The “Santa Claus” shooting rampage one hour after midnight, killing 39 New Year revelers and injuring 69 at the Istanbul Reina nightclub, was the first terrorist event of 2017. It came on the heels of the assassination of the Russian ambassador Andrew Karlov in Ankara on Monday, Dec. 19, by a Turkish special forces officer, 22-year old Mevlit Mert Atlintas, shouting “This is for Syria!” on behalf of Al Qaeda’s Syrian arm, the Nusra Front.
That murder had the historic distinction of marking the opening of the floodgates for the Syrian war and its terrorist adjuncts to start surging across the border into Turkey.
The Turkish army’s August invasion of northern Syria triggered a sharp escalation of devastating terrorist attacks in the country by Syrian-based organizations, the Islamic State,then Nusra, and TAK-the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, on top of the local Kurdish separatist PKK’s regular outrages.
However the impact of even those crippling events pales against the earthquake rumbling through the country and threatening to blow its society, armed forces and ruling institutions apart, under the weight of the three wars which President Tayyip Erdogan has ignited:
His troops are fighting three concurrent wars – two outside its borders in Syria and Iraq and a campaign at home against Kurdish insurgency. While Turkey’s involvement in all three has been low key, it is being dragged into wider and more complicated areas of conflict.
Turkish intelligence is over-stretched for contending with the three wars while at the same time thwarting the terrorist networks planted in Turkey by the Islamic State, Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front and Syrian Kurdish insurgents.
In 2016, Ankara and Istanbul suffered several attacks by Daesh terrorists and the PKK that killed more than 180 people.
The Russian-Syrian-Iranian-Hizballah victory in Aleppo has pushed large numbers of defeated Syrian rebels into the Idlib region on the Turkish border, presenting Ankara with a dilemma: To leave the border open as it is at present, or to seal it as Moscow is demanding. Shutting it would compress the fugitive rebels inside a Russian-Syrian-Turkish box – much like the blockade Israel and Egypt impose on the Palestinian Gaza Strip. It would leave the Syrian rebels with not much option for surviving but to take their war into southern Turkey.
Turkish armed forces are, like the MIT intelligence service, heavily over-extended by the war on ISIS in Syria at the same time as battling al Qaeda’s Nusra Front (aka the Fatah al-Sham Front) which orchestrated the assassination of the Russian ambassador), Syrian rebel fundamentalist Muslim groups and Kurdish terrorists.
The situation could tip over into calamity if the Kurdish minority chose this moment to rise up against the Erdogan government, with the backing of the PKK and the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia. There are 10 million Kurds living in southern Turkey out of a total of 22 million in the country.
Ankara is in the process of exiting NATO, turning its back on the United States and Europe and forging a detente with Russia, China and Iran.
The Obama administration has not managed to halt this process. Its errors may have even sped Turkey on its flight from the West. The Trump administration will have to decide whether it is willing or able to haul Turkey back into line or take advantage of the process for America’s benefit.
Since the July coup against his government, Erdogan has been pursuing an uninterrupted crackdown and purge in every walk of Turkish life, in pursuit of his struggle against his main rival, Fethullah Gulen, whom he accuses of orchestrating the putsch from his place of exile in America. The Turkish ruler blames Gulen each time any opposition raises its head. He then crushes such opponents with a heavy hand.
This regime of repression has had the opposite effect to the one Erdogan intended. Gulen, formerly a marginal figure in Turkish politics, is now a giant and a hero to increasing segments of Turkish society. People are also being driven into the arms of radical elements.
If Erdogan fails to curb the spillover of the Syrian war into Turkey, he may find himself fighting not on one but three home fronts: Kurds, radical Islamists and the Gulen movement.