The difficult peace on the Ankara-Moscow-Tel Aviv axis
Just a few days before the suicide terrorist attack that killed 45 people at Istanbul’s airport, Turkey had celebrated the revival of relations with Israel and Russia, important partners from an economic, energy and military perspective. Relations with both these countries had become non-existent respectively following the attack on the Mavi Marmara flotilla (2010) in which nine Turkish citizens died, and the shooting down of a Russian jet on the Syrian border (November 2015) that resulted in the death of the pilot Oleg Peshkov.
The day before the attack on the airport, the prosecutor in Ankara had asked for 100 life sentences to be passed on the 36 alleged ISIS jihadists suspected of having been involved in planning and carrying out the massacre in which 103 people lost their lives last October 10th in Ankara. That was a move that seemed to mark the end of jihadist terrorism in Turkey. Nothing indicated that Turkey would once again find itself mourning other deaths caused by Islamic extremists. A few hours after the attack on an airport through which 62 million people travel every year, the fifth largest in Europe, equipped with an impressive security system, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim blamed the attack on ISIS speaking on state television. Surprisingly, for the very first time, the Kurds were not even mentioned and the idea that Kurdish rebels might be responsible was rejected a priori.
It is not easy to set out one single framework for this rapid series of events. However, the fact that jihadists attacked Istanbul with three suicide bombers from countries that in the past had created terrorist movements hostile to Moscow (and obviously Israel) provides a small clue. A Chechen, and Kirghiz and an Uzbek. In the Caucasus, Islamic terrorism has become radicalised alongside the violence of Russian military operations in Chechnya. In Central Asia instead, Moscow has been threatened by groups such as Hizb u-Tahrir which has also created links with the Taliban and Al Qaeda in nearby Afghanistan.
It is very probable that the hard core of Chechen and Central Asian jihadism has embraced the dream of a caliphate, moving also into Turkey and putting down roots there.
Arguments such as this one lead to observe that peace on the Ankara-Moscow-Tel Aviv axis, and a stated unity of purpose against jihadist terrorism, was the spark that caused this massacre.
At the same time, the fact that the attack coincided with the second anniversary of the proclamation of the ‘Raqqa caliphate’, just 24 hours after the indictment of the Jihadists behind the attack in Ankara, allowed ISIS to send a clear message to extremists all over the world saying, “We are alive, we can attack, join us”.
Turkey vs ISIS, an overdue reaction
For at least two years, the Turkish-Syrian border has been a sieve through which Salafites and al Qaeda jihadists from all over the world have travelled to ‘Islamic State’ training camps and embraced the dream of the caliph’s return.
There are Central Asians but above all Caucasians who, thanks to their military experience, have often assumed positions of command in the military hierarchies of Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi’s men. Many of them, however, have remained in Turkey, setting up small cells that for over a year, almost totally undisturbed, have been involved in recruiting and propaganda.
When, about a year ago, Ankara was obliged to take stock of the situation, it was already too late. While it is true that the government has closed the borders and declared war on Islamic extremism, it is also true that ISIS has reacted by attacking the country with suicide bombers six times in the course of one year.
These have been unpredictable attacks, launched by cells linked to Raqqa at an ideological and hierarchic level and yet independent in choosing the locations, modalities and dates for the terrorist attacks.
It is a phenomenon hard to control, with cells active in the country and also the result of the government now considering the war on terrorism a priority.
A matter of priority
Every time Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has spoken of the war on terror and developments in the war in Syria, he has always stated that the main threat to Turkey and to Syria’s future was the Syrian Kurds of the PYD and their armed branch the YPG.
The president and the members of the AKP-led government have always set ISIS in the same context as the Turkish Kurds of the PKK and their Syrian cousins of the PYD, followed by the confraternity led by his former ally Fetullah Gulen and, lastly, the Raqqa caliphate.
Erdogan and the entire AKP’s obsession with the Kurds, “the priority order” that Turkey has attributed to itself in the war on terror, decided on the basis of political dynamics and domestic balance of power, have led to the current situation. Busy accusing the United States and the European Union of connivance with the Kurds, the Turkish government forgot that it is the Kurds who have created the military opposition that more than any other has fought ISIS on the ground. It is a shame that in Ankara every inch of territory won back from ISIS by the Kurds has been seen more as a threat than a victory, as happened recently when they conquered Manbij, a strategic junction between Turkey and Raqqa.
The fundamental difference between the organisations that have attacked the country during the first six months of this year, is however evident.
ISIS has always killed civilians, as it did in 2015 in Diyarbakir, Suruc and Ankara, just as it did in 2016 in Istanbul on January 12th, on March 19th and on June 28th.
The PKK and the TAK prefer targets linked to Turkish security forces, with attacks on military targets in which civilians have often been involved, as happened in Ankara on February 17th, March 19th and June 7th.
The ultimate objective of these organisations is also different. ISIS sends signals to the jihadist galaxy, while the Kurds aim to influence public opinion and react to the government’s iron fist in the south-east of the country.
Is it possible to treat such different phenomena in the same manner? The answer lies in the underlying tension that is currently gripping Turkey.
A blow to tourism and the economy
There have been 17 terrorist attacks in 12 months, in which 300 people died and about 1,000 were wounded. The suicide bombers who attacked Ankara’s airport carried out the sixth attack of 2016, a trail of blood and death that decreed the profoundly comatose state of Turkey’s tourism.
The words spoken by the Minister for Tourism, guaranteeing that “all security measures to prevent further attacks have been implemented”, will not be enough to bring tourists back to Turkey. Tourism is an extremely important market for the country’s economy and just two years ago registered revenue amounting to over US$ 30 million, with 42 million tourists that in the past made Turkey the sixth most popular tourist destination in the world.
The fall in numbers is one that concerns tourists from all over the West, including Italy (-56%), Germany (- 31.5%), Great Britain (-30%.), but above all Russia (-96%) ever since the Russian fighter jet was shot down in November.
The Turkish government hoped that with the normalisation of relations between Ankara and Moscow at least the Russians would return to fill the deserted halls of hotels in Istanbul and Antalya, but the attack on the airport has put an end to this hope, ending the tourist season and inflicting a harsh blow on the entire country’s economy.
There are other elements that President Erdogan will not be able to underestimate when drafting a “list of priorities” that Ankara intends to pursue to ensure a future without terrorism and relaunch Turkey’s image. A resumption of negotiations with the Kurds and a zero tolerance policy as far as jihadists are concerned would mark a change of direction essential for the pacification of a country that, over the past years, has all too often found itself counting the victims of massacres that could have been avoided.
Translated by Francesca Simmons