Istanbul’s Istiklal Street is the city’s main commercial thoroughfare, containing a variety of businesses and connecting the famous landmarks Taksim Square and Galata Tower. On weekends, around 3 million people traverse its time-worn cobblestones; locals hurry to work while tourists examine storefront displays or escape the crowds at outdoor cafes.
On the morning of March 19, Istiklal’s vibrant atmosphere was shattered. Mehmet Ozturk, a suicide bomber with links to the Islamic State Group, detonated his explosive vest near several boutiques, killing four and wounding over 36.
The bombing marked the latest in a string of attacks in Turkey over the past year. In August, a strike on the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul killed six people and an attack in October during a pro-peace rally in Ankara left 103 dead and over 400 injured. January saw a suicide bomber murder 10 tourists. Explosions in Ankara during February and March killed over 60 people.
While Turkey faces a plethora of security threats, its primary concerns stem from conflict with the IS group and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. Turkey joined the U.S.-led coalition against the IS group in 2014, but only committed to military involvement after a bombing on the Turkish-Syrian border killed 32 people that July. The extremist group and its affiliates have now orchestrated attacks in October and January, in addition to the March 19 Istiklal Street bombing.
A leftist militant front designated as a terrorist organization by the North Alliance Treaty Organization, PKK advocates independence for Turkey’s ethnically Kurdish regions. Created in 1978, the group conducted bombings, assassinations and kidnappings until signing a 2013 ceasefire with the Turkish government. However, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan remained convinced that the PKK constituted a principal threat to Turkey’s national security, and targeted Kurdish strongholds in southern Turkey, Iraq and Syria while it committed to the IS group conflict in July. The PKK declared the ceasefire void and has incessantly attacked the Turkish homeland, most notably striking Istanbul in August 2015 and Ankara in February and March 2016.
In light of this surge in terrorist activity, safeguarding Turkey’s security and stability must become a paramount U.S. policy priority. The NATO member plays an indispensible role in efforts to eliminate the IS group presence in northern Syria, while authorizing American use of its Incirlik air base for bombing raids across Syria and Iraq. Turkey has also suggested the creation of a Syrian safe zone, which would provide a haven for refugees and a training ground for coalition-backed rebels. Though the Obama administration has repeatedly rejected the proposals, preserving Turkey’s capability to propose such measures could prove valuable in confronting future humanitarian and military challenges.
Turkey will also be a crucial partner in talks on the future of the Syrian regime, serving as a primary backer of the High Negotiations Committee that represented the Syrian opposition at the stalled Geneva Conference. Ankara holds particular leverage with regard to Syria’s Kurdish population. To this point, the Turkish government has refused to sanction the participation of the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, a Syrian Kurdish group, for fear of augmenting a nationalist threat to its territorial sovereignty. While Turkey is unlikely to abate its hardline anti-Kurdish stance, continued U.S. security assistance may provide enough leverage to moderate its position, which is imperative for the long-term viability of any resolution they reach.
Cooperation with Turkey, however, has often proven troublesome for the United States and its coalition allies. As aforementioned, Erdogan utilized his country’s entry into the Syrian conflict to attack Kurdish, rather than the IS group, positions — a policy that likely benefited the extremist organization by preventing capable local militias from advancing upon its territory. When PYD armies were poised to capture a strategic town in August 2015 and sever a key ISIS supply route, Erdogan threatened to exact military retribution against Kurdish forces should Jarablus fall. As a result, the town remains under the control of the IS group.
Perhaps most frustratingly, the Turkish government has demonstrated an inability or unwillingness to prevent illicit smuggling across its border with Syria, allowing oil, weapons and fighters to freely enter and exit IS group-held territory. While this task is daunting, Ankara’s choice to prioritize quelling Kurdish assertiveness rather than eradicate the IS group has complicated efforts to dispel the terrorist organization’s presence in northern Syria.
Despite Erdogan’s intransigence in his national security priorities, the Obama administration would be remiss not to seek strengthened diplomatic and military ties with its NATO ally as a means of ensuring that Turkey will spoil future Syrian peace initiatives, if nothing else. While closed-door rebukes for unnecessarily stoking PKK tensions are certainly warranted, the United States must nevertheless stand by its partner in a fight that neither state can hope to win alone.
Matthew Gregory is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. Sense of the Middle East appears every other Tuesday.