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Is Turkey Safe?

On New Year’s Eve, an Uzbek man armed with a Kalashnikov (subsequently identified as Abdulkadir Masharipov) killed 39 people in an Istanbul nightclub. The attack – later attributed to the Islamic State (IS) – was the peak of a spiral of violence that began in summer 2015 with the double IS suicide attack in Ankara (109 dead and 500 wounded), and fueled fears about Turkey’s future, with the country more and more compared to almost-failed states like Iraq and Pakistan.

Although the country had suffered major attacks in the years before (in 2013, two car bombs caused more than 50 deaths in the town of Reyhanlı, a few kilometers from the Syrian border), it has been since the summer of 2015 that terrorist attacks have become frequent and significant to such an extent that doubt could be cast on Ankara’s very institutional stability and – even more so – ability to protect citizens and foreign investment.

Terrorist attacks in Turkey mostly are of three kinds: Kurdish, jihadist, and Marxist-Leninist.

Since July 2015, Kurdish violence, mainly limited to the southeast of Turkey (where Kurds are the majority), has caused at least 1,200 deaths (especially among the security forces). In 2016 alone, about 70% of the attacks on Turkish soil were Kurdish. In addition to the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), Turkey is also a base for other separatist armed groups that have stepped up their activity in the last few years by means of high-profile attacks. It is, for example, the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK), which has mostly hit Istanbul, Ankara and other major cities.

The jihadist threat, which has grown since the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, has mostly led to attacks in crowded places and, in some cases, hitting foreign targets (12 Germans and 1 Peruvian were killed in a suicide attack in the old Sultanahmet district on 12 January 2016).

Lastly, Turkey faces a threat (less serious than the other two) posed by far-left groups, particularly the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front (DHKP-C) which is due to domestic issues, and especially the strong sociopolitical polarization, and mainly affects urban centres. These groups tend to attack government targets and US assets, but lack the resources and capacity to conduct high-profile attacks.

The reasons for the terrorist wave

There are both domestic and external reasons behind the spiral of violence that has affected the country since the second half of 2015.

Undeniably, the regional security deterioration (Syria and Iraq) has caused the terrorist threat to significantly rise, allowing different armed groups to proliferate. However, Ankara’s policies have ended up causing a ‘multiplying effect’ which has ultimately paved the way for the series of attacks on Turkish soil.

As we know, Ankara has long been accused of an ambiguous attitude towards the regional jihadist groups. In the years immediately following the outbreak of the Syrian civil conflict, Turkey was used as a logistical base for the Syrian opposition (including jihadist organizations) and as the main corridor for the so-called foreign fighters, who have increased the ranks of fighters in Syria and Iraq. Although there is no evidence of Turkey’s direct support to the jihadist groups, checks along the Syrian border were quite inefficient, at least until the IS threat rise prompted the Turkish authorities to take a harder line (in July 2015, following the Suruc bombing, Turkey authorized its NATO allies to use its Incirlik air base for military operations in Syria and Iraq and conducted air operations against IS).

Nevertheless, Turkey had supported Bashar al-Assad’s removal, rather than neutralizing jihadism, as its foreign policy priority. The “open door policy” adopted by the Ankara authorities has had the side effect of encouraging jihadist cell proliferation in the country. Many of the approximately 2,200 Turkish nationals who are officially reported to have reached Syria and Iraq to fight in the ranks of the Islamic State. Other jihadist groups are Islamist Kurds, once part of Hezbollah (a Marxist group mainly active in the nineties that was created to counter PKK hegemony). In other cases, there are radical Islamists from the most conservative regions of Turkey, including Central Anatolia and the major urban centres (Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir).

The Ankara government’s initial (at least indirect) support to active jihadists in Syria has further complicated relations with the Kurdish community, which is at the forefront of the struggle against the Islamic State and other groups. The Turkish authorities started negotiations with the PKK in 2012 that led to a ceasefire in March 2013. However, fears arising from the Kurdish side becoming too strong in Syria and Iraq and Erdoğan’s alleged intention to win back nationalist support in preparation for the November 2015 election (after the disappointing results obtained by the Justice and Development Party – AKP a few months before), made the government take a harder line on the negotiations issue and gradually sidelined the previous agreement. Accordingly, the ceasefire was declared definitively over in July 2015, right when the terrorist wave began.

Security developments in 2017

The New Year’s Eve attack in Istanbul’s Reina nightclub was the last major incident in the country.

Several factors explain this trend reversal.

First of all, territorial counterterrorism has become more intense and widespread, as evidenced by the increase in operations by the security forces. According to Jane’s data, their number was just 105 in 2015, while 730 were conducted in 2016. Their number has further increased in 2017: 1,640 in just nine months. Such operations have significantly reduced the operational capabilities of the groups active in Turkey and have made attacks less frequent and deadly.

The construction of a wall along the border with Syria ( started in 2015 and should be completed by the end of this year) and the implementation of an integrated border security system (through the installation of surveillance systems, thermographic cameras, surveillance radars, remote controlled weapon systems, command and control centres, seismic and acoustic sensors and lighting systems) have certainly helped the security forces effectively prevent potential terrorist infiltration from Syria.

Enhanced security in Turkey and at the border, coupled with IS becoming weaker in Syria, and Ankara’s military operations (in coordination with various Syrian rebels) in the north, near the border with Turkey has improved security. Known as ‘Shield Euphrates,’ these operations were launched in August 2016 and officially ended in March this year. Nonetheless, Turkey is still present in the country. In political terms, Ankara has proved to have become more pragmatic by taking a less hard line on the Assad regime. After giving up – at least for the time being – its hegemony goals, Turkey seems to have shifted to a dual-target strategy: stabilizing the regional (and, in in turn, domestic) security situation and preventing a Kurdish autonomous entity from being created in Syria and in Turkey. It is likely that these goals will inspire Ankara’s agenda in the short to medium term, leading to closer cooperation with regional actors such as Russia and Iran.

Medium-term outlook

However, the terrorist threat is bound to remain significant. Various factors will likely impact the Turkish security situation.

Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence referendum (25 September) has had a political – and not only symbolic – meaning to the Kurdish communities living in Turkey and other countries in the region, and could push armed groups to step up efforts and use the successful struggle against IS resulting in international legitimation. In Turkey, this could translate to an upsurge of attacks on military and political targets and an increase in Kurdish political propaganda.

A new wave of jihadist attacks is not to be ruled out in the short to medium term. According to Turkish authorities, more than 5,000 suspected IS militants were arrested and around 3,300 were extradited (coming from 95 different countries) in the first nine months of 2017. Despite more effective border control and constant and widespread monitoring of national territory, IS military defeats could encourage infiltration attempts from Syria, as well as attacks on Turkish soil in order to make up for the reputational damage. Nevertheless, it is currently hard to imagine an attack like the ones between 2015 and 2016.

Therefore, the most likely scenario involves a stronger and more stable security situation in most of Turkey. In contrast, conflict could crystallize in the southeast of the country, with no prospects for reconciliation. This could lead to moderate economic recovery in the coming years (thanks to a greater inflow of tourists and foreign investment) and allow Erdoğan to win the next presidential election and remain in power for several more years (in theory until 2029, when a potential second term would expire).