Saturday 14 December 2019

Turkey's slide into extremism and bloodshed likely to worsen in 2017

Nisa, eight-year old daughter of police officer Fethi Sekin, who was killed in an attack on Izmir courthouse on Thursday, mourns over her father’s coffin during a funeral ceremony in Izmir, Turkey, yesterday. Photo: Reuters/Hakan Akgun
Nisa, eight-year old daughter of police officer Fethi Sekin, who was killed in an attack on Izmir courthouse on Thursday, mourns over her father’s coffin during a funeral ceremony in Izmir, Turkey, yesterday. Photo: Reuters/Hakan Akgun

Mary Fitzgerald

Few can resist the spell of Istanbul. Beyond the clichés of it as a bridge between east and west, Istanbul is one of the great cities of the world, its rich history and centuries-old cosmopolitanism a draw for visitors from across the globe.

I lived there for a short period and regularly visit to catch up with native Istanbullu friends or expats who, having fallen for its charms, adopted the city as their own.

After a string of attacks in Istanbul over the past year, the latest the horrific targeting of a nightclub on the banks of the Bosporus on New Year's Eve, some of the latter are now weighing up whether they should stay, others have already decided to leave.

They say the Istanbul they know and love has changed, its air now heavy with fears of another bombing, another shooting, another strike at the heart of what makes the city so special.

Last year also opened with terror when a bombing blamed on jihadists targeted Sultanahmet, the historic centre of the city where much of its Ottoman and Byzantine pasts converge, killing 13 people, all foreign tourists.

Two months later a suicide bomber struck Istiklal Street - a pedestrianised shopping thoroughfare I used to live close to, where the atmosphere is a little like Dublin's Grafton Street - killing four. Another bombing in June claimed by Kurdish militants devastated Ottoman-era buildings, and was followed by an attack - blamed on Isil militants - on the city's main airport, a key hub for the region.

Nerves were already jangled by the time renegade soldiers attempted a coup in July, prompting the increasingly authoritarian government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to respond with a heavy hand, ordering mass arrests and news blackouts. Journalist friends in Turkey - both Turkish and foreign - find it increasingly difficult to work. Many reporters have been detained or had their credentials withdrawn.

Last month, Kurdish militants claimed responsibility for a twin bomb attack outside the home grounds of popular Istanbul team Besiktas, which killed over 40 people. And then just weeks later came the attack on December 31, when a gunman targeted dozens of revellers gathered to welcome the new year at Reina, a flashy club whose customers include Turkish celebrities and foreign tourists. Of the 39 dead, 12 were Turkish and 27 of other nationalities, including Lebanese, Jordanian, Indian, Saudi Arabian, French, Israeli, Canadian and Tunisian - testament to Istanbul's place in the global imagination. In a poignant detail, some of the clubbers, desperate to escape the spray of bullets, jumped into the freezing waters of the Bosporus, which separates Europe from Asia.

What made the Reina attack different is that it was the first time Isil explicitly crowed that it had carried out the atrocity, describing it as part of a campaign against Turkey which it described as "the protector of the cross".

While critics accuse Turkey of contributing to the rise of Isil, by allowing foreign fighters - some of whom later joined Isil - to flow over its border with Syria in the first years of the uprising against president Bashar al-Assad, Turkey has now become a prime target for the militants as the New Year's Eve attack demonstrates.

This is partly due to the fact that the Turkish army is currently conducting a major operation inside Syria against Isil, and the extremists seem determined to retaliate.

Drawn into Syria's conflict due to its proximity and since a much-criticised decision by Mr Erdogan and his government to support opposition forces seeking to dislodge Mr Assad, Turkey now finds itself haunted by the fallout, whether through attacks by extremists or emboldened Kurdish militants.

Less than two weeks before the Istanbul attack, an off-duty Turkish police officer shot dead the Russian ambassador to Turkey at an art gallery in the capital Ankara, claiming he was seeking revenge for Moscow's bombing of the erstwhile rebel enclave in eastern Aleppo.

Apart from the threat posed by foreign Isil militants - the Reina attacker appears to have been from Asia, according to Turkish authorities - the assassination of the Russian ambassador triggered worries of a different sort, that Turkey is grappling with its own indigenous extremism.

As some Turkish commentators have pointed out that does not always necessarily manifest itself in violence. Before Isil claimed responsibility for the nightclub attack, several, including renowned Turkish novelist Elif Safak, had noted that in the preceding weeks, there had been an uptick in criticism of New Year's celebrations, including some sinister protests in a number of cities and towns.

There will be many questions now over how the threat to Istanbul, and Turkey more generally, might grow this year and how the Turkish authorities will respond to that threat. A further drift into authoritarianism by Mr Erdogan and his government is in no one's interest.

Irish Independent

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