Friday, July 8, 2016

Self Inflicted

Oh, the Ottomans!

For years, Ankara was focused on Assad instead of the jihadist networks operating on its soil. Now those cells are focused on destroying Turkey.

The Islamic State has waged a yearlong military campaign in Turkey that includes suicide bombings, unguided rockets fired from Syria into Turkish border towns, and the assassination of Syrian journalists living there. The June 28 attack on Istanbul’s main airport by three non-Turkish suicide bombers that left 44 people dead and over 200 people injured is its latest blow in its war against Turkey. It was the 10th Islamic State-linked bomb attack, a spree that claimed the lives of 233 people since January 2015.

Despite Ankara’s efforts, the Islamic State retains the ability to continue its terror attacks – and has developed a strategy designed to destabilize the country and silence its enemies. 

The Islamic State’s goals are to undermine the Turkish economy, increase ethnic and political polarization in the country, assassinate Syrian voices critical of the group, and punish Turkey for supporting Arab opposition groups hostile to it. This strategy is not a response to a single event — like recent Islamic State losses or Turkey’s outreach to Israel — but rather a carefully conceived plan to terrorize the Turkish population and destabilize the country.

The Islamic State’s network in Turkey is built on an older and well-established network of Turkish Salafists. A small subset of this population has links to international jihad and, for about three years after the beginning of Syria’s civil war, operated relatively openly in numerous Turkish cities despite being under surveillance by Turkish intelligence for suspected links to al Qaeda.

Turkey has few options left to escalate its war against the Islamic State, other than using its ground forces to take territory from the group. But Ankara has made it clear that it’s not prepared to commit ground forces in Syria, so it will be left to work through proxies. This suggests that Turkey’s next steps will be more of the same: police raids, near-daily shelling of Islamic State targets in northern Aleppo, continued support for the anti-Islamic State coalition, and greater flexibility about the timetable for the departure of Assad in a potential U.S.- and Russian-backed Syrian peace agreement.

For Turkey, the fight against the Islamic State will continue long after Raqqa is liberated and the group is pushed from its border. The average birth year of Turkish Islamic State fighters is 1990, according to data this author collected. This means that the average Islamic State fighter was just 20 when the war in Syria started. Many of those not killed during the conflict will return to Turkey, with potentially devastating effects for the country’s domestic peace.