ISIS gets involved in Turkish politics

In my opinion (I realize these things are subjective), the biggest/worst story of the past five days has been the New Year’s Eve terror attack on the Reina nightclub in Istanbul. A single gunman reportedly dressed as Santa Claus and armed with a Kalashnikov opened fire in the crowded club, killing 39 people and sending another 69 to the hospital. The shooter is still at large as of the time I’m writing this, but images of him have been circulated and at one point it was believed he was a 28 year old Kyrgyz national who may have actually fought with (and therefore been trained by) ISIS in Syria. However, I’m not sure whether the Kyrgyzstan connection still holds, because the Kyrgyz national who was initially fingered by Turkish authorities seems to have been cleared of any potential involvement. Because this is Turkey, where wide dragnets are the norm (I’m expecting to be picked up in connection with July’s failed coup any day now), 14 people have already been arrested in connection with the attack–though, again, the shooter himself isn’t among them. The Turkish Parliament has responded to the attack by extending a state of emergency that was imposed in July, and then renewed in October, for another three months.

ISIS claimed credit for the attack, saying that it had targeted “Christians” celebrating an “apostate holiday.” The idea that only Christians were celebrating in that nightclub is almost certainly a lie, but while NYE is not a religious holiday per se, on the Islamic/Hijri calendar it’s also not actually the new year. The commemoration of an important date on a different calendar could be painted as apostasy by somebody looking for an excuse to go kill people.

But the real purpose of this attack was to destabilize the Turkish state politically. Tayyip Erdoğan’s political position has never been stronger than it is right now–it’s so strong that he’s finally going to take a stab at instituting constitutional changes that will leave him and his presidential office as the supreme, nearly unchecked, source of all the country’s political authority. And he may very well get what he wants, which means that Turks who aren’t big Erdoğan fans, and there are many, are particularly on edge these days. It’s a crude guesstimate, but it’s fair to say that the sort of Turks who were celebrating in a nightclub on New Year’s Eve in Istanbul are not Erdoğan’s base. And they were ISIS’s target.

How does that destabilize Turkey? To put it bluntly, Turkey’s ISIS problem is, to a considerable degree, Erdoğan’s fault. He’s the one who opted to leave Turkey’s border with Syria open for anti-Assad forces in Syria, including ISIS, to come and go as they pleased from the start of Syria’s civil war through 2015 and he’s the one who’s still interfering with efforts to defeat ISIS in Raqqa and Mosul because those operations aren’t being carried out according to his specifications. ISIS owes its current strength in part to Tayyip Erdoğan’s Syria policy. So you can imagine that people who feel victimized by the Reina attack might blame him for it to some extent. This is probably why his government has spent the past three days telling anybody who will listen that this attack was all Somebody Else’s Fault, Most Likely America’s.

Blaming America every time there’s a terrorist attack, or when the economy ticks down a bit, or when it rains in downtown Ankara has been a pretty useful “Get Out of Jail Free” card for Erdoğan over the past several years, and it’s helping him again now, as he asks the Turkish public to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain and instead blame the US for not doing anything to combat ISIS. Only Turkey, the country that gave ISIS free run of its Syrian border for three years, is actually fighting ISIS, obviously. War is peace, freedom is slavery, etc.

On the other hand, Erdoğan’s populist, rural, somewhat religiously conservative base–the people who agree with him that the Kurdish desire for some kind of self-government is a far greater threat to Turkey than ISIS–may not have approved of ISIS attacking a decadent nightclub in Istanbul on Secular Christmas, but chances are at least some of them aren’t feeling all that badly about it. That’s a political fault line that this attack may shake up a bit. Factor in the usual way Erdoğan reacts to events like this, by cracking the fuck down on his Enemies List (Kurds, Gülenists, opposition politicians and media figures) regardless of whether or not any of them were involved, and you have a recipe for tension.

This desire to muck around with Turkish political divisions is probably why ISIS opted to claim this attack, when its usual practice in Turkey has been not to claim credit for its attacks. In past attacks, it’s been more useful to the group to leave a sliver of doubt about whether it was really ISIS or some Kurdish group behind the violence. But here, when it’s trying to exploit both disagreements over the way Erdoğan has handled ISIS and the political cracks within Turkish society, it made sense to put their name on the attack.

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