Lenarz: The Obama administration's departure from US exceptionalism and its strategy to let regional players take agency has badly backfired
If terrorists strike in countries engulfed in war or political turmoil, governments exploit the chaos to further their own strategic interests
Editor’s Note: Julie Lenarz is director of the Human Security Centre, an independent foreign policy think tank in London. The opinions in this article are those of the author.
The first day of 2017 started with a horrific terrorist attack in Turkey. A gunman opened fire into a crowd of hundreds at one of Istanbul’s most popular nightclubs, killing at least 39 people and injuring dozens more. ISIS has claimed responsibility for the massacre in an official statement released by its news agency Amaq.
Over recent months, Turkey has been hit by a wave of atrocities carried out by ISIS, the PKK, and breakaway factions of the outlawed Kurdish group.
The early Sunday attack is part of a global Islamist insurgency. It links the bloodshed in Istanbul to Berlin, Paris, Nice, Baghdad, Tel Aviv, Jakarta and other places where Islamic extremists try to impose their ideology by gunpoint.
However, there is another dynamic at play that is too often overlooked. If terrorists strike in countries engulfed in war or political turmoil, governments exploit the chaos to further their own strategic interests.
Turkey is no exception. While Turkish civilians bear the brunt of mounting casualties, the government has turned every attack into an opportunity to cleanse the country of dissenting voices and advance its geopolitical ambitions. Following the attack on Reina nightclub, the Turkish government announced that it was extending the state of emergency declared after the failed coup d’état in July by three months to fight “terrorism.”
However, since the coup failed to dislodge the AKP government, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has launched a widespread purge that has impacted tens of thousands of officials across Turkish society. Thousands of people have been dismissed, suspended, and imprisoned on charges of supporting US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkey has identified as the alleged mastermind behind the coup – an accusation he denies.
Turkey has also used the wave of terrorist attacks to crack down on the Kurdish minority in the country. Democratically elected politicians have been arrested, Kurdish rights organizations shut down, and peaceful demonstrations dispersed with extreme force.
In January 2016, an ISIS suicide bomber denoted himself in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet Square and in March a second suicide bombing took place in the city’s Beyoglu district.
In retaliation, Turkey not only targeted ISIS positions inside Syria, but also bombed Kurdish groups allied with the US.
It does not stop there. For a long time, the Turkish government turned a blind eye to the so-called “Jihadi Highway” – the ISIS smuggling route through Gaziantep to get recruits and weapons into Syria.
Why? Probably because ISIS contained the influence of Kurdish forces that control almost the entire territory along the border with Turkey.
It was only after ISIS strongholds collapsed in northern Syria that Ankara intervened and assisted Free Syrian Army rebels on the ground.
A similar dynamic is also evident in Syria. Many have voiced concern that in the early stages of the conflict, Bashar al-Assad set free Islamic extremists from prison, likely in the hope that they would create an enemy seen as more menacing by the West than the crimes committed by his regime.
The rise of ISIS and other jihadist entities allowed Assad to present himself not as the butcher of peaceful activists, freedom-loving students and democracy-embracing intellectuals, but as the bulwark against extremism.
His calculation paid off: the more that the opposition became infiltrated by Islamists and jihadists, the more the legitimacy of the uprising was called into question.
The jihadists, on the other hand, could not have asked for a more potent recruitment tool than the industrial-scale killing unleashed by the Assad regime, aided by the strategic apathy and moral myopia of Western governments.
This dynamic soon creates a vicious cycle: Terrorists and regimes get caught in a downward spiral of attacks, retaliation, fresh recruitment, more attacks, and even more retaliation.
The lessons commonly drawn from America’s post-9/11 experiences in Iraq and, to a lesser extent, Afghanistan are the wrong ones.
The answer to the failures of intervention cannot be inaction in the face of a gigantic crisis such as the war in Syria: a conflict impossible to contain within its borders.
The Obama administration’s departure from US exceptionalism and its strategy to let regional players take agency has badly backfired.
Dictatorships and authoritarian regimes as well as terrorist organizations have taken advantage of the power vacuum left by the US. The consequences have been devastating.
The global Islamist insurgency has been boosted by the bloodshed in Syria and brought mayhem onto Europe’s streets, while people in the Middle East find themselves trapped between strongmen and terrorist organizations that only have their own interests and the retention of power at heart.