Turkey Bomb Seen as Syria Blowback Spurs Calls for Policy Change

Turkey bombing
Two victims hold hands after an explosion in the town of Suruc in Sanliurfa, Turkey, on July 20, 2015. Photographer: Depo Photos/AFP/Getty Images

Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu vowed to stop the spillover of violence from Syria as opposition groups blamed his foreign policy for a deadly attack near the border.

Monday’s suspected suicide bombing killed 32 people in the town of Suruc, mostly Kurdish activists preparing to cross the border and help their Syrian allies, who earlier this year drove Islamic State from Kobani. Authorities say the jihadist group is the prime suspect, though no one has claimed responsibility.

Davutoglu said Tuesday that he won’t let factions in Syria’s civil war export their fight to Turkey. Opposition parties said it’s his government that has dragged Turkey into the conflict by backing Islamist rebels. Their view may carry more weight than usual because the premier’s party lost its parliament majority in last month’s election, for the first time in more than a decade, and now needs a coalition partner.

“What we’re seeing is confirmation of the saying that whoever sows the wind shall reap the whirlwind,” Haluk Koc, deputy head of the main opposition Republican People’s Party or CHP, said Tuesday. He spoke after meeting officials from Davutoglu’s Ak Party for coalition talks.

The premier has singled out the CHP as his likeliest partner, and Koc said that foreign policy was “an important issue” in the negotiations.

Turkish Suspicions

Turkey’s government under Davutoglu and his predecessor who’s now president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been accused by its NATO allies as well as domestic opponents of getting its priorities wrong in Syria. The U.S. is bombing Islamic State there, and providing air support to Syrian Kurds who are fighting the jihadists.

Turkey, by contrast, is suspicious of the Syrian Kurds because of their ties to a group fighting for autonomy in largely Kurdish southeast Turkey. And critics say that its emphasis on the need to topple President Bashar al-Assad has led the government to turn a blind eye to Islamist militants fighting against him, including Islamic State.

The government denies providing any support for the militants, and points to the difficulty of preventing fighters slipping across a 910-kilometer (566-mile) border.

After a visit this month by U.S. General John Allen, who’s coordinating the fight against Islamic State, Turkey announced it had taken steps against the militants. Officials said that recruiters have been rounded up, and as many as 1,500 aspiring fighters deported.

‘Real Threat’

Yet differences persist: Turkey has declined to allow the use of its Incirlik airbase for operations against the jihadists, while its own proposal for a buffer zone inside Syria has failed to gain U.S. backing, and has been criticized as a move aimed at Kurdish territorial gains in the region rather than Islamic State.

In the long run, Turkey “needs to see that the real threat coming from Syria is not al-Assad but the Islamic State,” said Sinan Ulgen, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Erdogan made Assad’s removal his top priority in Syria after falling out with his former friend and ally over Syria’s bloody crackdown on protesters in 2011. He accuses Assad of massacring his own people, while the Syrian leader says Turkey is fueling sectarian tensions by backing Sunni extremists among the rebels.

Even if Monday’s bombing was an extension of Islamic State’s campaign in Syria, rather than a direct attack on Turkey, it should still prompt a policy reassessment, said Nihat Ali Ozcan, an analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation in Ankara.

While Davutoglu promised to step up border security, it will probably be impossible to prevent future violence between Kurds and Islamist militants on the Turkish side of the border, Ozcan said. Turkey’s best hope of containing the threat is a Syrian policy that prioritizes ending the war, he said.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE