The Syrian civil war has come to Turkey

The Syrian civil war has come to Turkey

Last weekend’s bomb attack was a rude awakening for Turks, who are now beginning to realize that the Syrian civil war has come to their doorstep. Turkey is now one of the battlegrounds for the war between the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian splinter group of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Both groups see the Turkish state as their secondary enemy, and each other as their primary enemy. Neither has any trouble undermining Ankara’s sovereignty by moving their war to Turkish soil. This is a new stage of the Syrian civil war. 

Two suicide bombers killed a crowd gathering for a peace march in Ankara scheduled for Oct. 10. The case bore similarities to the 7/20 attack in the small town of Suruç, Şanlıurfa province, right on the border with Syria. The Ankara and Suruç bombers were allegedly brothers, and they targeted Turks who support the PYD’s fight against ISIL. 

All of this complicates things. In the past, the state was fighting separatist groups that identified with an ethnic group within its borders, namely, the Kurds. The new factor that complicates the situation is ISIL’s war against militant Kurds. Think about it for a second: These are citizens of the Republic of Turkey who support a group, the PYD, that their government is on a war footing with. We do not consider this treason because of the broad spectrum that the Kurdish movement covers, ranging from separatists to democracy advocates. Either way, the state puts the families of the victims on a salary, while at the same time it uses their tax money to bomb the PYD. That is an awkward position for the Turkish state to be in.

This blurring of the political lines is going to be a problem as we enter a new stage of the regional conflict. Up to now, the Syrian civil war had an indirect impact on Turkey. We took in over 2 million refugees, tried to coordinate diplomatic efforts, moved our troops stationed at the Suleyman Shah tomb in northern Syria, we looked for new trade routes to our southern markets. The hostages that ISIL took in Mosul were safely returned. Now, however, we see Turkish citizens being killed as part of the war. And the political lines are blurred in a way that complicates our emotional reactions. 

All of this is new, and we are not prepared. Ankara still doesn’t know how to cope with refugees who settle in Turkey, perhaps indefinitely. We have no institutional mechanism to integrate them. And now with the Oct. 10 attack, Turks are confronted with a gaping security deficit. They realize that there is very little separating their daily lives from the bearded lunatics across the southern border. The Salafi terrorist stereotype is no longer part of the “swamp” of the Arab world – he speaks Turkish, walks among us as our own, and knows where we live. Perhaps the strangest part of it all is that he hates us and wants to tear down our country, while we seem to be ambivalent about condemning his ideology and way of life. 

There is also a question of efficacy here. The father of one of the suicide bombers explained to the daily Radikal that he informed the police about his son’s joining of ISIL in Aleppo as early as 2013. But nothing happened. His son was on the police’s watch list but he still managed to stroll around town and kill at least 102 people. Why? are the Turkish police, as some HDP sympathizers suggest, actually helping ISIL? Or is the Turkish security apparatus simply incapable of protecting us from these people? I opt for the second. The U.S. acknowledged this kind of a mistake in the wake of 9/11, and Turkey should do the same. It should focus on reforming its security, and especially its intelligence bureaucracy, to meet the challenges of its new environment. Neither the Salafi threat, nor Kurdish militias, are going anywhere anytime soon. We must let 10/10 be our 9/11. 

A taxi driver recently told me that he had “never seen anything like this before … This past Sunday and Monday, right after the blast, I didn’t have a single commercial passenger to drive. Not a single one. That has never happened in Istanbul before. Nobody wants to leave their homes.” We used to talk about the economy, the rule of law and individual liberties. Now, the state needs to rethink how it fulfills its most fundamental function: Ensuring the security of its citizens.