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Turkish conundrum: Istanbul nightclub attack shows the perils of Turkey’s position in West Asia

Sunday 15 January 2017, by siawi3


January 3, 2017, 1:02 pm IST

Rudroneel Ghosh

The shooting at a posh nightclub in Istanbul, Turkey, that took the lives of 39 people and injured another 70 has now been claimed by the Islamic State (IS) terror group. In a statement released on Monday the group said that “in continuation of the blessed operations that Islamic State is conducting against the protector of the cross, Turkey, a heroic soldier of the caliphate struck one of the most famous nightclubs where the Christians celebrate their apostate holiday†. Hitherto, the assailant is still at large even though Turkish security forces have detained eight suspects over the New Year’s Eve attack.

That said, it remains to be ascertained whether the attacker was a trained IS operative or an inspired lone wolf. Given Turkey’s geographical proximity to Iraq and Syria, it could equally be either of the two. And while the attack is indeed tragic, it also brings into focus Turkey’s role in the current West Asian situation. As of now, Turkey has brokered a ceasefire agreement in the Syrian civil war along with Russia. The deal which covers a clutch of Syrian rebel groups as well as the Syrian regime in Damascus has also been endorsed by the UN Security Council.

This is indeed welcome. However, there’s no escaping the fact that Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian civil war has also opened that country up to risks. For example, Turkey has been supporting the rebel Free Syrian Army. But it’s also a well-known fact that the Free Syrian Army and its allied groups have seen many of their fighters and weapons make their way to IS. Seen in this context, Turkey has at various points ended up helping – knowingly or unknowingly – IS terrorists. That today Turkey is also openly fighting IS only underlines the intrigues and double-games that define the Syrian conflict.

At the same time, there’s no denying that Turkey has seen a substantial spurt in Islamisation in recent years. Under the regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s erstwhile secular outlook has been substantially diluted. In fact, it’s no secret that Erdogan has used Islamism to consolidate his political power. And today that Islamisation has created fertile grounds for radicalism to flourish in Turkey.

Perhaps Erdogan believes that he can maintain an iron grip on his country by centralising powers in himself. In fact, Turkey is in the middle of passing a package of constitution amendments that will see the country switch to a presidential system and thereby greatly enhance the powers of the president. But history has shown that once the monster of Islamic radicalism is unleashed it is very difficult to control, even through authoritarian methods. We have seen this in Pakistan where different political actors have used Islamist radicals for political gains. But today when the virus of Islamism has mutated into a virulent form, the Pakistani state is finding it difficult to control even through the might of its army.

Hence, Erdogan in Turkey is playing a risky game. He rode the Islamist monster to win political power. Today he thinks he can control it by arrogating to himself sweeping executive authority. But global experience shows that authoritarianism, far from curbing Islamism, actually ends up feeding it. For, the Islamist virus thrives under external pressure. The only way to defeat it is to attack its roots and degrade it ideologically, politically and materially. And in Turkey’s case that would mean reviving and reinforcing its erstwhile secular credentials. But alas, Erdogan might have already burnt that bridge.