Istanbul attack a turning point in Turkey’s anti-ISIL fight

Istanbul attack a turning point in Turkey’s anti-ISIL fight

The first breaking point in Turkey’s policy against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) was the raid on the Turkish Consulate General in Mosul, Iraq on June 11, 2014.

Up until then Ankara underestimated the ISIL threat, perhaps mixing this newly emerged (January 2013) Salafi-Jihadi group with earlier ones, including the al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra. When the Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government in summer 2011 decided that there was no way they could convince the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus to come into terms with the Arab Spring-inspired rebels, it started to take a radical position to help the latter (mostly Muslim Brotherhood-based Islamist groups at the time), despite warnings from the opposition parties in Turkey about interfering in the politics of a neighboring country.

With the collapse of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt in a military coup in 2013, the Brotherhood-based spine of the Syria opposition was broken and quickly disintegrated, ultimately joining smaller but more armed and effective jihadi groups. Until the end of 2014 the jihadi groups took advantage of this situation, as well as Turkey’s lax border security policy and its training of “rebel forces” possibly infiltrated by more radical elements than Ankara realized. This all caused a huge “foreign fighters” problem.

From early 2015 onward Turkey got into closer cooperation with the U.S. and EU countries on the foreign fighters question, introducing tighter border control. It also opened its strategic İncirlik base in June to flights of the U.S.-led anti-ISIL coalition. In July, ISIL started to hit Turkey with acts of terror and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) also resumed its terror attacks after a three-year pause due to a dialogue process with the government.

Turkey’s opening of the İncirlik base was a blunt move against ISIL, showing that it sees it as an enemy rather than just a terrorist organization. But even at that stage ISIL was not seen as an existential threat by the Turkish government.

The picture after the foiled coup attempt of July 15, 2016 in the eyes of Ankara was that there were three major sources of terror threatening the lives of Turkish people and the system: The first was the PKK; the second was ISIL; and the third was the secret network of Fethullah Gülen, the Islamist preacher living in the U.S. and accused of attempting to carry out the coup. Only two of these were considered an existential threat for Turkey: The PKK and the “Fethullahist Terror Organisation (FETÖ),” which had the aim and the means to divide the people and/or parts of territory. ISIL was seen as a big terrorist threat but only that.

Two important background developments had taken place between mid-2015 and mid-2016 to change the picture. The downing of a Russian jet on Nov. 24, 2015 for crossing the Syrian border into Turkey marked the end of the AK Parti government’s previous Syria policy. This is especially clear in retrospect. By the time President Tayyip Erdoğan sent a letter expressing regret for the downing to Russian President Vladimir Putin was revealed on June 27, Erdoğan had already accepted the non-voluntary resignation of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, the mastermind of Turkey’s Syria policy.

Another breaking point in the fight against ISIL was Turkey’s entry to Syrian soil in order to prevent ISIL from accessing the border region and also to put a wedge into the plans of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syria branch of the PKK. The PYD had planned to take the Syria Turkish border under its control, as a rewarded for helping the U.S. as ground troops against ISIL, as a consequence of U.S. President Barack Obama’s no-boots-on-the-ground policy.

The latest breaking point - and the most serious one - in Turkey’s fight against ISIL was the Jan. 1, 2017 attack on Istanbul’s Reina nightclub, in which 39 people were killed and 65 others were wounded. Celebrating New Year is a big sin in the eyes of ISIL and other jihadis.

Government spokesman Numan Kurtulmuş said after a cabinet meeting on Jan. 2 that the latest ISIL attack was different from previous ones in a number of ways, particularly as it aimed to divide society by trying to antagonize citizens’ way of life. The AK Parti itself might have done its fair share of antagonizing lifestyles of citizens, but it seems that after the Istanbul attack it has recognized the real and existential threat posed by ISIL, as well as the PKK and FETÖ. It is now crystal clear in the eyes of the AK Parti that for ISIL there is no difference between Erdoğan or Putin, Obama or main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) head Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani or German Chancellor Angela Merkel: They are all infidels.

Perhaps that is the reason why Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım called on president-elect Donald Trump to change the U.S.’s Syria policy after taking office, calling for renewed international solidarity against terrorism in 2017.