A turning point for Turkey

Ankara has long been aware of the threat of ISIL. The Suruc bombing brings it home

People carry a coffin of one of the victims of a suicide attack through the streets of Gaziantep, following the attack in which killed at least 31 in a southern Turkish town. Bulent Kilic / AFP
Powered by automated translation

Turkey has been here before. In May 2013, two car bombs were detonated in the city of Reyhanli in the south, a stone’s throw from the Syrian border. Fifty-two civilians died. While ISIL militants claimed responsibility for the bombing, Turkey’s intelligence agencies never ruled out the possibility of Al Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front’s involvement.

Regardless of the identity of the perpetrators, the Reyhanli attack brought Turkey’s Syria policy into sharp focus. The event forced Recep Tayyip Erdogan, now president but then the prime minister, to change his country’s border policy with Syria. Up until that point, the Turkish border with Syria was the main entry point into the civil war for militants and weapons. And motivated by its hard anti-Assad stance, Turkey had largely turned a blind eye to the movement of fighters in the borderlands. The primary result of the Reyhanli bombing was much stricter Turkish border controls. That said, given the length of the border, Ankara was not able to fully enforce absolute control. Or so it has claimed.

It is too early to say whether this week’s suspected ISIL suicide bombing in the Turkish border town of Suruc will force a change in policy. What is abundantly clear is that Turkey is yet again made aware that it is not immune to the threat posed by ISIL. That includes the threat from within – its own citizens – and that of ISIL’s increasingly long arm extending from northern Syria. It could clamp down further on its borders in a bid to completely cut off ISIL’s supply lines and it could continue the campaign to arrest Turkish ISIL recruits in major cities such as Ankara and Istanbul.

Saudi Arabia’s recent arrest of more than 400 suspected ISIL members shows that the strongest message that countries in the region can convey to the extremist group is that they will restrict its sympathisers. With one of the most extensive domestic surveillance networks in the world, Turkey is well placed to dismantle ISIL’s foothold in the country. The Suruc bombing underlines a basic fact: without action, Turkey’s perceived immunity will not protect it much longer.