Turkey: a safe haven of the Middle East and wondrous tourist destination for travelers. This is the vision of Turkey I have from my visit in 2014. Mosques dotting the skyline with their minarets, roasted chestnut vendors scattered around the streets, Roman cities restored for the world to discover, and the otherworldly landscapes of Cappadocia.
This geography was formed by thousands of years of volcanic ash, stretching across miles of rock spires, carved rock towns, and ancient cave dwellings. If not for its location on the fringes of the Middle East, Turkey could possibly be the ideal vacation spot. Since my visit, the area has suffered from the violent after-effects of the Arab Spring, a series of independent democratic uprisings across the Arab world. Turkey itself has the unusual trait of being a secular democracy in the Middle East, founded on the principles of secularism and social equality. Although Turkey remains a democratic powerhouse, the instability of its neighbors has taken a toll on the safety of the nation. I would not feel safe returning to Turkey at its current state, presently threatened by a series of attacks by ISIS and Kurdish terror organization the PKK.
On March 13th at 6:35, a car bomb detonated in the middle of rush hour traffic on Ataturk Boulevard in Ankara. Thirty four people were killed, 125 wounded, and one bus burned completely. A Kurdish militant group, the TAK, a spinoff from the banned PKK, claimed responsibility for the attack. On the group’s website, they claimed the attack was aimed at security forces and not civilians, although they warned that civilian casualties are inevitable. Hours after the blast, Turkish war planes struck the Kurdish militants in northern Iraq.
The most recent attack on March 19 struck Istiklal Avenue, one of Istanbul’s busiest streets and a tourist destination. My host student brought me down Istiklal Avenue during my visit, and I remember the bustling atmosphere of tourists and locals combined on the pedestrian street lined with shops and restaurants. The suicide bombing killed two Israelis with US citizenship, one Iranian, and injured more than 30 others. It paralyzed the city, and the following day the once bustling streets appeared vacant and dotted with security checkpoints. This attack was claimed by ISIS, who have been hit hard by Turkish retaliation to the Istanbul terrorist attack in January. Immediately after the suicide attack that killed ten German tourists, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said, “Close to 200 Daesh [ISIS] members including so-called regional leaders were neutralized in the last 48 hours. After this, every threat directed at Turkey will be punished in kind.”
The events on Istiklal Avenue and Ataturk Boulevard would have been a staggering surprise to Turkey just last year, but recently the country has been the target of multiple attacks in the major cities of Ankara and Istanbul. The war on terror in Turkey is a two-front battle, with Kurdish militants on one side and ISIS on the other. The Kurdish militants have demanded separation from Turkey to form an independent Kurdistan, and the armed conflict recently resumed in southeastern Turkey. Turkey shares a southern border with Syria, a country partly controlled by ISIS and in its fifth year of what is essentially a civil war. Turkey was the first country to designate ISIS a terrorist group and has recently supported the US in many offensives on the organization by lending the use of their air bases to the United States Air Force. Because of Turkey’s retaliation against the terrorist organization, they have designated themselves as enemies, and ISIS has responded with multiple attacks on the nation.
As Turkey continues to be hit by acts of terror, a long-term defense plan still seems unclear. Daniel Benjamin, former American counter terrorism official, explains, “It’s very difficult to stop suicide bombers, especially if you have allowed an infrastructure to grow in your country,” It is unfortunate that this great country has transformed from a tourist haven to an unsafe destination. Understandably, people are not willing to risk their lives for the shopping and history.
Featured image: www.ithsab.net.