Following two deadly bomb attacks against Turkish security forces last week, the assassination of a Russian ambassador at an art gallery in Ankara on Monday revealed the extent to which Syria’s civil war has spilled over into Turkey.
Despite the inevitable Franz Ferdinand comparisons, Turkey and Russia have worked to prevent Monday’s shooting from escalating and undermining the two countries’ recently improved relations. But the shooting was nevertheless an ominous sign. While Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had long drawn Western criticism for his authoritarian rule, he had promised his country stability in exchange for granting him additional power. Increasingly, however, the risk is that the government’s authoritarian measures will prove incapable of stemming a rising tide of violent instability.
Monday’s shooting appears to have been carried out by an off-duty Turkish police officer who claimed to be avenging Russian war crimes against Muslims in Aleppo. Over the past several years, the Turkish government’s support for the radical Islamist fighters opposing Syria’s government has prevented it from addressing the risk posed by radicalization within its own police force. This, in turn, left the police unable or unwilling to effectively prevent a string of deadly ISIS attacks in Turkey over the past two years.
At the same time, Syria’s civil war also helped reignite Turkey’s long-running conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Gains made by Kurdish forces in northern Syria, against ISIS and other Islamist groups, alarmed Ankara, while the PKK blamed the Turkish government for allowing or even supporting ISIS’s anti-Kurdish activities. When these tensions erupted into open conflict in the summer of 2015, the fighting in the ensuing year and a half led to the death of hundreds of civilians in southeastern Turkey, as well as the displacement of hundreds of thousands more. Kurdish militants have also carried out a string of high-profile bombings targeting police officers, soldiers and civilians in cities across Turkey.
Increasingly, the rhetoric on both sides has stressed revenge more than achievable political goals. While the Turkish government has continued arresting Kurdish politicians, as well as ordinary individuals accused of “supporting terror” on social media, vigilantes have also attacked local offices of the country’s pro-Kurdish political party.
Not surprisingly, the violence of the past year has taken its toll on the Turkish economy, hurting tourism and scaring foreign investors. Despite government efforts, the Turkish lira has fallen steadily against the dollar, and in December Turkey reported its first quarter of negative growth since 2009.
Yet rather than undermine Erdogan’s support, these economic reversals could bolster his narrative of nefarious foreign and domestic enemies seeking to sabotage Turkey’s growth. As a result, economic crisis and social polarization may well create a vicious cycle, leaving the country ever more paranoid and unstable.
What’s more, at this volatile time, U.S. policy toward Turkey is more uncertain than ever. While U.S.-Turkish relations have been strained over recent years, members of the incoming Trump administration have expressed both admiration for Erdogan himself and deep suspicion of his brand of Islamist politics. It suddenly seems possible that Washington could either embrace Erdogan despite his authoritarian behavior or confront him on grounds that have little to do with democracy. Either approach, if taken too far, could help push Turkey closer to the brink.