Have Turkey’s security failings turned a corner?

Turkey is undeniably a more authoritarian state than 12 months or two years ago.

Squeezed by the police state. A boy passes under a police fence at the Sur historical district in Diyarbakir, on June 14. (AFP)

2017/06/25 Issue: 112 Page: 14

The Arab Weekly
Stephen Starr

Not so long ago headlines depicted Turkey as a country buffeted by terrorist attacks and political unrest but Turkey may have turned a corner in its fight against terrorism that has seen hundreds of civilians and police officers killed in attacks.

Over the past several months and as recently as this month, dozens of Islamic State (ISIS) cells in Istanbul and elsewhere in the country have been broken up. Crucial intelligence has been recovered. The border with Syria, once an open door for anyone who wished to pass through, has never been as secure. Major attacks, such as those seen in Istanbul, Ankara and Gaziantep, have all but vanished.

Many will say this has come too little, too late. Attacks on activ­ists in Suruc and Ankara in July and October 2015, at Ataturk airport last summer and at the Reina nightclub on New Year’s Eve have shaken the country and damaged Turkey’s economy. Some claim that Ankara’s backing of Syrian rebel groups in 2012 and 2013, groups that in the years since have advocated a more extreme world view, allowed terrorists to covertly move across the border to Syria. Slack border monitoring several years ago allowed hundreds of civilians to flee Syrian government air strikes and killings. It also, however, allowed radicalised young men to return to their homes around Tur­key from where they carried out many of the above-mentioned atrocities.

The past six months have seen the violence, which marked 2016 as a year that reached the depths of unrest, dry up. The ongoing conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) continues to take the lives of soldiers and, occasionally civilians, almost every day. Devastating and tragic as that is, it is happening in isolated and often rural districts of the south-east, not in major centres of commerce and tourism as was the case last year.

With international visits to the country way up on 2016’s num­bers and new economic deals with Russia and Israel in the works, the signs suggest that Turkey may have gotten over its security dilemmas.

Much of that may be down to the success of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In April, a referendum to change the constitution enacting a presidential system of governance passed by a narrow margin, emboldening the presi­dent and his backers. Recently in Turkey, when the president’s authority has been challenged, as it was when the AKP lost its parliamentary majority in the June 2015 election, enemies real and perceived have been dealt with mercilessly.

Last July’s failed coup also allowed the government to go to war against any and all threats. The result has been the near-total elimination of independent and opposition elements — and relative peace.

The European Union and broader international community may be scathing in their criticism of the erosion of civil rights under the AKP in recent years but for many Turks the decline in attacks and safer streets is more impor­tant than Turkey’s stop-start EU accession negotiations. There are thousands of state employees without jobs and more than 100 journalists imprisoned but the economy continues to grow and financial credit remains easily accessible for many.

Turkey is undeniably a more authoritarian state today than it was 12 months or two years ago. Perhaps that is the price it must pay for the sins of its policies in Syria and for living in such a volatile neighbourhood.

However, with tourists trickling back into the country and the Turkish lira’s slide against international currencies slowed, there is a feeling that Turkey, further under the grip of a single man, is a little more stable.

Perhaps that tells us that Turkey’s democratic experiment under the AKP has failed but in a country racked by decades of instability and low-level conflict throughout the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, this recent calm is wel­comed by many, whatever the long-term consequences it may have for the country’s democratic aspirations.

Stephen Starr is an Irish journalist who lived in Syria from 2007 to 2012. He is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising (Oxford University Press: 2012).

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