‘Civil war’ slips into Turkey’s borders

- Jacob Resneck Resneck is based in Germany.

It was seven years ago that I first visited Turkey. The country I encountere­d no longer exists.

The country’s leader, thenprime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was being held up as a democratic reformer. Turkey’s economy was booming, especially when compared with Europe, which was still reeling from the 2008 financial crisis.

“For the first time, we Turks have money and it’s the Greeks who are in trouble,” went the sentiment among many in Istanbul.

But the situation has changed dramatical­ly.

As I write, my Turkish friends are posting their despair on Facebook over the suicide bombing Tuesday at Istanbul’s airport, which killed more than 40 people and injured at least five times that many. And it was nothing new: My friends noted that there have been more than a dozen attacks in Turkey over the past year, with no end in sight.

“Everything is getting worse,” one writes. “Turkey is being forced (into) civil war and opposition is not strong enough to save us from this government.”

In 2012, I decided Istanbul was the perfect place to be a freelance journalist. It was a city in the thick of it, but above the fray. The Arab Spring had been a game changer, introducin­g messy democracy to Egypt and Tunisia, and an uprising had broken out in Syria. But rocksolid Turkey seemed to offer the perfect vantage point in the region.

But as I looked deeper, it became apparent that there were cracks in the veneer. There were small things: New restrictio­ns on alcohol were introduced. These were not unreasonab­le at first glance — many countries ban liquor sales after 10 p.m. — but my friends muttered darkly that restrictio­ns on social life were a symbol of a larger project: Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted ideology wanted to take Turkey backward, not forward.

On the surface that seemed unlikely. Rapid developmen­t was everywhere as concrete shopping malls, hotels and glitzy developmen­ts sprung up around the country. But these projects were rapidly replacing public space with private property, squeezing the already huge population.

The breaking point came in May 2013, when the government began bulldozing Gezi Park to make way for another shopping complex. The rebellion over Gezi was a watershed in Turkey, the last expression of collective rage against Erdogan’s authoritar­ianism. Chastened, Erdogan left the park alone to focus on consolidat­ing his power. He maneuvered himself into the presidency — traditiona­lly a ceremonial post — where he could rule the country from the confines of a newly built 1,150- room presidenti­al palace.

But Erdogan remained committed to his most pressing project: ousting Syrian president Bashar Assad. Turkey couldn’t invade directly, so instead it relied on the so-called jihadi highway.

On my many trips to the border regions between 2012 and 2015, I would see bearded men wearing green fatigues in Turkish towns, apparently enjoying some R&R between battles over the border.

In the ethnic Kurdish areas, the border was firmly sealed. Turkey didn’t want people to cross into Syria to join Kurdish militias battling the Islamic State. That’s because the Kurd- ish militias in Syria are allied with Kurdish factions in Turkey, who have been fighting a bloody insurrecti­on since the 1980s.

I’d watch Turkish riot police blast Kurdish civilians with tear gas while behind their backs we could see black smoke billowing as Kurds fought ISIS for control of the Syrian city of Kobane.

But in border areas where Turkey’s jihadist allies controlled the border, it was a different story. Those familiar bearded men in green fatigues — foreign fighters and locals alike — crossed into Syria in broad daylight to join the fight against Assad. There were no Turkish riot police.

Flash forward to this year: The U.S. has finally forced Turkey to open its airspace to warplanes targeting the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

Why did it take Turkey so long to confront ISIS?

We are seeing the answer now. For years Turkey has turned a blind eye to anyone who would fight its battles in Syria. That meant allowing all kinds of ideologica­lly driven guerrillas on its soil. This strategy left it vulnerable to reprisal attacks if Turkey were to turn against the Islamic State.

My last visit to Istanbul was just weeks after a suicide bomber killed more than a dozen German tourists in Istanbul’s historic Sultanahme­t earlier this year.

Yards away from the bombing site stood Byzantine-era marble columns, built centuries ago when Constantin­ople was one of the wealthiest and most important cities in the world.

But on that sunny winter day, it was a ghost town.

 ?? OZAN KOSE, AFP/GETTY IMAGES ?? Relatives of suicide attack victim Mohammad Eymen Demirci mourn in Istanbul during his funeral. The attacks killed more than 40 people and injured dozens.
OZAN KOSE, AFP/GETTY IMAGES Relatives of suicide attack victim Mohammad Eymen Demirci mourn in Istanbul during his funeral. The attacks killed more than 40 people and injured dozens.
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