International terrorism has once again shown its cruel and inhuman face. A terrorist attack, the latest in a string of deadly terror incidents to strike Turkey, killed at least ten people including foreigners in the heart of Istanbul's historic Sultanahmet tourist district on January 12. A Syrian suicide bomber is believed to be the perpetrator. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack but in all probability Islamic State militants were behind the blast.
Kurdish militants and left-wing groups are active in Turkey. The attack comes at the time of intensified violence between Turkey's security forces and militants linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, in the country's mostly Kurdish southeast. The Turkish government is currently in conflict with numerous terrorist and militant groups. German, Norwegian and Peruvian nationals are reported to be among the victims. Istanbul governor's office said, ten people were killed and 15 wounded.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu held an emergency meeting in Ankara with the interior minister and security chiefs. A senior official said, «terrorist links» were suspected in the attack, but declined to comment further.
As with previous attacks, authorities imposed a news blackout barring media from showing images of the dead or injured or reporting any details of the investigation. Turkey suffered two major bombing attacks last year, both blamed on the Islamic State group. More than 30 people were killed in a suicide attack in the town of Suruc, near Turkey's border with Syria, last July. Violence has also escalated in the mainly Kurdish southeast since a two-year ceasefire collapsed in July between the state and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militant group, which has been fighting for three decades for Kurdish autonomy. The PKK has however generally avoided attacking civilian targets in urban centers outside the southeast in recent years. Turkey also sees a threat from the PYD and YPG, Kurdish groups in Syria which are fighting the Islamic State with US backing, but which, Ankara says, is closely linked to the PKK.
If it's confirmed to be the terror group's work, the blast ups the ante for Ankara, forcing it to step up its anti-Islamic State fight even more, according to Sajjan Gohel, the international security director at the Asia Pacific Foundation. «An attack like this is designed to create economic, political and social consequences», Gohel told CNN. «Turkey has to realize that the pipeline that feeds ISIS (Islamic State) from Turkey to Syria has to now be cut off, because incidents like this are not one-offs. This could be part of a series of plots».
The latest attack, which hit in the heart of Istanbul's oldest quarter, could encourage an even stronger Turkish response against the Islamic State and other militants. Ankara has already suggested an idea of Turkey-led international operation in Syria's northern Aleppo province to create a buffer zone in the Azaz-Jarablus area. A successful operation would serve Turkish interests by keeping Islamic State at bay, strengthening the pro-Turkey rebel position in the northern Syria and preventing the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) from expanding farther westward. That would draw the United States deeper into the conflict.
The plans were greatly complicated by Russia’s military operation in Syria. In the Dec. 17 interview, Russian President Vladimir Putin dared Turkey to fly over Syrian air space with the implication that the aircraft would be shot down if it did. «Russia is not a country that withdraws or shies away from the challenge. On the contrary, we increased our military presence, we increased the number of our aircraft, we increased our anti-aircraft missiles, etc. Before that, the Turkish Air Force was flying over Syria. Well, I invite them to try flying over Syria now, because they will get a very serious response», said the President.
Faced with the prospect of a potential conflict with Russia, Ankara has been compelled to revise its plans for northern Aleppo.
No matter that, Turkey could increase its involvement in Syria. This latest Islamic State attack on a Turkish city comes at a time when the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces have crossed the Euphrates River in their push westward and Russia- and Iran-backed forces have pushed Turkey's Syrian rebel proxies. Turkey may choose to carry out intensified strikes with long-range missiles from the safety of its own borders. A greater incursion into Syria remains to be an issue on the Turkish agenda.
With the Paris attacks still fresh in memory, another hideous crime has been committed, this time in Turkey. It goes to show that no country is safe – the common enemy spares no one. The forces opposing international terrorism are all in the same boat. The divides and disputes between the West and Russia, the division of anti-terrorist forces into two coalitions that hardly coordinate their activities, the Turkey’s act of hostility committed against Russia by downing its bomber in November and the recent stand-off flared between Sunni and Shia Muslim communities (Russia has just made public its intention to settle the conflict at the round table) – all these developments play into terrorists’ hands.
Their mission is to divide the opposing forces. It’s the only chance for them to achieve the set goals. The much awaited talks on Syria scheduled to take place on January 25 in Vienna, the Russian initiative to act as an intermediary between Saudi Arabia and Iran and the coordination of anti-terrorist efforts between Russia and France – all these developments are the right steps taken at the right time. But it’s not enough. There should be many more. Only united efforts can bring success in the deadly fight against the ominous threat.