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Reading the Signs from Suruc

Suruc is a dusty little town in southeastern Turkey that, until recently, was best known for sitting across the border from Kobane, Syria, the Kurdish village that the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) besieged for months starting in late 2014. Now Suruc has a newfound notoriety as the reason why Turkey has finally and necessarily gotten serious about fighting ISIS.

Turkish media and officials quickly blamed ISIS when a suicide bomber killed 32 people at a socialist youth rally in Suruc on July 20. Turkish authorities are still delving into the past of the alleged bomber, a 20-year-old man who spent months in Jordan prior to the bombing. But focusing on his specific origin in Adiyaman, a poor province in eastern Turkey that has spawned foreign fighters since the Balkan wars in the 1990s, overshadows the broader problem of Turkey’s longtime ambivalence about ISIS, itself a contributing factor to the recent violence. Instead, Suruc is critical because it has prodded Turkey into re-thinking its approach to ISIS and its neighbor Syria.

Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has equivocated about ISIS for years because its singular intention for Syria since 2011 has been the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. So Turkey backed a grab-bag of players in the ever-evolving mishmash of rebel groups seeking to oust the regime, wantonly gifting food, money, logistical support, and weapons to opposition fighters including the al Qa’ida affiliate Jabhat al Nusrah, from which ISIS later split to form its own, even more sinister, entity. And when it came to assessing threats, Turkish officials, in line with public opinion that—before the Suruc bombing—considered the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) a greater threat than ISIS, made ousting the PKK the top priority for its defense dollars.

At its most biting, criticism of the government’s ISIS policy before Suruc alleges that the AKP’s anyone-but-Assad attitude led to its outright support for ISIS. Accusations from Kurdish groups and the main opposition Republican Peoples Party (CHP) center around one particularly suspicious incident in January 2014, when trucks sent by Turkey’s intelligence agency were stopped at a military checkpoint en route to Syria and found to contain weapons. Critics claim these weapons were intended for ISIS and traveling at the discretion of AKP leaders including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan insisted that the trucks were carrying humanitarian aid. He also oversaw the arrests of the local official and soldiers who respectively ordered and conducted the searches, and barred Turkish media from reporting on the ongoing case.

For their part, AKP officials unequivocally deny having backed ISIS, citing a gradual increase in anti-terror measures in the last year—including several high-profile arrests of would-be European fighters on their way to Syria. Crackdowns on accused ISIS supporters in Turkey indeed picked up after two notable events in 2014, including an alleged ISIS member’s fatal shooting of two security officers and a truck driver at a checkpoint last March, and ISIS forces’ takeover of the Turkish Consulate in Mosul last June, in which they took 49 consular workers hostage and held them for more than three months.

These incidents prompted Turkey to differentiate more forcefully and transparently between ISIS and other rebel groups borne out of the Syria conflict, but they weren’t enough to propel the AKP government to serious action. The AKP still largely viewed ISIS as a nuisance rather than a threat.

As result, ISIS has proliferated in Turkey just as it has grown throughout the Middle East. Official Turkish figures released earlier this year suggest that Turkey has spawned over 1,400 ISIS fighters and another 3,000 supporters who may comprise “sleeper cells” in the country. And those admissions came from a government that has tried to downplay the foreign fighter problem as much as possible—that is, until Suruc.

The July 20 bombing appears to be the watershed moment marking a reluctant Turkey’s firm entrance into the ISIS fight.

Mere days after the attack, Turkey has adopted a tougher stance against ISIS, agreeing to let the U.S. use its Incirlik air base for airstrikes and launching its own such airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. and Turkey also announced plans to bomb ISIS out of a 98-kilometer “ISIS-free zone” in northern Syria, and Turkey released elaborate plans for a complex system of walls, fences, surveillance balloons, industrial lighting, and even moats to secure a greater swathe of the border. Recent arrests in over 100 locations nationwide brought 600 suspected terrorists into police custody (although most of these were PKK militants, not ISIS members). Altogether, Turkey has moved harder against ISIS in the last 10 days than otherwise in the last four years.

Yet, even these strong anti-terror policies against ISIS will have complicating ripple effects, like a further fracturing between Islamists and Kurds in Turkey (many of whom in the latter group are more left- and secular-leaning, although some ethnic Kurds fight on behalf of ISIS), and the angering of Turkey’s homegrown extremists. For example, Turkish Islamists claim (without appreciable evidence) that the PKK conducted the Suruc bombing in order to scapegoat ISIS and provoke Turkey into a military response.

The anti-terror ramp-up may also add fuel to the fire of Salafi radicalism. Salafis are very conservative Muslims who cultivate in very insular communities a radical fervor against anything deemed impure. Though a drop in the bucket of Turkey’s 80 million or so Muslims, a few thousand Salafis in Turkey can succeed in generating homegrown ISIS sympathizers, potential ISIS recruits, or future lone wolf attackers. As they continue to implement tougher policies against ISIS, the Turkish government—in addition to arresting suspected ISIS members—should consider increasing its monitoring of well-known Salafi leaders’ pro-ISIS statements, and undertaking public awareness campaigns to counter them.

No amount of counter-measures can preclude the possibility of another terror attack in a country with over 700 miles of winding borders with Syria and Iraq, swathes of which ISIS controls. The question is whether Turkey’s stringent response will succeed in signaling to ISIS a new era of firm opposition, and deterring ISIS operatives from targeting civilians in Turkey again in the future.

In the short term, a change in the players may be the best hope for the Turkish government’s heightened efforts to stymie ISIS. June elections spelled the end of single-party rule in Turkey as the AKP failed to win an outright majority for the first time since 2002. Erdogan will remain the linchpin of Turkish decision-making, but will have to form a coalition government that will at least bring other ideas into the halls of power.

The addition of Turkish bombs to the arsenal of those fighting ISIS probably won’t spell the end of the terror group in the near future. But Turkey’s actions may show ISIS that Turkey isn’t a patron state. Perhaps that shift alone can prevent another 30 people from experiencing the horror that struck Suruc last week, and that’s something to root for.

Author:

Sarabrynn Hudgins is a Middle East expert and human rights advocate with an MA in Security Studies from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. Her work has appeared in Slate, Quartz, and Huffington Post, among other publications. She is also a former employee of New America's Open Technology Institute.