The activities of the so-called Islamic State group, IS, in Turkey has taken a turn with last Saturday’s suicide bombing against a Kurdish wedding in the city of Gaziantep in southern Turkey – just next to the Syrian border. The attack was attributed to the IS. It was reportedly carried out by an underage boy. Around half of its victims were youngsters celebrating the wedding with their families on the street. The government immediately put a ban on reporting about this brutal terrorist attack but the horrific scenes of children’s bodies lying around on the streets soon found their way into social networks. With more than 50 civilians killed, the attack constituted a ‘small’ mass murder.
This was the fourth big suicide attack carried out by IS in the last 12 months in Turkey. Before Gaziantep, IS attacked a gathering of Kurdish and socialist activists in the village of Suruc near the southern city of Urfa, a “peace meeting” of NGOs in Ankara, and the Ataturk Airport in Istanbul.
In one year around 200 were killed following IS suicide attacks.
IS has never publicly taken responsibility for these attacks. But Turkish and Western sourcessay there is enough evidence pointing to the so-called Islamic State group as the perpetrator group committing them.
According to Rusen Cakir, a prominent observer and analyst of extremist Islamic groups in Turkey and the Middle East, so far, the Turkish government has undertaken rather inefficient operations against IS activities inside Turkey. Many of the suspects arrested after each IS attack have been released later while IS “is present almost everywhere in Turkey, is well organized and IS groups inside Turkey continue to provide militants to Syria and Iraq.”
Kurdish groups and those close to the Kurdish insurgency in Turkey are a preferred target for IS militants inside Turkey as seen in the attack against the Kurdish “Unity of Peoples’ Party” (HDP) last year in Diyarbakir. One reason for this could be that mainly Kurdish militia groups target IS in northern parts of Syria. Apparently, IS in Turkey takes revenge for its losses in Syria and even Iraq. In a sense, after the IS defeat in Kobani in 2014 IS militants started to attack civilian Kurdish targets in Turkey
Another situation leading to an intensified IS activity in Turkey is that IS in Syria is increasingly pressured and pushed back, very recently in Menbij and reportedly soon in Jarabulus. Similar to the aftermath of the IS defeat in Kobane, more IS defeats in Syria and eventually Iraq could lead to increased pressure by IS militants on Turkey.
But IS militants inside Turkey do not limit their targets only to the Kurds. They also target Turkey in general (such as the bloody Istanbul airport suicide attack last June.) Also, they occasionally attack and kill secular Syrian refugees in Turkey or members and activists of competing armed Syrian groups in Turkey.
For a long time the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not want to openly admit the presence and activity of IS inside Turkey.
Even now, official or loyal sources reporting about IS attacks in Turkey usually do not refer to IS as the single or even main organization responsible for those terrorist attacks. They mention IS along with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, that is recognized as a terrorist organization, and, recently, the Fethullah Gulen movement that Turkish officials and media call “Feto,” or the “Fethullah [Gulen] terrorist organization.”
Gulen is a Turkish cleric living in self-imposed US exile. Turkey holds Gulen responsible for masterminding the recent coup attempt in Turkey and asks the US to extradite him to Turkey.
After realizing that its policy of supporting armed Syrian rebel groups in their effort to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government is failing, Ankara started last June to work together with Russia “to find a negotiated settlement” for the Syrian conflict, even at the expense of “tolerating Assad for a transition period,” as Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim recently said.
Most observers believe that after a long and inflammatory interference in Syrian affairs, Erdogan wants to cooperate with Russia, the West, Iran, and even Assad to help keep Syria united with a coalition-based system of government. In Ankara’s view, this ‘revised policy’ would help stabilize Syria and reduce tension spreading from Syria into Turkey. It would also disqualify the Kurdish militia groups as a political factor in northern Syria. These groups are considered by the Turkish government as an “offshoot” of PKK, thus jeopardizing stability inside Turkey.
Provided this analysis is overall accurate, Erdogan will hardly be able to reach this goal without directly and aggressively confronting not only PKK, but also IS – both inside Turkey and in Syria.