TLDR Upfront: Despite strategic realignment an escalating pattern of instability within Turkey puts it on a dangerous path with an uncertain immediate future.
Full Context in the Back: Beginning to have one of those bad feelings, with little supporting evidence, that ISIS may be looking in desperation to try and destabilize Turkey. To not only tilt it, but tip it over. It was one of their original growth strategies. Gain through division and stabilize their position by expanding chaos. They played it well in Syria and Iraq, moved to try it in Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia and were checked through varying means. Now hemmed in on all sides and in a seemingly unwinnable position – this may be their Bulge offensive, a hail mary to create enough instability to change the strategic factors in the region and thus change some element of that equation.
Part of what made this strategy useful for them is they never made it about ISIS vs. Iraq or Syria alone. But as I described it in metaphor, if ISIS was 3 and Iraq was 10, then ISIS exploited sectarian and ethnographic tensions to make it Iraqi Suuni (2), Iraqi Shia (3), Iraqi Kurd (3), Iraqi other minorities (1) etc. That suddenly makes ISIS’s “3” look a lot stronger especially when it begins pulling the Suuni’s into its orbit and presents as 5.
Likewise in Turkey there are enough existing fault lines to work with. The long standing Turkey – PKK (Kurdish) insurgency that simmered for two decades after the Ocalan cease fire, now back out in the open. The more recent falling out between Erdogan and Fetlluh Gulen and subsequent failed coup. Beneath it all is a suppressed simmering widespread popular unrest at government elites expressed in the Gezi Park protests. That latter may be diffused in the face of national security crisis, or it may be inflamed and aimed in a variety of directions. We know domestically that the “rally as one” effect of 9/11 of 2001 had long passed under the withering pressure of social media by 6/12 of 2016.
But take today’s bombing and shootout in Izmir. Allegedly twenty “ISIS suspects” related to the New Year’s Eve shooting attack in Bosporus were being detained at the courthouse where the attack happened. However, Izmir is a flash point of several recent PKK attacks on Turkish police and military over the last year- including car bombings, rocket propelled grenade attacks and shootouts. And the roundup of “ISIS” suspects could’ve just as easily been from a list of PKK supporters, with the NYE attack used as pretext.
This is why some Turkish authorities are pointing to PKK militants as the instigators and others to ISIS supporters for today’s attack. At the end of the day – does it matter? A look over the video and images (not in the link below as they are NSFW) look more like an active combat zone than “just” a car bombing (and yes that is a distinction that matters in these circumstances.) This is in one of Turkey’s largest cities. Just a few days after 39 were killed in a mass shooting in Turkey’s largest city barely a week after a Russian envoy was was essentially shot live on TV in the nation’s capitol.
Simply by overlaying those same events into a US context in *today’s* political climate: a Dallas Police ambush today, just after an Orlando Pulse Club shooting on New Years eve only a few days after the British envoy is shot to death by a DC Metro cop who shouts political slogans against President Obama or President-elect Trump (take your pick.)
It’d be hard to say what kind of state we’d be in. And we haven’t even had a military coup or the kind of insurgent militarized violence as Turkey in the last year with a raging multilateral conflict just on the other side of the border. We just had a sharp-elbowed election that have left some hard feelings and a lot of uncertainty.
That kind of escalating pattern of instability can gain a life of its own. It doesn’t need to be “for” one side or another, but there are only two players in the region who have a background of systemically taking advantage of such instability.
I’m not saying Turkey is tipping over. But it is beginning to tilt. The security situation is ping-ponging between multiple crisis’s just at the time where institutions most capable of dealing with such crises (military and police) have been gutted by purges and arrests. Under circumstances like these authoritarians like Erdogan often seek to gain control under means that themselves lead to further destabilization as they exacerbate conflict. ISIS’s shift to publicly claiming attacks (they had done many before but never made such a point about taking credit) is a sharp stick in the eye. “Your president can’t protect you.” It’s exactly the murmur campaign that preceded the Mosul offensive.
It’s less about getting people to start siding with ISIS, which I doubt many would, and more about getting them to think about starting to fend for themselves.
As much as Erdogan is pulling a coup of his own in resetting the strategic board with his realignment with Russia and Iran, he’s got a near-term crisis on his hands that he has got to get under control, and in a way that won’t provoke more backlash down the road. (Not his strong suit.)
As this was written largely off the top of my head I don’t have my normal footnoted links for an InfoMullet, but here’s some additional sources.
Examples of PKK attacks in Izmir over the summer and fall. Caveat – these are Turkish based newspapers so they’re going to have the same perspective on reporting of the PKK that the US might have with AQ etc.