By Laurel Jarombek
For the fourth time this year, Istanbul has been shaken by a large-scale terrorist attack. Details are still emerging about the bombing at Atatürk Airport on Tuesday that killed 43 people and injured 239, but three suspected suicide bombers affiliated with the Islamic State have been identified. As with Brussels, Paris, Beirut, San Bernardino, and others before it—to say nothing of attacks in other Turkish cities and in Istanbul itself—only the utmost condemnation is an appropriate response to this act of violence against innocent people. This would not be the first time members of the Islamic State have targeted Turkish soil, either; four attacks have been attributed to the group in the past year, two of which took place in Istanbul.
As has happened following every recent bombing in Turkey, the government’s immediate response has been to raid the residences of people accused of having ties to the Islamic State and detain the suspects. These efforts to catch those connected to the attacks are unsurprising—the same has happened in countries around the world—but more concerning is the generalized rhetoric of terrorism that the government employs to crack down on political opposition. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) makes little to no distinction between the threat of the Islamic State and the militant separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), using the dangers Turkey faces from both internal and external agents to justify a repressive domestic policy.
While Turkey managed to avoid a spillover of violence during the first few years of Syria’s civil war, the expansion of the Islamic State has left the country vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Sharing a 500-mile border with Syria and a 200-mile border with Iraq, Turkey is perilously close to the Islamic State’s base of operations. The country aspires to be taken seriously as a regional power and as an essential negotiating partner in international dialogue concerning the fate of Syria. It has its own vision of a post-conflict Syria, in which President Bashar al-Assad is removed from office and the Kurdish population in the north is prevented from establishing a degree of autonomy that would strengthen the position of separatists in Turkey. Its unyielding pursuit of those goals puts it in conflict with global heavyweights such as the United States and Russia. Russian support of Assad has clashed with Turkey’s stance on the issue, and both Russia and the United States have deepened cooperation with Kurdish militant groups in both Syria and Iraq.
While Turkey has a role to play in working to end the wars raging in Iraq and Syria, ushering in stability and limiting the influence of terror organizations falls beyond the scope of what Turkish policy alone can accomplish. Turkey will always be a target due to its geographic location and its military operations against the Islamic State. The state can do more to curtail the flow of fighters and weapons across its southern border, but the overflow of violence will remain a menace for some time to come.
Yet as grim as the reality Turkey faces may be, the government’s approach to national security is no less dangerous for perpetuating cycles of violence against Turkish residents. The conflict with Kurdish separatists, including the PKK, was reignited in the summer of 2015 following parliamentary elections in which the AKP lost seats and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) passed the legal threshold to win seats in the legislature for the first time. The fighting now amounts to a civil war, claiming the lives of hundreds of civilians in addition to the military, police forces, and Kurdish separatists killed in battle. Kurdish militant groups have also been associated with bombings throughout the country over the past year, often going after military and police targets but also carrying out attacks on civilians, such as a car explosion in a public square in Ankara that killed more than 35 people in March.
The Turkish army’s efforts to stamp out the threat of Kurdish militarism have ravaged towns and cities across the southeastern part of the country. Sieges, 24-hour curfews, and destruction of property are now routine in cities such as Cizre, Diyarbakır, Lice, and others. Accusations of human rights abuses by the Turkish government have emerged, such as dozens of civilians burned to death in a building in Cizre during a raid by security forces. HDP representatives had been warning that people had been trapped in a basement for weeks, in increasingly dire conditions, due to round-the-clock curfews. The lockdowns and limited communication, however, preclude the verification of most reports. Journalists reporting from the region have been arrested and Kurdish activists in besieged areas are labeled terrorist sympathizers, making it even more difficult to compile and publicize information. A bill recently proposed by Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım’s office would allow soldiers accused of crimes during anti-terror operations to be tried in military courts, opening the door for further abuses in Kurdish-majority regions.
The Turkish state has become increasingly militarized in its response to expression of political goals that differ from the regime’s own. Rather than allowing citizens to peacefully demonstrate against government policies, the police arrive with tear gas and water cannons. Rather than opening channels of communication with Kurdish leaders and pushing for peace talks when hints of violence began to re-emerge in the southeast, the military doubled down on battling separatist groups. Rather than permitting academics to critique the ruling party’s decision to escalate this conflict, those who spread “terrorist propaganda” by suggesting that the fighting cease are arrested.
A shift in the government’s approach toward cooperation and compromise is necessary to address the war within Turkey’s own borders. Now that the fighting has been re-established, a cease-fire will prove difficult to negotiate—if the government decides to move toward peace instead of further escalation, that is. Smaller groups now operate independently of the PKK, and the authority of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan is diminishing in the eyes of many younger fighters. With Kurdish fighters involved in the wars in Iraq and Syria, and with the political futures of those two countries uncertain, separatist groups in Turkey have the incentives and support to continue the fight in their own country.
Reversing the trend of spiraling violence will not be easy, but failing to do so will only cause death tolls to rise as Islamic State militants and Kurdish separatists alike target the organs of the Turkish state and its centers of commerce and tourism. A bombing at the country’s international transit hub garners plenty of global attention, and rightly so, but beyond the high-profile attack on Istanbul is a state constantly at war with its own people. Violence at this scale happens far too often in Turkey, but an attack by the Islamic State at Atatürk Airport can also drown out the daily targeting of citizens, both directly by the state and as a consequence of poisonous rhetoric. Thousands currently live under siege as civilian casualties continue. The war against alternative political voices manifests beyond the conflict with the PKK, as members of parliament are stripped of their immunity—a move seen to primarily target the Kurdish opposition—and journalists are beaten up in the streets by pro-government thugs.
It is in these everyday acts of violence that the Turkish government reveals its preference for militarism over negotiation; its response, showing little regard for civil liberties, is not a hand forced upon the state, as may be the case in the military conflicts Turkey has limited control over. It is an active choice. Past attacks have propelled the state to heighten its anti-terror rhetoric and pursue aggressive policies against its perceived enemies, not only the Islamic State or Kurdish militant groups, but also political opponents and residents of Kurdish-majority provinces. The attack on Tuesday must not be used as further justification for state crackdowns. By responding to violence with only violence, and to opposition with obstinacy and repression, Turkey allows itself to be consumed by the disorder and brutality plaguing its neighborhood.
Laurel Jarombek is the online news editor at World Policy Journal.
[Photo courtesy of Citrat]