Implications of Istanbul Bombing for Turkey, Erdogan

by Derek Davison

Last week’s suicide bombing in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district was the fourth bombing on Turkish soil since last June linked to the Islamic State (ISIS or IS). However, unlike the three previous bombings, this attack was not directed at Turkey’s Kurdish minority or supporters of the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which could signal a change in IS’s approach to its operations within Turkey. Instead of trying to stoke further tension in the ongoing Turkish-Kurdish conflict, this attack suggests that IS has begun targeting Turkish interests directly, perhaps in response to recent signals that Ankara may start doing more to control its Syrian border. In the immediate aftermath of Tuesday’s attack, Turkish artillery shelled alleged IS positions in Syria and Iraq, and Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu claimed that they killed 200 IS fighters. But it remains to be seen whether Tuesday’s attack will spur Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan to reevaluate his government’s approach to Syria, IS, and the Kurds more broadly.

To get a a sense of the potential fallout from Tuesday’s attack as well as developments in Turkey more generally since November’s snap elections, which gave Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) back the parliamentary majority that they had lost in June, I spoke with Gonul Tol, the founding director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute and a professor at George Washington University’s Institute for Middle East Studies.

LobeLog: Snap elections in November restored the AKP majority in parliament. Have you seen any change in Turkey’s approach to the Kurdish situation or the crisis in Syria since then?

Tol: The Kurdish question has become the main driver of Turkish politics. Leading up to the snap elections, the Turkish government employed very nationalistic language [about the Kurds], so many people believed that the peace process was over. After the June elections, it seemed that the AKP was going to have to form a coalition government. But Erdogan did not want a coalition government, because other parties’ condition was that Erdogan adhere to constitutional limits on his office. So he intensified the Kurdish conflict to weaken the HDP. In June, the HDP had been able to capture conservative Kurdish voters who were alienated from the AKP when Erdogan refused to open the Syrian border to allow aid to flow to Kobane in 2014.

Kurds, particularly the rising Kurdish middle class, are tired of the fighting. There’s a demand for peace. When the ceasefire broke down, several Kurdish majority cities were under curfews and Kurdish civilians were killed in clashes. The PKK changed its tactics. Where in the past it had retreated to the mountains to fight, now it fought in the cities, which caused great suffering for the people of the region. Conservative Kurds believed that they had given [HDP leader] Selahattin Demirtas a chance in June, but nothing happened. Many people in the Kurdish regions couldn’t vote [in November] because of the fighting. But the HDP also lost its support in the western part of the country. Many of those people voted for the HDP because of its moderate rhetoric and focus on [liberal] “Turkish” issues rather than specifically Kurdish issues. But after the ceasefire broke down, they thought that Demirtas didn’t take a critical stance against the PKK. He asked the PKK to stand down and called for negotiations between it and the government, but he didn’t do enough for the voters.

Right now we have a weakened HDP but a very active and overconfident young Kurdish generation, [many of whom] have been involved in the fighting in Syria. On the other hand, we have a government that was able to capture 49% in the snap elections mainly because of the nationalist vote. So the AKP cannot stop fighting the Kurds, and the Kurds are unwilling to back down. The HDP is increasingly moving toward the PKK line, which is not a good sign for the Kurdish peace process.

LL: How has the confrontation between Turkey and Russia (over Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet over Syria on November 24) affected Ankara’s Syria policy?

Tol: I don’t think the government has recalibrated its Syria policy, but Russia’s presence [in Syria] has really limited Turkey’s options. The deployment of Russian air defense missiles in Syria has created a de facto no-fly zone for Turkey over Syria—ironically, since Turkey has been pushing for a different kind of no-fly zone over Syria for years—and Turkish planes are not flying. Worse, from Ankara’s perspective, Russia is bombing the Turkmens, which Turkey has been training in hopes that they could become the ground force that everyone has been looking for in Syria.

Meanwhile, the Kurds have been benefitting from Russian involvement. They’ve gained ground and are approaching the important Azaz-Aleppo corridor, a key supply route for the rebels. Russia has also been bombing the Turkish- and Saudi-backed Syrian opposition, and the Assad regime is gaining ground. And most Western attention is on the Islamic State, which Turkey regards as a symptom, not the real problem. The picture right now in Syria is dangerous for Turkey, because all the pillars of its Syria policy—containing the Kurds, protecting the Azaz-Aleppo corridor, focusing on ousting Assad—are in trouble. That’s why I think, at some point, Turkey will be forced to accept the fact that the Assad regime has to be involved in the process and is not going anywhere soon. I haven’t seen a change yet, but it might be on the horizon.

LL: Moving to the other front in the war on the Islamic State, what’s behind Turkey’s decision to station troops in northern Iraq, a move that’s been heavily criticized by the Iraqi government?

Tol: Turkey really feels marginalized, especially with Russia’s involvement in Syria, so this was Turkey’s way of saying that they’re still in the game. It was a symbolic move. But it wasn’t a very wise one, because it created more tension with Baghdad and increased America’s frustration with Ankara. For a long time, Turkey has been trying to fix its relationship with Baghdad, but now there’s a lot of tension. At the end of the day I think Turkey will be forced to withdraw its troops. They’ve already announced a withdrawal, but it’s not clear how many troops have actually been withdrawn yet.

LL: Tuesday’s terrorist attack in Istanbul seems different from previous IS attacks in Turkey, in that it doesn’t seem to have been meant to stoke Kurdish tensions. Talk about the implications of this attack as compared to those previous attacks. Will this attack cause a shift in how Ankara views the IS threat?

Tol: One would think so. This is the fourth IS attack [in Turkey]. But because the previous attacks targeted the Kurds, Turkey didn’t consider them a threat. Still, if you listen to what Erdogan said after the attack, he spent maybe 10 minutes on IS and then started talking about the PKK, so Turkey still considers the PKK the greater threat. But this was an attack on Turkey, and it comes at a time when Turkey is doing more to control the border, something that IS is not happy about. The Islamic State is sending a message to Turkey: you are vulnerable. The government has not come to understand that vulnerability. I’ve never heard a Turkish official who talks about the threat IS poses against Turkish interests in isolation. They always talk about the PKK as well. And that perception hasn’t changed.

LL: Given that it appears this attack was carried out by a Syrian refugee, do you think it will affect public opinion around the larger refugee question? Will there be any pressure on Erdogan to stop negotiating with the EU to keep more refugees in Turkey?

Tol: I don’t think so. Turkey just announced that Syrian refugees will be granted the right to work legally, which is a step toward keeping them in Turkey. There is a public reaction to the refugee issue, but it was there before the attack. You can see it in the AKP’s loss of political support in Turkish border towns. Turkey has taken measures to control the border and stem the flow of refugees into Europe, but I don’t think the AKP will back down on its strategy of negotiating with the EU. The negotiations are good for the AKP’s public image.

LL: Tuesday’s target seems to have been intended to harm Turkey’s tourism sector, which is already in some trouble due to the Russia confrontation. How potentially harmful is an attack like this from an economic perspective?

Tol: They are certainly worried, because tourism is very important to the Turkish economy, and Turkey’s economy is not doing well. You can see this in the German interior minister’s remarks in Istanbul after the attack [the minister, Thomas de Maiziere, said that “there are no indications that the attack was directed specifically against Germans”]—he may have been under some pressure [from Ankara] to say that. The implications of Russian sanctions are already being felt. Turkey is considering a rapprochement with Israel to ease its dependence on Russia.

Erdogan has been pushing for constitutional changes, so Turkey is in a constant electoral mood, and the AKP is anxious to please the public. If you read pro-government newspapers, economic anxiety is getting even more coverage than national security.

LL: That dovetails right into my last question. It’s no secret that Erdogan’s goal is to rewrite the constitution to increase his presidential powers. What are his chances of accomplishing that goal, particularly after Tuesday’s attack and given the possibility that there may be more such attacks to come?

Tol: More IS terrorism is going to hurt the government, because its Syria policy has always been unpopular. That’s one of the reasons why they don’t want to single out the IS threat, and keep talking about the PKK. Transitioning to a presidential system is difficult. But it’s a matter of political survival for Erdogan, so he will do whatever it takes. He’s already launched a PR campaign, even sending people door-to-door to talk about the merits of a presidential system, to garner enough public support to pressure opposition parties into changing their position. He’s not going to give up, but it’s going to be very difficult to get the other parties to support him. He will use the line that Turkey needs a strong executive to protect against PKK attacks, but it’s a long shot.

Derek Davison

Derek Davison is an analyst covering U.S. foreign policy and international affairs and the writer/editor of the newsletter Foreign Exchanges. His writing has appeared at LobeLog, Jacobin, and Foreign Policy in Focus.