A Perfect Storm: The Syrian Civil War Is Spilling Into Turkey

ISTANBUL -- On Saturday, Turkey suffered the worst terrorist attack in its history. Two suicide bombers blew themselves up in downtown Ankara, killing some 97 people and wounding hundreds. Most of the victims were there to attend a rally for "peace" -- in protest of the ongoing "war" between the Turkish government and Kurdish militants. There was in fact police security at the very site of the march. But the suicide bombers were shrewd enough to explode themselves right between the site and the train station, from which many were walking to attend the rally. The youngest victim was 9-year-old Veysel Atılgan, who was holding his father's hand when both were blown to pieces.

Who did this? Who hit Turkey, right at the heart of its capital, with such cruelty? It is not easy to find an unbiased factual answer. Turkey has lately become a fiercely polarized nation between the supporters and the dissidents of the government of President Tayyip Erdoğan. Hence, right after the horrible carnage, pro-government propagandists began to suggest on Twitter that the PKK, the militant Kurdish group, must have done the job to "show themselves as the victims." (Many of the victims were either Kurdish or leftist, including members of the Peace and Democracy Party, or HDP, which is sympathetic to the PKK.)

On the other side of the divide, anti-government propagandists instantly saw a government conspiracy in the bloodshed. The popular narrative is that Erdoğan has been intentionally destabilizing Turkey ever since the June elections (when his party, the AKP, lost parliament majority) -- and that this tragedy is evidence of that. Even as someone as prominent as the leader of the HDP, Selahattin Demirtas, claimed that the attack was a ploy by the "murderous state" to silence and intimidate opposition in the wake of the Nov. 1 elections.

The three ISIS attacks in Turkey in the past four months are reflections of the war in northern Syria between ISIS and secular Kurdish forces.

However, a police investigation soon pointed to a third party as the culprit: the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. Turkish police found evidence that the type of explosive and the choice of target pointed to a Turkish group within ISIS known as the "Adiyaman ones," a reference to Adiyaman, a very conservative province in southeastern Turkey. It is just now being reported that Turkish police have identified the two bombers as Ömer Deniz Dündar and Yunus Emre Alagöz, who are both believed to have links to ISIS.

ISIS should have been the suspect from the very beginning, as I noted right after the incident. For this was a typical extreme jihadist attack, with suicide bombers and massive casualties -- something we have not seen from Turkey's Kurdish, left-wing or right-wing militants. Moreover, ISIS recruits have executed two similar bombings against similar targets -- secular, left-wing, pro-Kurdish groups -- in the past three months alone. The first was the bombing of an HDP rally in Diyarbakır on June 5, just two days before the elections, which killed two people. The suspect turned out to be an ISIS recruit. The second, more devastating attack took place in Suruc on July 20, when a suicide bomber killed 32 people. Most victims were left-wing activists who had gathered there to bring humanitarian aid, including toys for kids, to the embattled Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane. DNA tests have identified the terrorist as Seyh Abdurrahman Alagoz, a university student recently radicalized at the "Islam Tea House" in Adiyaman.

The third attack, the recent bombing in Ankara, shows that ISIS is a major threat not just in the ever-tense southeastern cities, but even now in the very capital of the country. There is no sensible reason to think that the government is mastering this threat in an imagined conspiracy of gathering votes out of instability, as many opposition voices seem to believe. But the Turkish government is responsible for not doing enough against the ISIS threat. This includes the lack of enough police security at left-wing and pro-Kurdish rallies, including the deadly one in Ankara. It also includes ineffective surveillance of ISIS cells inside Turkey. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu raised many questions on this issue when he said yesterday, "Turkey has a list of suicide bombing suspects." Many wondered how this list helps us if attacks such as the one in Ankara cannot be prevented or why these potential suicide bombers are not arrested, in a country where journalists can be arrested for mere tweets.

The bombing in Ankara shows that ISIS is a major threat not just in the ever-tense southeastern cities, but even now in the very capital of the country.

The more strategic problem is Ankara's involvement in the Syrian civil war. Since the beginning of this conflict, Erdoğan and Davutoglu (who were then the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister) condemned the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and supported the Syrian opposition. This was arguably an idealist policy for Assad was -- and still is -- a brutal tyrant that mass murders his own people. However, Turkey did not have the power to topple Assad and has merely become a partner in a desperate proxy war. Moreover, among "freedom fighters" that Ankara supported, a fanatical strain began to emerge that finally evolved to ISIS. The The same twist of fate hit the U.S. too in Afghanistan in the 1980s: Some of the American-supported "freedom fighters" that fought the Soviet Union turned into al Qaeda.

Ankara woke up to the ISIS threat only belatedly and still insufficiently. Today, in the pro-government media, there is an ideological insistence on seeing ISIS as a transient phenomenon -- not as an actor in itself but as a "pawn" of a giant Western conspiracy aimed at destabilizing the region and weakening Turkey. Sadly, such conspiratorial thinking is the common mood in Turkey these days, which blinds the nation to the complicated risks it is facing.

In a very broad sense, what is happening is that the Syrian civil war is spilling into Turkey. The three major ISIS attacks in the past four months -- Diyarbakir, Suruc and Ankara -- are actually reflections of the war in northern Syria between ISIS and the secular Kurdish forces organized under the banner of the PYD, the Democratic Union Party. Since it is no secret that the PYD is the Syrian version of Turkey's PKK, the latter and its affiliates also became targets for ISIS. ISIS publications in Turkish condemn all these secular Kurdish forces as "the atheist gang" and even denounce the Turkish government for (supposedly) supporting these Kurds via its military collaboration with the U.S.

Turkey's governing elite lives in a world of conspiratorial fantasy, while the society is bitterly divided between Erdoğan lovers and haters.

In short, Turkey is in deep and multi-faceted trouble. Turkey's own three-decade-long war with the PKK, which has a death toll that exceeds 40,000 people, is now exacerbated by the ISIS-Kurdish war in Syria. Many Kurds say the Turkish government is using ISIS as a proxy in this war. Meanwhile, ISIS is sharpening its blades against both the Kurds and the Turkish government. Turkey's governing elite lives in a world of conspiratorial fantasy, while the society is bitterly divided between Erdoğan lovers and haters. Only wise leadership can diffuse tension, build reconciliation and follow a sensible policy of national security in close cooperation with Turkey's Western allies. But the current leadership is not that. And thus, we have a perfect storm.

Ankara explosions