The assassination of the Russian ambassador in Ankara on Monday, Dec. 19, by a Turkish special forces officer, 22-year old Mevlit Mert Atlintas, will go down in Middle East history as a landmark event which opened the floodgates for the Syrian war to seep into Turkey.
The assassin shouted “This is for Syria!” after shooting Ambassador Andrei Karlov in the back, but there were earlier portents too. Kicked off by the Turkish invasion of northern Syria in August, a spate of devastating terrorist attacks hit Turkey, committed by the Islamic State as well as the Kurdish separatist PKK and TAK-the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, which crossed in from Syria.
However even those crippling events are sideshows compared with the earthquake rumbling through the country and threatening to blow its society, armed forces and ruling institutions to pieces, under the weight of three wars which President Tayyip Erdogan has ignited with a series of authoritarian steps:
- His troops are fighting three concurrent wars – two outside its borders in Syria and Iraq and a campaign at home against Kurdish insurgency. While Turkey’s involvement in all three has been low key, it is being dragged into wider and more complicated areas of conflict.
- The Russian-Syrian-Iranian-Hizballah victory in Aleppo has pushed large numbers of defeated Syrian rebels into the Idlib region on the Turkish border, presenting Ankara with a dilemma: To leave the border open as it is at present, or to seal it as Moscow is demanding. Shutting it would compress the fugitive rebels inside a Russian-Syrian-Turkish box – much like the blockade Israel and Egypt impose on the Palestinian Gaza Strip. It would leave the Syrian rebels with no other option for survival than to take their war into southern Turkey.
- The Turkish army is heavily over-extended by having to fight ISIS at the same time as al Qaeda’s Nusra Front (aka the Fatah al-Sham Front) which orchestrated the assassination of the Russian ambassador), Syrian rebel fundamentalist Muslim groups and also Kurdish terrorists.
- The situation could become calamitous if the Kurdish minority chose this moment to rise up against the Erdogan government, with the backing of the PKK and the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia. There are 10 million Kurds living in southern Turkey out of a total of 22 million in the country.
- Ankara is in the process of exiting NATO, turning its back on the United States and Europe and forging a detente with Russia, China and Iran.
- The Obama administration has not managed to halt this process. Its errors may have even sped Turkey on its flight from the West. The Trump administration will have to decide whether it is willing or able to haul Turkey back into line and save it for the West.
- Since the August coup against his government, Erdogan has been pursuing an uninterrupted crackdown and purge in every walk of Turkish life, in his struggle against his main rival, Fethullah Gulen, whom he accuses of orchestrating the putsch from his place of exile in America. The Turkish ruler blames Gulen each time opposition raises its head and then crushes his opponents with a heavy hand.
- This regime of repression has had the opposite effect to the one Erdogan intended. Gulen, formerly a marginal figure in Turkish politics, is now a giant and a hero to increasing segments of Turkish society. People are also being driven into the arms of radical elements..
- If Erdogan fails to curb the spillover of the Syrian war into Turkey, he may find himself fighting not on one but three domestic fronts: Kurds, radical Islamists and the Gulen movement.