Last year was a gruesome one for Turkey, and this year is getting off to the worst possible start.
On the very first day of the new year, not six months after a botched military coup and an almost Stalinist-style purge of the army, the courts, the academy and the bureaucracy by its authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, ISIS declared open war.
A terrorist crossed the border from Syria and shot his way into Istanbul’s posh Reina nightclub and murdered at least 39 people with an automatic rifle. He stalked and killed the wounded on the floor, then lined up and shot some of the initial survivors execution-style in the head.
Unlike most ISIS killers, this one escaped.
The Turkish government says it has identified the man but they haven’t released his name yet, nor have they caught him.
Journalist and Turkey expert Claire Berlinski lived in Istanbul for years and wrote this about Reina. “I’d never go to Reina on my own. Too expensive, music too loud. But if you’d visited me when I was living in Istanbul, and if I knew you were on an expense account, I might have taken you there. It would be high on my list of places — top five, say — to take visitors who were only in the city for a day or two and who needed to be dazzled.”
That’s one of the reasons Reina was targeted. Every single person who visits places like that is an enemy of the Islamic State. Take a look at this video shot inside Reina four years ago. No such establishments exist in the ISIS capital of Raqqa, I assure you.
“Reina’s one of those places,” Berlinski continues, “where you’d sit with friends from out of town and, dazzled by the Bosphorus and its skyline, think, ‘This city makes every other city seem like a village.’ You’d watch your friends’ faces with pleasure because no one ever forgets the first time they see that skyline. Seeing someone see that for the first time is a delight of Istanbul in itself.”
I have never visited Reina, alas, but I can attest to the fact that Istanbul makes almost every other city on earth (aside from New York and possibly Tokyo) feel like a village. Claire is right. Even Paris feels like a delightful large village compared with Istanbul.
An enormous cosmopolitan megacity like Istanbul could never be ruled by the likes of ISIS unless it was first bombed out and mostly evacuated of its 14 million inhabitants. It isn’t as secular and hedonistic as Amsterdam, but it’s a lot closer to Amsterdam culturally than it is to Riyadh. I’ve been there three times, and each time I thought to myself I could live there.
That, however, was before the Syrian war, the rise of ISIS, and the widescale internal repression from President Erdogan.
The attack at Reina in Istanbul is a hinge moment in Turkey for a couple of reasons. It’s not the first time ISIS has struck the country, but it is the first time ISIS has admitted it openly. A press release says the hit was personally ordered by “the prince of the believers,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Second, most previous ISIS massacres in Turkey targeted Kurds and leftists associated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (or PKK), whose allies in the People’s Protection Units (or YPG) are fighting ISIS in Syria. Those attacks could be plausibly described as a spillover of the Syrian war.
The attack at Reina cannot. This time, wealthy secular ethnic Turks in the capital were the targets. Massacring party-goers at a nightclub is categorically identical to the mass murder at the Bataclan theater in Paris in 2015.
ISIS hates bourgeois Turks for the same reason it hates Americans, the French, the Israelis and pretty much everyone else. They spell it out so plainly in their magazine Dabiq that there can be no excuse for misunderstanding it.
“We hate you because your secular, liberal societies permit the very things that Allah has prohibited while banning many of the things He has permitted, a matter that doesn’t concern you because you separate between religion and state, thereby granting supreme authority to your whims and desires via the legislators you vote into power.”
In other words, they hate us for our freedoms. That isn’t a Republican talking point. It’s an ISIS talking point.
Turkey isn’t as free as the West, but it’s a libertarian’s utopia compared with totalitarian Raqqa in Syria. Next to just about anywhere in the Arab world, Istanbul looks like Europe. It feels like Europe. The Western half of the city is actually in Europe, or at least on it.
“Even if you were to stop fighting us,” ISIS continues in Dabiq, “your best-case scenario in a state of war would be that we would suspend our attacks against you – if we deemed it necessary – in order to focus on the closer and more immediate threats, before eventually resuming our campaigns against you. Apart from the option of a temporary truce, this is the only likely scenario that would bring you fleeting respite from our attacks. So in the end, you cannot bring an indefinite halt to our war against you. At most, you could only delay it temporarily.”
Erdogan used to think he could keep Turkey off ISIS’ hit list with an implicit non-aggression pact. He thought that if he postured against Syria’s criminal Assad regime, bombed the Kurds and left ISIS alone that ISIS would leave him and Turkey alone.
It didn’t work out. Not for long anyway.
“The Islamic State has now formally ended its separate peace with Turkey,” Graeme Wood writes in The Atlantic. “Turkey has, up till now, been unique among victims in never having its victimhood acknowledged by its assailant. Whatever value this fiction held, it has now ended.”
Erdogan should have read Dabiq magazine.
Why is this happening now instead of later? Because Turkey is finally bombing ISIS positions in Syria. Erdogan’s bizarre and stupid ambivalence toward ISIS was never going to last. He has always viewed Kurdish insurgents as the greater of evils—the Turkish state has been at war with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party for decades while ISIS is the spry newcomer in the region—but ISIS is at war with the entire human race, and Turks are part of that race. And Turkey shares a long border with Syria. There was never any chance that ISIS could forever resist lashing out at the decadent nature of the Turkish society that’s right on its doorstep.
Erdogan is an Islamist, sure, but he’s hardly an ISIS-style Islamist. Turkey is awash in liquor, stylish women, bikinis on beaches and all the other trappings of a Western liberal society. Roughly half the Turkish population is secular, and plenty of religious folks take a mild approach to their faith.
Nothing in Turkey is going to end well, not its war against ISIS, not its war against the Kurds, and not the government’s war against its opponents. Within a matter of weeks after the coup attempt last summer, Erdogan fired 21,000 private school teachers and 9,000 police officers. He suspended almost 3,000 judges and arrested more than 10,000 soldiers. He canned more than 21,000 officials from the Ministry of Education and ousted 1,500 university deans. He closed more than 100 media outlets and suspended more than 1,500 officials in the Ministry of Finance.
And he blames the botched coup on a reclusive exile who lives in the Pennsylvania mountains and, by extension, the United States government for refusing to extradite him for a kangaroo trial. Erdogan blames the United States for assassinating the Russian ambassador to Turkey last month even though a Turkish policeman pulled the trigger while screaming “Don’t forget Aleppo!” Pro-government newspapers are even blaming the United States for the New Years Day ISIS attack.
A normal country comes together after being assaulted from the outside. US President George W. Bush’s approval ratings climbed to a staggering 90 percent shortly after September 11, 2011. Nothing like that is happening in Turkey.
The entire country seems to be turning into a distorted funhouse mirror version of itself. “With each passing day,” Tim Arango writes in The New York Times, “public life descends deeper into what many Turks concede is a mix of darkness and seeming absurdity, with growing fears of violence and expressions of xenophobia set next to repressions on civic life.” He quotes Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Turkey is so deeply polarized around the powerful persona of Erdogan that, instead of asking why terror attacks are happening and how they can be stopped, the pro- and anti-Erdogan blocks in the country are blaming each other.”
Turkey’s government should respond by championing the values of civilization against totalitarianism and barbarism, but no. Instead, its president is championing Erdoganism, Islamism, and Neo-Ottomanism. He believes everything, even ISIS, is part of a sinister plot by the West. And he’s embracing the leader of the unfree world, Vladimir Putin.
Conspiracy theorists never govern well. Their analyses are cartoonishly flawed, so it follows that their solutions will be as well. When they inevitably fail, they continue to blame the wrong people, become more paranoid than they were before, and triple-down after doubling down. Erdogan has been trapped in this spiral for more than a decade. After a few more ISIS massacres in Turkey’s largest city, he may go completely over the edge—if it isn’t already over it.
And if there’s one thing I’ve learned after spending more than a decade on and off in that part of the world it is this: there is virtually no limit to how far a Middle Eastern country (or any country, for that matter) can fall. Much of Iraq is a hellscape. Syria has gnawed itself down to rubble. Afghanistan imploded its way to the stone age.
Unlike the others, Turkey is a magnificent country. It is a long way down, and there are no parachutes.