TSG IntelBrief: Turkey’s Domestic Security Concerns
November 18, 2016

Turkey’s Domestic Security Concerns

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Bottom Line Up Front: 

• Turkish domestic security is becoming increasingly tenuous, as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s proactive foreign policy has been replaced by a reactionary fight against several ‘terrorist’ threats.

• Erdogan has prioritized the dismantling of the Gulen movement, but also faces challenges posed by the Islamic State and Kurdish militant groups.

• As Turkey tries to balance the Kurds and the Islamic State against each other, it will increasingly find itself a prime target of both.

• With Erdogan’s pragmatism giving way to authoritarianism—and the prospect of Turkey’s enemies each frustrating Ankara’s efforts—the future of Turkish security looks increasingly problematic.

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Turkey’s domestic security situation is becoming increasingly tenuous, as a confluence of issues undermine President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s historic commitment to a pragmatic foreign policy and strategic balancing. Erdogan’s proactive foreign policy has been replaced by a reactionary and simultaneous fight against three ‘terrorist’ threats: the so-called Islamic State, Kurdish militants, and the Gulen movement–an international organization led by Erdogan’s onetime ally, Fethullah Gulen. Juggling these competing threats has proven challenging, as Erdogan finds himself further entangled by the struggle to balance immediate and long-term domestic security challenges.

In a speech in Pakistan on November 17, Erdogan highlighted the preeminence of what he denounces as the ‘Fethullah Terror Organization’. Erdogan accuses Gulen of masterminding the July 15 military coup attempt, which prompted major crackdowns on internal dissent in Turkey. Amid the insecurity, Erdogan has targeted the organization in a sweeping crackdown, and decried the United States’ harboring of Gulen, who has been in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since 1999. While the validity of the claim that Gulen was behind the coup attempt is disputed, Erdogan’s prioritization of the issue comes at the expense of other security challenges. It is probable, for example, that the crackdown on moderate Islamist members of the Gulen movement will lead to a strengthening of hardline movements in Turkey, such as the Islamic State, as shrinking space for constructive political engagement pushes Turkish moderates to the fringe. 

As Turkey continues its authoritarian spiral, domestic purges are unlikely to protect it from external threats. Most immediately, the Islamic State appears more likely than ever to increase its attacks against Turkey, even as it loses territory in Iraq and Syria. On November 2, Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi issued a statement to his followers urging suicide bombings in Turkey and Saudi Arabia. While the Islamic State has targeted both countries previously, the threat is likely to increase in the months ahead. The back flow of foreign fighters returning across Turkey’s southern border, the Turkish military’s increasing involvement in Iraq and Syria, and the ongoing refugee crisis all increase the likelihood of an attack. 

In addition to efforts to defeat the Islamic State, Kurdish separatist groups also pose a major security concern for Erdogan. Northern Syria—formerly controlled by the Islamic State—is increasingly the site of a Turkish-Kurdish race to reclaim the territory of the tottering caliphate. Turkish forces crossed the border in Operation Euphrates Shield on August 24, ostensibly targeting the Islamic State and other ‘terrorist groups’. Turkey’s race to recapture Islamic State territory before the Kurds has brought both parties into increased confrontation. The Kurds claim that the Turkish incursion is meant to prevent the unification of Kurdish-held territories in the east and west, not to pursue Islamic State forces being pushed further south. With a restive domestic Kurdish population in Turkey’s southeast region, Erdogan views the creation of a Kurdish enclave in Syria as an existential threat in the long-term. Weakening the Kurds—the Islamic State’s most effective enemy in Syria—has the paradoxical side-effect of inevitably strengthening the Islamic State. As Turkey tries to balance the threats posed by the PKK and the Islamic State, it will increasingly find itself a prime target of both.

Each of these three key security considerations is directly connected to the others: for many Turks, the coup attempt was a direct response to increasing terrorism in Turkey, wrought by the PKK and the Islamic State. The purge of the military’s ranks in the coup’s aftermath will directly influence the efficacy of Turkey’s security apparatus, making it more vulnerable to attacks emanating from an Islamic State diaspora in Iraq and Syria. At the same time, preventing a Kurdish enclave in Northern Syria will fuel domestic Kurdish animosity, likely prolonging the defeat of the Islamic State. As Turkish rhetoric turns increasingly nationalistic, Erdogan’s penchant for deflecting responsibility onto foreign entities only exacerbates the situation. With Erdogan’s pragmatism giving way to political isolation and authoritarianism, and the prospect of Turkey’s enemies each frustrating Ankara’s efforts against the other, the future of Turkish security looks increasingly problematic.

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