Jessica Michek and Harry Parkhouse contributed to this post.
After large protests erupted in Istanbul’s Gezi Park and Taksim Square at the end of May, quickly spreading across the country, Turkey dominated the news. But as that unrest died down and as the rest of the Middle East grew even more chaotic Turkey disappeared from the headlines. In the last several weeks, however, we have witnessed the Turkish government beginning to react to the summer’s events. While not as captivating as the earlier protests, several events, ranging from the cautiously hopeful to the slightly peculiar, are noteworthy for what they indicate about the careful balance Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) are trying to strike in their politics, both foreign and domestic.
This final post in a series on significant developments in Turkey over the past month, deals with Turkey’s newly announced counterterrorism partnership with the United States. Turkey, surrounded by regional instability and seeking Western support, seems to be attempting to improve relations with the United States through increased cooperation on global terrorism. Previously, we examined the AKP government’s democratization package, Turkey’s attempts to cultivate better ties with China, and the potential for a split between Turkey and the AKP’s most prominent leaders, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and President Abdullah Gül, ahead of Turkey’s upcoming series of elections.
For recommendations on how the United States should address these changing dynamics in Turkey, watch out for the report of the BPC’s Turkey Task Force, chaired by former U.S. Ambassadors to Turkey Morton Abramowitz and Eric Edelman, From Rhetoric to Reality: Reframing U.S. Turkey Policy, that will be released on October 23.
Global Fund to Combat Extremism: Strange Bedfellows
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced at the September 27 Global Counterterrorism Forum in New York City, the creation of a $200 million fund to combat extremism. The Global Fund for Community Engagement and Resilience will be put into action by mid-2014 and will be targeted towards fighting jihadist groups in countries such as Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan.
At first glance, Turkey appears to be a natural partner for such an endeavor. Earlier in the summer, Turkey’s embassy in Somalia was hit by a trio of suicide bombers in an attack that was later claimed by terror group al-Shabaab. Turkish border towns have come under attack from extremist groups in Syria, causing deaths of Turkish citizens. Most notably, twin car bomb attacks in the Turkish town of Reyhanli left at least 52 Turks and Syrian refugees dead and many more injured. The Turkish government is adamant that the attack was the work of the Syrian regime, but Turkish opposition groups and media outlets attribute the attack to the al-Qaeda linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The United States and Turkey have also cooperated on anti-terror efforts in the past, primarily in the form of U.S. support in combating the PKK. The United States has provided Turkey with intelligence and backed Turkey’s incursions into PKK enclaves in northern Iraq. Turkey, through its role in NATO, has contributed to counterterrorism efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While a victim of terrorism, Turkey is also an alleged benefactor of extremist groups in Syria, making Turkey a peculiar partner for U.S. efforts to counter Islamic extremism. Despite the government’s repeated denials, it is widely believed that Turkey has provided extensive support to Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate that has carried out dozens of suicide bombings and has repeatedly clashed with Syrian Kurds. Moreover, Turkey’s support for extremist elements within the Syrian opposition is in direct contrast to the United States, which has declared al-Nusra a terrorist organization. For the United States, combating extremism in Syria is its chief concern; a senior State Department official said, “extremism within the ranks of those trying to bring down Assad…is very unhelpful in terms of finding a sustainable political solution in Syria, which is why we put them on our terrorism list, and it’s why we argue now that the opposition coalition needs to clearly reject and demarcate itself from extremists in the Syrian opposition.”
While this summer’s terrorist attacks on Turkish citizens have soured relations with Turkey’s former extremist allies, recognizing Turkey as a partner in combating extremism instead of pushing for it to completely cut its ties with extremist groups sends conflicting messages to both Turkey and the Syrian opposition.