Istanbul’s largest airport last June left 45 dead.
Given the importance of the tourism industry to Turkey’s economy, and the proximity of tourist beaches along the country’s south coast to the Syria border, a similar attack to those recently perpetrated in Tunisia and Jordan against summer holiday destinations is among the authorities’ greatest fear. Thus far, only a minority of the attacks have been directed towards tourist sites, but with millions of Europeans and Russians typically visiting Turkey each year, the country has been an attractive target to IS terrorists. Turkey’s armed incursion into Northern Syria in August 2016 denied the Islamic State access to the border, theoretically sealing off Turkey from the group. However, IS remains in possession of a significant amount of logistical infrastructure close to Turkey’s borders, leaving open the possibility of future violence from the group. Turkey wrote off the 2016 tourist season after Russia established sanctions following the Turkish shooting down a Russian jet in November 2015. Many fear that security concerns, rather than state politics, may hamper 2017’s. Turkey has made the headlines for all the wrong reasons this year, especially after the attempted coup in July 2016, the ensuing political crackdown, and the death of the Russian ambassador. This instability has sparked fear in the tourism industry and a number of major holiday operators have withdrawn from or reduced their profile in Turkey. While security was ramped up across Turkish cities this summer, with metal detectors installed in metro stations across Istanbul, only time will tell whether Turkey will be able to escape the spectre of violence in the press.
For decades the Turkish state has waged war with Kurdish militants but since hopes of a peace deal were dashed in February 2015, a fresh re-escalation of violence has swept the country. On December 17, 2016, a car bomb struck a bus load of off-duty soldiers in Kayseri, in central Turkey, killing 13 in an attack claimed by a Kurdish militant group, the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK). The TAK, an offshoot of the Kurdish militant group Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which is considered a terrorist organization in Turkey, the US and the EU. The PKK has been behind the majority of the dozen of attacks perpetrated by Kurdish groups in Turkey in 2016. While these have been typically aimed at military or police targets, Turkey still runs a conscript army and these attacks have provoked a fierce public reaction. After news broke of the blast in Kayseri, local offices of the Kurdish HDP party were ransacked in protest.
In March 2016, a 24-hour curfew on the town of Kurdish town of Cizre was finally lifted after four months of military enforcement. Since September 2015, Cizre, a southeastern town with a Kurdish population majority, had been the site of fierce battles between Kurdish militants and the Turkish military, whose shelling of the town reduced residential areas to rubble. Although access to the town was severely restricted to journalists and outside observers, the governor of the Şırnak province, in which Cizre is located, accused the Turkish military of war crimes. There have been reports in the media of the execution of hundreds of civilians by government forces. After activists declared Kurdish self-rule in the Sur district of Diyarbakır last August, the army entered the area in force, using tanks to rout militants from the area. Kurdish fighters had fortified the area with trenches and barricades, leading to open battles in the historic district. Since the war in Turkey’s South East re-ignited in the summer of 2015 after a two-year ceasefire, more than 900 people have died in the violence.
On December 11, 2016, 38 died in a double-bombing targeting police officers outside one of Turkey’s largest football stadiums, the Beşiktaş stadium in Istanbul. The attack was claimed by the Kurdish militant group TAK. Following the blast, President Erdoğan blamed unnamed Western states for lending support to terror, an implicit reference to European and American military assistance to Kurdish armed groups in northern Syria. Turkey views the Kurdish militia fighting the Islamic State in Syria, the People’s Protection Unit or YPG, as linked to the PKK. However the US and individual European states differentiate the YPG in Syria from its Turkish counterparts. But as they continue to provide military assistance to the Kurds in their fight against IS, it raises the likelihood of such weapons filtering back to PKK militants in Turkey. And the cross-border threat isn’t limited to weapons. Intelligence reports suggest that the bombers behind the Kayseri attack received training in Kobane, Syria, from YPG units. In a sign of the PKK’s increased confidence and resources, in July 2016 Kurdish militants tried unsuccessfully to overrun a Turkish army outpost, losing 35 fighters in the operation. The Turkish armed forces have waged a concerted bombing campaign against PKK-linked targets in Syria, and historically Iraq, where militants have sheltered and trained. But Turkish patience may have finally worn out as PM Binali Yıldırım hinted at an expansion of foreign military operations against Kurdish militants in response to these latest attacks.
About 235 people, mostly Kurds, were arrested in Turkey over ‘militant links’ following the twin bomb attacks outside Istanbul’s Beşiktaş football stadium. Officials from the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, including Kurdish members of parliament, were among those detained, raising fears that the terrorist threat is being used to justify a broader political repression. The outspoken mayor of Ankara, Melih Gökçek, claimed on Twitter that the Russian ambassador Karlov’s assassin had links to the vilified Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, whose supporters were accused to be behind the attempted coup earlier this year. Gülen’s movement is classified as a terrorist organisation in Turkey, and since last July more than 70,000 purported Gülenists have been arrested. This has included a purge of state security services, which is now raising questions regarding Turkey’s ability to confront the terror threat.
As the war in Syria continues and with no end to Kurdish unrest in sight, Turkey’s reputation as a haven of stability and security looks weaker than ever. While Ambassador Karlov’s assassination has captured international attention, to rid itself of the terrorist threat, Turkey has far greater problems to solve.