The war on terror may open a Turkish front

Two bombings in Istanbul Saturday killed at least 23 people and wounded hundreds more.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

As investigators continue to sift for clues through the rubble at the sites of Saturday's truck-bomb attacks on two Istanbul synagogues, Turkey is being forced to confront what may be a harsh new reality.

With Turkish officials strongly suggesting that the sophisticated attacks were organized by an international terrorist organization, possibly Al Qaeda, the country could find itself becoming another front in the war on terrorism. That could push Turkey into even closer cooperation with the US and Israel, analysts say - as well as widen Turkey's Islamic-secular divide.

"Turkey has faced terrorist acts in the past, but they were either ethnic, like the [Kurdish separatist group] PKK, or extreme ideological groups from the left or right. This appears to be part of the international terror campaign, and it is something different," says Sami Kohen, a political analyst and columnist with the Turkish daily Milliyet.

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Saturday's attacks at the temples, which are about three miles apart, killed at least 23 people, most of them Muslim passersby, and wounded more than 300.

It was the second attack on Neve Shalom, Istanbul's largest synagogue, where gunmen suspected of being associated with Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal killed 22 people in 1986. The Turkish daily Radikal reported that the Israeli intelligence service Mossad had warned Turkish intelligence units twice, most recently in September, about attack plans.

. If this latest strike is connected to Islamic extremists trying to destabilize the region and punish Turkey for its relationship with the US, it could change the public's attitude, says Ali Carkoglu, of Sabanci University in Istanbul.

"People on the street would be pushed toward a tougher Turkish policy in Iraq," he says. "They would not use this as an excuse to shy away from any active involvement in Iraq. So I don't think this would work towards pushing Turkey towards the margin of the conflict. It will work the other way."

US officials in Turkey are quick to say that the country has been an important ally in the US fight against terrorism, providing peacekeeping troops for Afghanistan, for example. But Ankara has been less supportive of the US war in Iraq.

Last March, the Turkish parliament failed to approve a US request to move its troops through Turkey into northern Iraq. Although the parliament recently approved sending Turkish troops to aid the US in Iraq - an offer quickly shelved because of Iraqi opposition - Turkish public opinion remains strongly opposed to the war.

Mr. Carkoglu and other analysts say the domestic implications from the two synagogue bombings could be more significant. The Justice and Development Party (AKP), a new political party that traces its roots to Turkey's political Islamic movement, currently rules Turkey. While the party's leaders have distanced themselves from their Islamist past, the country's secular establishment has remained suspicious.

Any involvement of Turkish Islamist groups in the attacks could intensify the simmering conflict between the AKP government the secularists, Carkoglu says. "If the secularists can show that there has been a linkage with a domestic pro-Islamist group that hasn't been properly followed or acted against, then the domestic implications could be very severe," he says.

If Turkey finds out that foreign terrorist organizations have been able to make inroads in the country and find local recruits, the reaction would most likely be swift. "The Turks are quite determined on one thing, and that is the fight against terrorism," says Milliyet's Mr. Kohen. "The Turkish government, any Turkish government, is not going to yield to pressure when it comes to terrorism. If anything, it would strengthen its resolve."

Turkey's unyielding approach to terrorism was shaped by its 15-year war against the separatist PKK, which cost the lives of some 35,000 people and ended just four years ago. The harsh tactics used by Turkey and the restrictive laws it passed during the fight were often seen as coming at the expense of human rights. But Turkey has eased up in recent years, as part of its bid to join the European Union.

But some worry that a new terrorist threat could sabotage Turkey's reform process. "This new alarm on security matters on terrorism might have a negative impact on human rights, democracy, and pluralism in Turkey, things we have been working on for years," says Ihsan Dagi, of Ankara's Middle East Technical University.

Some of the fiercest international condemnations of the bombings came from Israel. Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom arrived in Turkey Sunday to lay wreaths at the synagogues and meet with his Turkish counterpart, Abdullah Gul.

Mr. Shalom tied the attacks to "anti-Israel and anti-Semitic" sentiment in the Arab world and in Europe, calling them "another link in the chain of global terrorism that has struck against Mombasa, Bali, Saudi Arabia, and other targets."

Turkey's support for the US-led war in Iraq makes it a potential target for militant Islamic groups, but its extremely close relationship with Israel may also be a factor.

"I think our relations with Turkey are second only to our relations with the US in importance," says Alon Liel, a former director general at Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "There are countries in Europe that are extremely important to us, but Turkey is the only Muslim country with whom we have excellent relations, and that is a source of hope."

Ties between the two countries range from tourism to projects involving the precious Middle East commodities of oil and water. The two share intelligence, according to Mr. Liel, and cooperate closely on military matters. Israeli aircraft use Turkish skies for their exercises, Israel is upgrading Turkey's tanks and aircraft, and the countries perform naval and air force exercises together. "The whole security aspect of our relations is in the open," says Liel. "It's of great symbolic importance."

Turkey recognized Israel just after its founding in 1949, when Israel signed an armistice with neighboring Arab countries. With the advent of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the early 1990s, Turkey initiated closer cooperation.

Staff writer Nicole Gaouette contributed to this report from Jerusalem, and material from the wires was used.

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