Europe Must See Turkey as a Partner, Not Just a Buffer Zone Against ISIS

Someone pays their respects at the Obelisk of Theodosius, the scene of the suicide bomb attack, at Sultanahmet square in Istanbul, Turkey, January 13. Osman Orsal/Reuters

The little relief Turkish citizens felt on New Year's Eve over news regarding the foiling of a plot by the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) aimed at celebrations in the capital Ankara was short lived. On January 12, an ISIS suicide bomber struck the historic district of Sultanahmet in Istanbul, claiming the lives of 10 people and wounding another 15, most of whom were tourists. So far, alleged ISIS-linked attacks in Turkey have killed over 150 people and injured hundreds of others.

These attacks have ranged from minor clashes with Turkish border patrols to the deadliest terror attack in Turkish history—the Ankara bombings in October 2015, at which over 100 people perished and scores were wounded. The recent attacks in Sultanahmet present the fourth major ISIS-linked terror attack against Turkey since June 2015, displaying once again the uptrend in ISIS terrorist activity in Turkey.

It is possible to discern overarching themes for the three attacks that ISIS conducted over 2015. The attacks in Diyarbakir in June and Suruc (in Sanliurfa province) in July were perpetrated against elements or sympathizers of the Kurdish political movement. The former targeted a political rally and the latter, a group intending to deliver humanitarian aid to the Kurdish town of Kobane. The attack in Ankara in October targeted a rally demanding peace between Turkey and the PKK. In all three, the reported culprits were Turkish citizens. All of them served to exacerbate tensions surrounding the country's Kurdish issue.

Similar to Al-Qaeda, to which the group's roots are linked, one of ISIS' major strategies in its campaigns abroad is to target the societal fault lines within a chosen country with the hope of triggering an earthquake. It can be argued that for Europe, the Charlie Hebdo attack has served to incite the European vs. Muslim identity debate, and the Paris attacks have instilled suspicions against Syrian refugees. If ISIS had a similar vision for its previous attacks in Turkey, it may have succeeded well beyond its expectations, as the fragile Kurdish peace process that the country was leading has been shattered, and the ethnic and political rifts within the country have deepened—perhaps beyond the point of no return.

Yet the Sultanahmet attack on January 12, which targeted tourists in Istanbul, was the first major ISIS attack in Istanbul and the first one to target tourists in the country. Furthermore, government officials have argued that the culprit of the latest attack was not a Turkish citizen but had crossed into Turkish territory through the Syrian border. As such, the attack has displayed Turkey's persisting vulnerability to ISIS attacks even in the midst of increased border security measures. Turkey still has a roughly 70-mile-long border with ISIS territory.

Although ridding the area of ISIS has been on the agendas of Ankara and Washington, the two sides continue to have major differences of opinion on how they should proceed to do so. The issue has been complicated further with Russia's involvement in the Syrian civil war and the recent confrontation between Ankara and Moscow over the downing of a Russian jet. It remains unlikely the sides will bridge their differences anytime soon.

Yet even if the border issue is resolved, Turkey may still have issues with regards to ISIS militants entering in the guise of refugees. Ankara's ability to perform background security checks and surveil refugees is strained due to the more than two million refugees that it is already hosting. The issue becomes especially acute during times of major clashes, when refugees flood Turkish borders in the tens of thousands per day.

Even if, on one fateful day, the wars in Syria and Iraq are resolved, Turkey's worries may not be over. The potential for foreign fighters to return would present another major challenge. Rather than going through stringent security checks to travel to Europe or the U.S. (which would be especially problematic due to security measures at airports), the fighters may choose to use the land route to travel to bordering countries, including Turkey, to strike at transatlantic diplomatic missions instead.

Still, that is not to say Turkey is completely defenseless against ISIS. Turkey has been increasing its cooperation with its allies in NATO and its partners in the region to share intelligence against ISIS operatives. After the latest attacks, it is also very likely for Ankara, which has been bogged down in its resumed fighting with the PKK, to reprioritize its fight and precautions against ISIS.

Against all the worry in Europe over the threats rising from Syrian refugees and ISIS-inspired lone wolf attacks, it is unlikely that the Sultanahmet attack will usher a new epoch of threats against European capitals. Although it can be argued that European capitals may present more sensational targets, it is also the case that European countries are exposed to less risk compared to Turkey and other immediate neighbors of Syria and Iraq.

For one, most European countries are able to filter through the refugees that they allow to cross their borders. This also allows them to continue surveilling the refugees that they accept for any suspicious activity. Furthermore, the recent understanding reached between Turkey and the EU will see an Ankara more willing and able to stem the flow of refugees to Europe.

Nevertheless, in order to truly reduce threats emanating from Syria and transiting through Turkey, Europe will have to see Turkey as a partner, not solely as a buffer zone, and share accordingly the burdens of the calamities in Syria and Iraq that Ankara is facing.

Doruk Ergun is a security analyst at the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM).