ISTANBUL — The Turkish border town of Suruç was the scene of a bloody attack that claimed at least 30 lives and left 100 wounded this morning. Suruç neighbors the famed Kurdish Syrian town of Kobani and, while Ankara has yet to confirm details, the bombing is believed to have been a suicide attack carried out by an 18-year-old female ISIS militant. The target was a gathering of leftist activists planning to cross to Kobani to help rebuild the town destroyed during the months-long ISIS siege last year.
A senior official from Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s office told The Daily Beast: “This attack is a retaliation for Turkey’s recent anti-terror operations against ISIS. We see this terrorist attack as a crime against all humanity.”
If confirmed, this would be the second ISIS attack on Turkish soil but the first planned one. (The previous one was an unexpected confrontation of three ISIS jihadists and Turkish soldiers in a checkpoint in March 2014.)
The Suruç bombing also conspicuously follows a series of Turkish police operations aimed at disrupting ISIS networks and activities—operations which only got underway two weeks ago. Indeed, after almost two years without visible state action against ISIS (much to the chagrin of the United States and coalition partners), Turkey arrested 250 suspected militants all over the country. Senior officials say they wanted to bring down whole networks instead of individuals, and it took long-term covert operations to close the net on the former.
Ceren Kenar, a prominent Turkish diplomacy correspondent, recalls a senior official answering her question on why they let pro-ISIS websites operate: “How can we track ISIS sympathizers if we shut down ISIS websites?” Two of such websites were blocked last week, after the arrests.
Turkey’s police raids started right after the Syrian Kurdish militia the YPG took Tal Abyad, the Syrian border town that served as the main entrance for goods and personnel into ISIS’s so-called “caliphate.” After the YPG liberated Tal Abyad, Turkey also deployed a strong military force on its border in conjunction with the police raids. While some have argued that the garrison was designed to deter Kurdish nationalism or the foundations of an independent Syrian Kurdish state, in fact, sources say, it was more likely dispatched to defend a NATO country from ISIS assault.
Specifically, Ankara feared that ISIS might make a play for the Syrian town of Azaz, thereby gaining control of the main road system that runs from Turkey to Aleppo. In a television interview on July 4, Prime Minister Davutoglu said, “We will take measures to prevent a fait accompli taken place south of Turkey by ISIS, the PYD or any other group which will cut Turkey’s connection to Aleppo.”
Turkey believes the Syrian regime is covertly working with ISIS and that an ISIS takeover of the road would be mutually beneficial to the two because it’d spell the end of rebel control of areas of Aleppo, which would inevitably fall to either the regime or ISIS. On June 16, Davutoglu publicly accused the Syrian regime of meeting with ISIS in Syria’s eastern province of Hasakah to coordinate military operations. In return for the regime leaving certain areas to ISIS, Davutoglu alleged, ISIS was going to attack rebel-held Azaz. While this allegation cannot be verified, an ISIS attack on Azaz did occur and the Syrian Air Force duly bombed rebel positions throughout the battle.
It’s no secret that Turkey wants the fall of the Assad regime and is supporting a mixture of rebel groups—predominantly Islamist ones—engaged in fighting it. Previously, Ankara has prioritized this war to the one that Washington and Western countries are pursuing against ISIS. Self-interest as much as ideology has informed Turkey’s position. For one thing, the fall of Aleppo would not only be a severe blow to its proxies, it would also send waves of refugees into Turkey, adding to the 2 million currently residing here already.
Up until now, Turkey had adopted a “wait-and-see” policy with respect to ISIS, monitoring the militants’ movements while not starting operations against them until recently. However, that was deemed no longer possible after Tal Abyad, when the police raids started.
This means, however, that ISIS’s own policy of benign neglect is at an end, too. It won’t stand by while its networks and personnel are rounded up in a Turkish dragnet. Today’s attack on Suruç is doubtless just a taste of more to come.