The suicide bomb attack that hit Istanbul on Tuesday, resulting in ten, mostly German, fatalities in the tourist district of Sultanahmet, is symptomatic of the innumerable challenges facing the Turkish government.
Top among them is combatting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group, which Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu implicated as the main culprit.
ISIS militants have perpetrated a number of major, violent attacks in Turkey, including the death of nearly 100 pro-Kurdish and left-wing activists in Ankara in October 2015.
But the Istanbul attack constitutes a wholly different magnitude in its targeting of the vital tourist sector that accounts for a staggering 12 per cent of the Turkish economy, according to a recent report by the World Travel and Tourism Council. Government officials had, accordingly, a strong incentive to respond robustly and swiftly to contain the negative repercussions of this event on an already stagnant economic growth profile.
While Turkey views ISIS as a clear and present danger, and has adopted security measures against the radical Islamists, the group is hardly the only threat to Turkey’s stability. It is host to approximately 2.5 million Syrian refugees and shares a 910-kilometre porous border with Syria along which tens of thousands of mainly Islamist fighters are entrenched. The country suffers from near complete isolation in the Middle East, and its military is engaged in urban warfare against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in southeastern Turkey.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan tends to blame outsiders for Turkey’s growing litany of problems rather than government policy. He identifies Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Washington’s reticence to deepening involvement in Syria as the reason for the existence of ISIS. He has narrowed the Kurdish issue in Turkey to simply PKK militancy. He has even gone as far as to claim that the elusive 'interest rate lobby' and an ill-defined 'higher mind' are responsible for Turkey’s internal and external predicaments.
Conspiracy theories can hardly, however, come close to explaining Turkey’s fragile situation. Its abandonment of a traditionally balanced, non-interventionist, flexible and pro-Western foreign policy in favour of a more ideologically-driven orientation has dragged this strategic country to the heart of the political fissures and sectarian schisms tearing the region apart.
Turkey’s ruptured relations with Russia, mistrust with Iran and the Iraqi central government, and gyrating ties with the US and European partners means that it is no more the bridge-builder and peace facilitator between the conflicting parties, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, in the volatile Middle East. It is incredible to imagine that between 2007 and 2008 Israel was happy for Turkey to sponsor reconciliation talks with Syria and that, in 2010, Iran trusted Turkey to such an extent that it agreed to the exchange of low enriched uranium for fuel rods on Turkish territory.
Unsurprisingly, the US has categorically rejected Erdogan’s demand to establish a security buffer on the Syrian side of the border to circumscribe the enlargement of the autonomous Kurdish entity in northern Syria and to accelerate the downfall of Assad. It has also ignored repeated protestations from the Turkish leadership to cease active cooperation between the US military and the Syrian affiliate of the PKK, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), against ISIS.
Domestically, President Erdogan disavowed the inclusive, reformist and European Union-friendly policies of his first half-decade in office. His employ of Turkish nationalism and religious populism is exacerbating the rising tensions between Kurds and Turks, and contributing to the mounting polarization between the conservative and secular segments of society. Local and foreign investors feel less confident in the government’s handling of a structurally-driven sluggish economy.
Adding to the turmoil is the obsession of President Erdogan to transform Turkey from a parliamentary republic to a centralized and powerful presidency unencumbered by any checks and balances. His rhetoric defending the presidential model raised eyebrows among Turkish liberals and the Western media when he made reference to Second World War Germany.
Turkey’s foreign policy and domestic complications have contrived to block the country’s ambition to play a leading role in the Middle East. That role is unattainable if the government’s posture continues on its current trajectory.
Only by carrying out a 180-degree turn in its policies will Turkey become a stabilizing force in the Middle East, stemming the ill-effects of the Syrian quagmire and the implosion of Iraq while generating domestic tranquility and reclaiming the regional prominence it once enjoyed not so long ago.
Fadi Hakura, Associate Fellow, Europe Programme (Chatham House)