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Myths and truth of Turkey's three-fronted war on terror

In the wake of attacks, some suggest Turkey has opened a hornet's nest with its wars on IS, the PKK and Gulenists, but the opposite is true

"They’re desperate to bring Turkey to its knees,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last week in the aftermath of a car bombing that killed a policeman and court worker outside an Izmir courthouse.  

Izmir’s governor, Erol Ayyildiz, blamed the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) for the attack. Deputy Prime Minister Veysi Kaynak proclaimed that the only solace from the 5 January incident was the courage of Fethi Sekin, the policeman of Kurdish origin who prevented massive carnage by sacrificing himself in a gunfight with the assailants.

Turkey, which has spent six years passively watching the war in Syria, has now started to play a more influential role to end the ongoing killing in Syria

Reportedly armed with grenades, bombs and Kalashnikov rifles, the militants appear to have planned a much larger assault. If they had succeeded in entering the courthouse, a colossal massacre could have taken place.

The bombing in Izmir came days after the horrific attack, claimed by the Islamic State (IS) group, at the Istanbul nightclub on New Year’s Eve in which 39 people were killed. 

Various media outlets reported that the day before the Izmir bombing, 20 people linked to the Istanbul attack were detained and held in Izmir’s courthouse.

Relatives of Yunus Gormek, 23, one of the victims of the Reina night club attack, mourn during his funeral ceremony on 2 January 2017 (AFP)
In Turkey, terrorist organisations have become distinctive both in who and what they target - and when and whether they take responsibility. If a civilian gathering is hit, it’s more likely to be an IS attack. If a security force or a police gathering is hit, then it’s usually the outlawed Kurdish separatists.  

The PKK traditionally claims responsibility in the aftermath of any operation that it carries out. So far, they haven’t claimed responsibility for the attack in Izmir. Surprisingly, however, IS made an unusual claim of responsibility for the Istanbul nightclub attack.

It used to be a tradition for jihadist groups to proudly claim their responsibility of their "martyrdom operations". But IS has claimed responsibility for just two terrorist attacks in Turkey - the March 2016 killing of a Syrian journalist and an attack on riot police in the province of Diyarbakir, which Kurdish fighters also claimed. Other raids in Turkey have been associated with IS, but without explicit claims of responsibility.

A hornet's nest?

Since 2015, IS and the PKK have carried out a wave of attacks targeting civilians and government officials across Turkey. Car bombs, suicidal terrorists with lethal weapons, rogue soldiers commandeering tanks, helicopters and warplanes have claimed the lives of 648 people and injured more than 3,080.

For more than three decades, the PKK and its splinter groups have waged an armed rebellion against the Turkish army, calling for an autonomous Kurdish state within Turkey. Fighting flared up between the Turkish state and the separatists’ organisation after a two-year-old ceasefire that ended in July 2015.

Despite IS declaring war on Turkey, there are still certain mainstream media outlets that insist on portraying Turkey as a backer of IS in Syria

Now Turkish security is carrying out a determined crackdown against PKK and its foreign extensions - the People's Protection Units (YPG) and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria - and IS in Syria and Iraq with its “Euphrates Shield” offensive, an interventionist policy which started in July 2016 after the country's thwarted coup attempt.

The goal of these cross-border operations is not only to retake cities from IS but also to fill the void that IS would leave after being pushed out. In other words, Turkey will do whatever it takes to put an end to any lingering aspirations Kurdish militias may have of establishing an autonomous enclave at its borders with Syria.

Some believe that Turkey’s offensive into Syria has opened up a hornet’s nest. The so-called caliph of IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, recently called on his members to unleash their fire of anger on the Turkish forces in Syria and Iraq and even to take their battle into Turkey.

Even earlier, in December 2015, IS had called for the conquest of Istanbul and called Erdogan the “devil” who supports the coalition of infidels.

Despite these palpable proclamations, there are still certain mainstream media outlets that insist on portraying Turkey as a backer of IS in Syria. The traditional hesitation or rather reluctance of IS to claim any responsibilities for any of its previous attacks in Turkey have only enhanced this baseless argument.

Sending messages

There is no doubt that the two recent attacks show a remarkable change in IS's tactics and choice of targets in Turkey.

By hitting a Western-style nightclub to attack, IS was sending a strong message to several parties at the same time. The first message was directed at the Turkish people telling them that they have to put more pressure on their government to stop its offensive against them in Syria, otherwise they will pay in blood for the "reckless" policies of their representatives.

The nightclub attack sent different messages - one was to drive a wedge between Turkey's liberals and conservatives and turn people against each other, the other to put pressure on Turkey to end its offensive against IS in Syria

The second message – or goal of the attack - was to drive a wedge between Turkey's liberals and conservatives, and start a rebellion by setting people against each other.

Regretfully, instead of focusing on the attack itself, people on social media were fixated on with what the location and the nationality of the victims meant. Questions such as “What were Saudis, Lebanese, Iraqi, Moroccan, Jordanian guys doing there?” indicate that IS propaganda, trying to split Turks against one another, echoed with immature activists.

There was a third message in the timing of the attacks. The two terrorist raids were deliberately carried out during the first week of 2017. The message: unless the Turkish government backs away, terror will go on to menace Turkey this year. Erdogan’s answer: “We will break into your caves wherever you are. You’ll never terrify our people or demoralise them.”

The real strategy

Starting a three-front war is not a sound strategy. Turkey launched Euphrates Shield in northern Syria in a bid to cleanse border provinces from IS militants and Kurdish militias. Turkish jets regularly bomb terrorist targets inflicting serious casualties and killing senior officials from both organisations.

Some say it would be wiser if Turkey bends before the rising tide of terror and eases off on one of the three anti-terror fronts

Internally, the Turkish president repeatedly reiterates that the Fethullah Terrorist Organisation (FETO), the group led by alleged coup mastermind Fethullah Gulen, is Turkey’s number one public enemy. Gulen's relationship with the US where he lives jeopardises Turkey’s alliance with its most important strategic ally, Washington.

Naively, some go further to say that if the Turkish government hadn’t purged the police and the security forces of officers it accused of being connected with the Gulen movement, the police would have been more able to combat the terrorist organisations and the militants wouldn’t have been able to perpetrate attacks so easily.

Therefore, some say, it would be wiser if Turkey bends before the rising tide of terror and eases off on one of the three anti-terror fronts. The government should take a breath and try to spare its people from the ravages of terror in an undeclared open-ended war.

But the government’s wisdom is different. At the end of December, Erdogan talked on the phone with Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi in an attempt to end the diplomatic rift that surfaced after the Iraqi government demanded Turkey withdraw its troops from Bashiqa Camp near Mosul.

Turkey, which has spent six years passively watching the war in Syria, has now started to play a more influential role to end the ongoing killing in Syria, including helping negotiate a ceasefire that, if it holds, could lead to political reconciliation within the country.

All this happened just six months after the purge process was unleashed and Turkey’s strategy became ever clearer: getting rid of senior generals in the decision-making chain whose assessments on Syria and Iraq were entirely wrong.

Ahmed al-Burai is a lecturer at Istanbul Aydin University. He worked with BBC World Service Trust and LA Times in Gaza. He is currently based in Istanbul and mainly interested in the Middle East issues. You can follow him on Twitter @ahmedalburai1

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Image: A Turkish special force police officer standing guard at Ortakoy district near the Reina night club, in Istanbul, one day after New Year gun attack (AFP)

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