Degenerating Security Environment in Turkey
Turkey has been deeply affected by the developments especially in Syria with President Bashar al-Assad still holding on to his position, the Kurds gaining in stature because of their fight against Daesh, and the Russians aiding the Assad regime with full force. The sudden spike in terrorist attacks in Turkey, assassination of the Russian Ambassador to Turkey, bombing of Istanbul airport, a nightclub massacre, are instances which can be argued to have contributed to degeneration of security environment in Turkey.
This article will therefore attempt to analyse the evolving security environment of Turkey in the recent past as it has impacted Turkish interests and policies. Though Turkey is not unfamiliar with degrading security environment, there are now new threats that add to the longstanding ones that Turkey has had to deal with.
Turkey has been an advocate of toppling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and largely ignoring the Daesh. According to a Turkey expert, “Turkey is becoming increasingly entangled in the Syrian quagmire, and as Turkey becomes more involved in the implosion of Syria, Turkey is seeing the instability in Syria crossing over the border and impacting its security.”
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was one of the main players who backed the Syria conflict to accelerate the downfall of Assad regime. It has been argued that Turkey had left Daesh alone, and Daesh largely left Turkey alone in terms of attacks, though fighters and supplies were routed through the country. By the time Turkey decided to take more precautions, Daesh had established many footholds and supporters in Turkey.
The evolving security environment in Turkey has given rise to the narrative of “Pakistanization of Turkey” within the context of Turkey’s relationship with jihadist groups in Syria. Pakistanization of Turkey refers to the increasing ability of extremist and armed groups (often supported by Turkey) to export violence into Turkey’s neighbourhood. Such groups openly propagate violence and radicalism without or minimal repercussions by the Turkish state. The Turkish authorities are either unwilling or incapable of dealing effectively with such threats to its citizens and to the state authority.
In this context, it has been further argued that the effects of such development do not remain within the borders of Turkey; rather, as is the case with Pakistan, such a country becomes a breeding ground of radicalisation and eventually undermines neighbouring countries.
Turkey’s Syria policy has been considered ad hoc and reactive. It has evolved from seeking to use personal relations to convince Bashar al-Assad to compromise to eventually partaking in operations in supporting rebel groups to oust Assad. Turkey’s policy on Syria since the start of the uprising in March 2011 has continually evolved due to the realisation of the gap between its ambitions and capabilities, as well as changes on the ground due to the actions of other state and non-state actors.
Turkey is trying to cope with several challenges emanating from destabilised Syria, the most pressing one being the refugee crisis, while Russian military presence in Syria rendered Turkey’s options limited. Additionally, Turkey’s recent hardening of position towards Syrian Kurds hampered the peace process with Turkish Kurdish population, which has presented Turkey with a challenge both from Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Daesh.
In the context of degenerating security environment in Turkey, it is important to note that Turkey is facing a rise in large-scale terrorist attacks since the start of the Syrian conflict. The attack inside an Istanbul nightclub on New Year’s Day, 2017 is the latest episode in a string of brutal terrorist attacks in Turkey, where terrorism has spiked since 2012. In 2016 alone, 484 died in numerous terrorist attacks.
The New Year’s Day (2017) Daesh-claimed attack where 39 people were killed occurred in the shadow of two other high-profile terrorist incidents in December 2016 – on 17 December 2016, twin blasts killed 38 people, mostly police in Istanbul; on 19 December 2016, a gunman assassinated Russian Ambassador Anrei Karlov at an Ankara art gallery. In other words, data from the Global Terrorism Database (GTD) shows that Turkey has seen an increase both in the number of terrorist incidents and in their level of violence. Compilation of terrorist incidents in Turkey from media reports and comparing it to GTD data from prior years shows that 2016 recorded the highest number of deaths by terrorist attack in Turkey in recent history.
Analysts have argued that in 2016, violence perpetrated by the PKK declined, but attacks by Daesh and Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK), a splinter group of the PKK, caused more deaths. Other Islamic militant groups which have carried out terrorist attacks in Turkey include Great Easter Islamic Raiders Front (IBDA-C). Marxist militant groups are Turkish Communist Party/Marxist (TKP-ML), Devrimici Halk Kurtulus Cephesi (DHKP/C) and Revolutionary Headquarters (Turkey).
The failed July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey has also had an impact on the security environment in Turkey. The instability in Turkey till very recently has had no discernible effect on the Turkish security apparatus. However, in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt, Turkish security officials are now being asked to fight three different sub-state groups – followers of Fetullah Gulen, the man who President Erdogan blames for the attempted coup; the PKK; and the Daesh.
In the aftermath of the attempted coup, the Turkish military also underwent a process of purging its Gulenist elements, which affected its morale and cohesion at a time when the armed forces played an instrumental role in Turkey’s efforts to combat Kurdish separatists and Daesh terrorism and strengthening Turkey’s border controls, which have helped to impede the flow of foreign jihadists into Daesh-controlled territory in Syria. The weakened trusts in the wake of the coup attempt gave rise to hurdles in inter-agency cooperation between the military, the police, and the intelligence services.
One of the most important recent developments since 2002 in Turkish politics is the rise of the centre-right party, Justice and Development Party (AKP) under the incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. A 2006 study found that Turkish society stands divided with one side not feeling bounded by the Sunni religious belief system while the other side that feels closer to the Islamists than the secularists.
Turkey under President Erdogan does not see itself as a strictly Western country any longer. While on the one hand Turkey’s request for European Union (EU) membership has stalled, which has hurt Turkey’s national pride and feelings, on the other hand, Turkey’s relationship with countries that are poliarised are considered to be unique and valuable.
In conclusion, one can state that Turkey is not unfamiliar with harmful effects of conflict on its borders as it has experienced conflict on its borders. As such, Turkey is mindful of the impact these can have on its internal security. While past terrorist threats have mainly emanated from PKK, which have typically aimed the government, military and civilian targets, the largest terrorist acts in the recent times have been claimed to be orchestrated by Daesh and other Islamist groups.
Though the Republic of Turkey was considered stable, peaceful, democratic, and secular in a region full of conflicts; the occurrences in recent past have undermined such considerations. Rather Turkey is faced with a dilemma of overthrowing the Assad regime, hostility toward Kurds, who are fighting the Daesh with American support, and supporting anti-Assad forces for which President Erdogan has been accused of radicalising Turkey and plunging the country into deep state. President Erdogan’s autocratic ways coupled with spat of terrorist attacks have highlighted Turkey’s degenerating security environment in recent times.
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