Suruc, the Turkish border town targeted Monday by a bombing that killed 32 people, served as a lifeline to the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobane during fierce fighting last fall and is now home to the largest refugee camp in Turkey.
As such, it is a symbol of Ankara’s open door policy toward its war-torn neighbor. Now, amid renewed criticism of Turkey’s Syria policy, local authorities focused their suspicions on the Islamic State (IS). If confirmed, the attack would be the jihadist group’s most serious on Turkish soil.
“They (the Islamic State) have crossed the border,” ran a representative main headline in the Milliyet newspaper.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmed Davutoglu said today the suspect “most likely” had links with IS and that “security forces are making intense efforts to ascertain all connection to the bomber inside and outside Turkey.” The cabinet is due to meet Wednesday to discuss how to step up border security.
The Monday explosion ripped through a cultural center in Kurdish Suruc. The victims were young activists from across Turkey who wanted to help with reconstruction efforts in Kobane, just six miles across the border. The devastated town has emerged as a symbol of Kurdish resistance against IS in northern Syria.
Turkey’s open door policy toward Syria has been a point of pride for the government but also a source of domestic and international criticism because of the persistent flow of jihadists in both directions.
“We were expecting this as a result of the government’s policy, their Syria policy, and their more-than-lenient treatment of different jihadist groups,” says Soli Ozel, a professor of international relations and political science at Istanbul’s Bilgi University.
“Assuming that it is IS that did it, (the attack) brought the war one step up to Turkish soil,” adds Mr. Ozel, who is also a columnist at Haberturk newspaper.
The identity of the suicide bomber is, as yet, unknown. Early reports in Turkish media speculated the attack was carried out by an 18-year-old woman, while later ones suggested the attacker was male and a Turkish national.
More pressure for buffer zone
“If this is homegrown terrorism on behalf of IS, this is quite problematic for Turkey,” says Elif Özmenek Çarmıklı, an analyst at the Ankara-based International Strategic Research Organization. “We know that they are in the country and that their numbers are not small.”
She predicts Ankara will increase its military presence on the border and renew its diplomatic push for a buffer zone inside Syria. Turkey in recent weeks mobilized so many troops along parts of the border it fueled speculation that some form of intervention was forthcoming.
“The drums of war will beat louder in Turkish media and politics because there is a group that really thinks that we need to intervene,” she says. “There is a group in the leading party that thinks that Turkey should really teach a lesson to terrorists, but it is not that easy.”
“Internationally it would be really risky to go into Syria by themselves,” Ms. Çarmıklı adds. “They will be trying to convince Washington to create a buffer zone like they did during the Gulf War.”
Mr. Davutoglu sharply rejected accusations that Ankara is turning a blind eye to terrorism a day after protesters in Istanbul chanted slogans accusing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party of collaborating with IS. The attack came at a sensitive time domestically, as the prime minister strives to form a coalition government to avoid snap elections.
Motive still a mystery
Turkey’s policy on Syria has long prioritized overthrowing the government of President Bashar al-Assad and containing the Kurds, who have largely secured the backing of the West and have come to represent one of the most competent military forces fighting IS in Iraq or Syria.
Ankara has been sharply criticized for not playing a more aggressive role in the US-led coalition against IS although in recent weeks police have rounded up dozens of suspected IS militants in Istanbul and other cities. In a bid to restore its image, it has also become more transparent about its capture and deportation of Western IS fighters journeying to Syria via Turkey.
Turkish commentators said the attack on Suruc was retaliation for the town’s support for Kobane, while others ventured it was a warning to Ankara not to get involved in Syria militarily. Charlie Winter, a researcher at the Quilliam Foundation, a London-based counter extremism think tank, cautions it is premature to blame IS for the attack since the group has not yet made any claims of responsibility.
Unlike recent attacks in Tunisia and Kuwait, there was no quick claim of responsibility, and IS supporters on social media were debating the identity of the attacker and whether the group had played a role at all.
“I don’t think there is enough information to say that it was probably Islamic State,” he says, “apart from what the Turkish government is saying, which doesn’t really add up with what IS supporters are saying.”