By Bernardo Amaro Monteiro, MA Middle Eastern Studies
A terrorist attack took place on Istiklal Avenue, a central commercial site on the European side of Istanbul. The blast resulted in over 80 people injured and six dead, including two children. Sadly, 13 November 2022 is yet another date in the long history of terrorist incidents in Turkey, as the country borders hostile groups such as PKK and Daesh. However, this time none of them claimed responsibility for the attack. Nonetheless, the Syrian population in Turkey fears becoming the scapegoat.
On 14 November, Suleyman Soylu, Turkey’s Interior Minister, reported that the police arrested a Syrian suspect allegedly connected with Kurdish militias from Ain al-Arab [Kobani] and announced that, ‘[Turkey] will retaliate against those who are responsible for this heinous terror attack.’ The retaliation happened on the following days when the Turkish military carried out more than 20 drone strikes in northern Syria, targeting villages near the Turkish border as well as the city of Kobani, killing 11 civilians.
From northern Syria, Mazlum Kobane, Commander-in-Chief of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), reveals that Turkey’s drones struck SDF-US joint facilities. During an interview with Al-Monitor, Kobane reminded them that the SDF is a US-backed militia group that fought Daesh, denied SDF responsibility for the Istanbul attack and affirmed his aim at establishing a peaceful relationship with Turkey. According to his assessment, the woman who planted a bomb in Istiklal is closely connected with Daesh and was part of a Syrian opposition group operating under Turkish control. Additionally, Kobane argued that the Turkish government is using the Istanbul attack to manipulate nationalist sentiment ahead of the elections next year, similar to what happened in the past.
If this is true, Erdoğan is not the only one working on his campaign. A well-known far-right politician, Ümit Özdağ, together with his supporters, paraded near Istiklal to ‘commemorate the martyrs.’ In a Twitter video that became viral, he claimed that ‘the police set up emergency barricades as the Victory Party enters Istiklal Street. Syrians, Afghans, Egyptians etc. enter comfortably,’ suggesting that discriminatory policies on the refugee asylum process should be considered to prevent further terrorist attacks. This idea, however, was better elaborated by Erdogan’s government, which proposes the expansion of the buffer corridor on the Syrian side of the border with Turkey. Following the drone strike, the government has now disclosed plans for a future ground operation that entails securing an area of 30 kilometres inland to where part of the Syrian refugees inside Turkey could be reallocated.
Countries such as Russia and the US are critical of this proposal as it could lead to further destabilisation in a densely populated region where zones of influence are not yet solidified. Erdogan’s government, however, finds the timing ideal. On one side, Turkey’s growing geopolitical importance in the Ukrainian war gives it leverage to negotiate a compromise with Russia. On the other hand, the US may not be willing to see Sweden and Finland’s unsuccessful applications to join NATO if Turkey decides to play this card.
“The Istanbul terrorist attack may trigger a war that (President) Erdogan has been wishing for.“
The Istanbul terrorist attack may trigger a war that Erdogan has been wishing for. Military operations have helped him win elections in the past. A narrative on foreigner threats increases his decisive position in the government as he becomes irreplaceable for the defence of the Turkish nation. This also supports the analyses that forecast Erdoğan’s intention to move towards strongman politics. The Syrian refugees in Turkey are among the ones paying a high price.
Turkey shelters 3.6 million Syrian refugees. Incidents such as the Istanbul attack are the catalysers of social tension, pitting Turks against Syrians. Last year, for example, a hungry mob attacked Syrian refugees after two other Syrians were accused of killing a Turkish teenager. Now, after 13 November, the #Syrian hashtag on Twitter is widely used to promote hate speech as public figures call for tighter border controls. Other factors, such as the economic crisis and high level of unemployment in Turkey, may well contribute to a rise in animosity against the Syrian community, especially if they become the sacrificial lamb in the next elections.
Photo Caption: Mourner lays flowers in a tribute for the blast’s victims (Credit: Yasin Akgul / AFP).