By Stephen Kinzer, Boston Globe, Jan 12, 2016
Today’s bombing in a historic Istanbul square frequented by tourists was the indirect result of Turkey’s wildly adventurist policy toward the Syrian conflict. It is a lesson to other countries, including the United States: Do not believe you can control insurgent groups inside Syria. Meddle too deeply in their conflict, and the war will come home to you.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that the suicide bomber was a young Syrian. Efforts by the government to limit reporting of the incident add to the presumption that the ISIS terror group was responsible. That would make sense.
Erdogan was once a bosom buddy of the Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad. When the first antigovernment protests erupted in Syria in 2011, Erdogan advised his friend how to respond. Assad replied that he needed no advice and would do what he believed best. That set off Erdogan’s volcanic emotions. He vowed to do everything in his power to depose Assad — including supporting terror groups like ISIS.
Turkey has allowed foreign fighters to pass through its territory to join those groups. It has allowed ISIS to maintain clinics inside Turkey where wounded fighters are treated and then sent back to the battlefield. Its intelligence service has illegally shipped weapons to insurgents in Syria. When journalists discovered one caravan of weaponry, and military officers protested, Erdogan had them arrested.
Under intense pressure from the United States and its other NATO allies, Turkey has begun to reassess its support for anti-Assad groups. That led ISIS to carry out suicide bombings inside Turkey. The first two served Erdogan’s purposes because they targeted Kurds: one outside a Kurdish cultural center in the border town of Suruc in July, which killed 33 people, and then a horrific follow-up in Ankara in October in which more than 100 were killed as they marched to protest attacks on Kurdish groups. Kurdish political leaders complained bitterly that the government was not protecting them.
The attack left at least 10 people dead and 15 wounded, and occurred in the same district as the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia.
Erdogan sees two great enemies in Syria: the Assad government and Kurds. He was happy to collaborate with any group, including ISIS, that shared his wish to destroy those two forces. Terror groups, however, are never satisfied with anything less than total commitment. It was folly for Turkish leaders to believe they could manipulate Syrian rebel groups for their own ends. They did not heed President John F. Kennedy’s famous observation that “those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.”
Today’s bombing in Istanbul may be the incident that finally brings Turkey to shift focus and concentrate its efforts on the true enemy: violent jihadist groups like ISIS and the Nusra Front, which is Syria’s Al Qaeda affiliate. It is late in the game for such a switch. By allowing ISIS and other anti-Assad groups to move freely in Turkish towns along the border, Turkey set the stage for conflict. It was inevitable that ISIS would continually demand more from Turkey. When Turkey reached a limit, it became an enemy.
Until now, terror attacks inside Turkey have been carried out either in the border area, the Kurdish region, or places where critics of Erdogan’s government gather. This one is different. It happened in a historic square near magnificent mosques and Byzantine ruins that attract millions of tourists each year. The dead include foreigners, mainly Germans. This will naturally affect tourism, but more important is the symbolism of such violence striking at the nation’s historic heart.
In a rant that reflected his emotion-driven approach to politics, Erdogan said foreign academics and writers shared responsibility for the attack. He even named MIT professor Noam Chomsky, a longtime defender of the Kurds, as one of them. That reflected his evidently deep-seated view that Turkey’s estimated 15 million Kurds pose more of a threat to the nation than terror groups like ISIS. Today’s bombing may finally force him to reconsider.
Stephen Kinzer is a longtime, former correspondent at the New York Times. He is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.
Also by Stephen Kimber in the Boston Globe:
Turkish leader cancels my honorary citizenship over criticism
By Stephen Kinzer, Boston Globe, May 27, 2015
GAZIANTEP, Turkey — This was to be an extraordinary week in my career and life. It has turned out to be just that — but hardly in the way I expected.
I arrived here Tuesday morning to receive a great honor. The mayor and city council decided several months ago to make me an honorary citizen in recognition of reporting I did years ago that resulted in saving exquisite Roman mosaics about to be lost to flooding.
A lavish ceremony was planned. Tickets were printed. A professional interpreter was engaged so I would not have to expose my fractured Turkish.
Upon my arrival, however, my acutely embarrassed hosts sat me down and told me the ceremony, and my honorary citizenship, had been canceled by personal order of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Gaziantep’s mayor was given the order while attending a United Nations conference in Paris. Later, according to one of my friends here, Erdogan’s office sent her a fax describing me as “an enemy of our government and our country.” Attached as evidence was a Jan. 4 column I wrote for the Boston Globe that included a critical paragraph about Erdogan.
It said, “Once seen as a skilled modernizer, he now sits in a 1,000-room palace denouncing the European Union, decreeing the arrest of journalists, and ranting against short skirts and birth control.”
In many countries, a head of state would not even acknowledge a few unflattering sentences published in a newspaper thousands of miles away, or might shrug them off with no more concern than an elephant shows for a mosquito. Erdogan, however, takes an intense interest in what the press writes about him. Many of the country’s independent journalists have been forced from their jobs. Those who remain are expected to toe his party line.
Hasan Cemal is one of those who refuses to do so. When accepting a journalism prize at Harvard recently, Cemal said that the guidance Turkish editors give reporters who cover Erdogan boils down to: “The honorable gentleman should not be disturbed.”
According to protocol, the Gaziantep authorities had to ask permission from the foreign ministry in Ankara, the capital, before honoring me. It was duly granted. At the last minute, though, someone close to Erdogan evidently showed him my five-month-old Globe column and persuaded him to revoke approval.
“We never thought the long arm of Ankara would reach so deep into the local affairs of Gaziantep,” one crestfallen city official told me, “but it did.”
A few hours after I was given the bad news, a group of civic leaders took me to dinner to ease the pain. All were intensely apologetic.
“Everyone here was so proud about this,” one told me. “No one imagined that anything you wrote could be a problem. They couldn’t have, because our mayor and most of our city councillors speak no English and can’t read your columns. We are in shock.”
The reporting that earned me recognition in Gaziantep dates back 15 years, to when I headed the New York Times bureau in Turkey. My story about planned flooding of an ancient site set off an international reaction. Dozens of mosaics were saved. A world-class museum was built to house them. In 2010, the number of tourists coming to Gaziantep reached 1 million. I asked one entrepreneur here how many tourists came before the mosaics were discovered, preserved, and placed on display.
“None,” he replied. “We never saw a tour bus. There were no big hotels. You have changed the fate of Gaziantep.”
I never sought or even imagined the honor that the mayor and city council had decided to bestow on me. Even more surprising was Erdogan’s decision to order it revoked just as it was about to be conferred.
These have been a remarkable few days in Erdogan’s escalating war on the press. Last week one of his faithful prosecutors asked courts to close two television stations for “promoting terrorism.” Then Erdogan denounced one of the country’s leading newspapers, Hurriyet, for printing a headline he found offensive. In reply, Hurriyet published an editorial asking, “Mr. President, you say we ‘live our lives in fear.’ Why should we live in fear? Why does the president of a democratic country tell his citizens that they live in fear? Are fear and democracy two concepts that can stand side by side?”
On Monday, during a speech in Istanbul, Erdogan denounced The New York Times for publishing an editorial criticizing his “brute manipulation of the political process” in advance of parliamentary elections scheduled for June 7.
“You are a newspaper and you will know your place,” he snarled. “You are interfering in Turkey by running this story, and going outside the boundaries of your freedom.”
Those boundaries seem to be tightening in Turkey. For me, this means that the space on my wall reserved for my honorary citizenship certificate will remain empty. Perhaps I will hang an empty frame to remind me of the honor I almost won.
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