Turkey is sinking into the quagmire of Syria

With urban conflicts and major terrorist attacks, Turkey is looking more and more like its war-ravaged neighbour.

Turkish soldiers stand guard near the site of an explosion in Ankara
Ankara might want to stop focusing on destroying the PKK, YPG, and Assad and ticking off Putin, and get its own house in order, writes Lepeska [Reuters]

Volunteer aid workers breakfasting near the Syrian border. A massive, joyous peace rally in the centre of Ankara, the nation’s capital. Foreign tourists taking in centuries-old monuments in the heart of old Istanbul. And, finally, a convoy of military personnel, again in central Ankara.

With nearly 200 people killed in just seven months, the beat goes on in Turkey. Four attacks, four targets, one goal: more terror, chaos, and violence.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu quickly sought to turn the latest bombing to Turkey’s geopolitical advantage. He announced that the attacker, Syrian national Saleh Najjar, had ties to the Syrian Kurdish military group known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Davutoglu says received guidance on the plot from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.

The PKK, which Turkey, the US and EU have labelled a terrorist group, has fought an off-and-on war with Turkey for more than three decades and has been battling Turkey’s military across the southeast since the Suruc bombing last July.

Davutoglu called on allies such as the US – which has relied on the YPG in its fight against ISIL – to cease co-ordination with the group. “It is out of the question for us to excuse tolerance towards a terrorist organisation that targets our people in our capital,” he said.

Deteriorating security situation

As Turkey’s military began a fourth straight day of shelling YPG positions in northern Syria, the PYD and PKK denied any involvement in the attack. But at this point, the perpetrator is nearly irrelevant.

The more pressing issue is security. Turkey is a NATO-member state, with a respected military and a vast intelligence and security apparatus. It’s also a sort of flood wall, helping to keep the swirling maelstrom of Syria out of Europe: after Turkey, the deluge.

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Since the start of the Syrian war, Ankara has sought the ousting of President Bashar al-Assad. Turkey backed rebel groups and provided transit routes for weapons and fighters, and has lately been criticised for helping to create the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). In recent months Turkey increased border controls, built a border wall, and arrested hundreds of alleged terrorists within the country.

But it has become increasingly clear that it’s too little, too late, and that Turkey’s security has deteriorated considerably at the very moment its security challenges have multiplied and grown more deadly, thanks to spillover from Syria.

For Turkey, improving security in the shadow of the mini-world war that is Syria in 2016 would be a taller order, but it would offer an added benefit: greater border controls and migrant monitoring.


In its southeast, Turkey is battling a violent insurgency and engaging in bloody urban conflict – a PKK attack on a military convoy near Diyarbakir on Thursday morning reportedly killed six Turkish soldiers. Meanwhile, it’s taking regular and deadly hits to what should be its best-protected areas.

The signs suggest terrorists, Turkish and Syrian, have built the kind of infrastructure that’s extremely difficult to eradicate. It’s no secret that ISIL and the PKK have it in for Turkey, nor that they can strike almost at will. A list of other potential enemies would include YPG, Assad, and Russia.

Meanwhile, both of the last two suicide bombers have been Syrian refugees. Some 2.5 million Syrian refugees now live in Turkey, and many others continue to pass through Turkey seeking the relative stability of the European Union, posing a potential security threat.

Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Ankara Office Director of the German Marshall Fund, points to three government steps that have undermined Turkey’s security capabilities in recent years: the massive coup-plot cases, known as Ergenekon and Balyoz, that led to the dismissal or imprisonment of top military officials and eroded military morale; the purge of thousands of police officers linked to the Gulen movement, which has reduced the force’s effectiveness; and increasingly troubled relations with neighbouring states, which have curbed diplomacy and intelligence-sharing.

Peace at home, peace in the world

Ankara might want to stop focusing on destroying the PKK, YPG, and Assad and ticking off Putin, and get its own house in order. Unluhisarcikli calls for “a foreign policy prioritising Turkey’s own national security rather than the transformation of its neighbourhood”. This might first involve a ceasefire with the PKK and resumed peace negotiations, followed by a laser-like focus on domestic terrorism. On the latter, Ankara might look to Saudi Arabia for answers.

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After terrorist attacks increased in Saudi Arabia from 2003 to 2006, Riyadh mounted one of the world’s most successful counterterrorism drives. The government beefed up police and security forces, expanded and improved intelligence gathering, built new prisons and created one of the world’s most effective counter-radicalisation programmes. It also encouraged leading imams to speak out against radicalism and terrorist activity. The result was several years of near-zero terrorist deaths.

For Turkey, improving security in the shadow of the mini-world war that is Syria in 2016 would be a taller order, but it would offer an added benefit: greater border controls and migrant monitoring. Because some 10,000 people are still crossing the Aegean from Turkey to Greece every week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is refusing to commit to Ankara’s plan for the EU countries to resettle hundreds of thousands of refugees now living in Turkey.


In fact, the Ankara bombing prodded Davutoglu to cancel a planned trip to Brussels to meet Merkel and discuss the issue. But if Turkey can improve border controls and better monitor foreign arrivals, the EU would begin to ease Turkey’s burden.

Of course, Saudi Arabia’s counter-terror drive didn’t come cheaply. And Ankara’s finances are already strained by a slowing economy. But Turkey’s choice is simple: prioritise counterterrorism and invest heavily in improved security or continue to slide, slowly but surely, into the Syrian quagmire.

David Lepeska is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul. His work focuses on Turkey and the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.