The terror attack on Istanbul’s main airport is both a tragic reminder of Turkey’s vulnerability to militant violence as well as yet another sign of the deadly reach of the Islamic State, reports Washington Post:
‘The extremist organization has, as yet, not asserted responsibility for the triple bombings that claimed at least 41 lives and injured hundreds more late night on Tuesday. But both Turkish and American officials see its hand behind the hideous assault.
‘On one level, the attack is not that different from others. Suspected Islamic State terrorists have already killed hundreds of people in Turkey; a bombing at a leftist rally in Ankara last year remains the worst terror attack in Turkey’s modern history.’
The assault, for which Turkish authorities blamed the Islamic State, is the latest evidence of how the chaos in the Middle East, in particular the Syrian war, has metastasized, spilling over borders and rattling countries that are crucial to regional stability, writes New York Times:
‘Few are more important than Turkey, a NATO ally and a strategic link with the West. The sharing of intelligence between Turkey and the West, already close, will need to be made even closer.
That Turkey has become a target is not a surprise. For too long, the government in Ankara underestimated the ISIS threat, even as it focused on other groups in Syria trying to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.
Turkish officials allowed great quantities of arms and thousands of extremist foreign fighters to pass through its border into Syria. Some of those fighters have found a home in Turkey and are likely to be a threat for some time to come. Meanwhile, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has allowed a more radical strain of Islam to flourish in Turkey.
Tuesday’s attack comes at a vulnerable moment for Mr. Erdogan. His authoritarian leadership has disturbed NATO allies and he is juggling multiple crises, including the flow of Syrian refugees into Turkey, as well as the war with the Kurds that he should have tried harder to contain. After alienating many countries in the region, he began this week to make amends, including apologizing to Russia for shooting down a jet last year and re-establishing diplomatic relations with Israel after a six-year hiatus.
The Islamic State, of course, is not solely Mr. Erdogan’s problem. The growing threat to Turkey is only the latest reason for the United States and its partners to work more urgently to defeat the group in Iraq and Syria, while seeking to end the civil war in Syria, which has not only brought devastation to hundreds of thousands of civilians, but provided fertile ground for extremism.’
In a related story, NYT also adds:
‘From the start of the Islamic State’s rise through the chaos of the Syrian war, Turkey has played a central, if complicated, role in the group’s story. For years, it served as a rear base, transit hub and shopping bazaar for the Islamic State, and at first, that may have protected Turkey from the violence the group has inflicted elsewhere.
Now, the Turkish government and Western officials say the suicide bombings at Istanbul’s main airport on Tuesday bore the hallmarks of an Islamic State attack, and they have added them to a growing roll call of assaults attributed to the group in Turkey in recent months.’
When the Arab Spring broke out in 2011, Turkey seemed a model for aspiring democracies in the Middle East, comments Slate:
‘Here, after all, was a democratic government that embraced political Islam but did so in a seemingly moderate way, was a member of NATO, a booming economic power, and a force for stability in the region. The Middle East, however, has come to Turkey rather than the other way around. Although Turkey’s economy continues to do well, Turkey has far fewer admirers in the West and is often considered part of the problem, even drawing public criticism from President Obama.
Turkey’s ISIS problems are bound up in its Syria policy. Erdogan had cultivated Assad and then was outraged when the Syrian dictator proved to be, well, a dictator. Instead of making reforms to placate protesters, as Erdogan had urged, Assad reached out to Iran and commenced a brutal crackdown that would lead to a civil war in which more than 400,000 Syrians have died so far—most at the hands of the regime, not ISIS. Although the United States prioritizes fighting ISIS, Turkey sees ousting Assad as more important. Ankara has armed and trained opposition fighters and hosted Syrian dissidents. Turkey has backed more radical groups like Ahrar al-Sham, which works with the Islamic State’s affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.
The country’s policy toward ISIS should be seen in this context: Anyone opposing Assad seemed to be on the right side. Although ISIS relies heavily on foreign volunteers for manpower, Turkey dragged its feet and allowed volunteers to transit Turkey unimpeded so as to make their way to fight Assad. European governments reacted with growing concern and anger, fearing that these volunteers would come back and conduct terrorist attacks on the West. In the last year, Turkey has become far tougher on foreign fighters, but it is difficult to uproot the now-extensive radical infrastructure.
ISIS attacks on Turkey have grown in response to this crackdown. In addition to public attacks, ISIS has shot and beheaded activists linked to “Raqqa Is Being Silently Slaughtered,” a non-government organization providing information and video footage of the brutal life in ISIS-controlled areas.
Such acts and Western pressure have also led to more Turkish military involvement, and this too probably led to an escalation of ISIS attacks. Turkey used tanks and artillery to strike ISIS after the January bombing in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet Square and has shelled ISIS positions in response to ISIS cross-border shelling. Perhaps more importantly, Turkey allows the United States and other coalition countries to base aircraft out of the Incirlik and Diyabakir air bases in southern Turkey for strikes on ISIS.
Making things even more complex, Turkey’s own Kurdish problem put it at odds with Washington in the fight against ISIS. From Ankara’s point of view, there are good Kurds and bad Kurds. The good ones include Iraq’s main Kurdish organizations which have good relations and economic ties with Turkey.
On the other hand, the Erdogan government sees the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) as an enemy. The group claims to represent the aspiration of Turkey’s own Kurds, which make up perhaps 20 percent of the population, and past regimes had fought civil wars with the group, leading to 40,000 deaths since the conflict began in 1984. In 1999, the PKK’s leader was captured and the conflict declined in ferocity. Peace seemed at hand as negotiations commenced secretly in 2009, and at the end of 2012 Erdogan publicly embraced the talks. The ceasefire broke down in 2015, however, when Turkey bombed the PKK’s bases in Iraq, and Kurdish violence and terrorism in Turkey returned: Many observers believe Erdogan renewed operations because his electoral fortunes were waning and he sought to stir up nationalist sentiment.
With this dynamic in mind, Syria’s small Kurdish group the Democratic Union Party (PYD) has come to play an important role for Turkish policy, ISIS, and Syria. Although the group has historically been minor, its ties to the PKK made Turkey see it as an enemy. This mattered little until central government authority in Syria’s Kurdish areas collapsed. The PYD and other Kurdish groups carved out their own autonomous areas, leading to Turkish fears that the PYD would inspire Turkey’s Kurds to seek independence and would provide the PKK a base for attacks.
Washington took a different view: As U.S. military training programs against ISIS proved ineffective, the PYD also emerged as a valuable military ally, perhaps the most effective foe of ISIS within Syria.
Even as the United States works with Syria’s Kurds, Turkey has embargoed Kurdish areas in Syria (at a time when humanitarian conditions are desperate) and even threatened to intervene if the Syrian Kurds expand their territory near the Turkish border too much. And to make this more complex, the PYD itself doesn’t work well with other anti-Assad groups, which oppose Kurdish autonomy and are angered by the PYD’s willingness to ignore Assad, making it difficult to square with broader U.S. goals in Syria.
All this would be easier for Turkey if the Erdogan government had broad support at home and abroad, but it doesn’t. Recent years have seen massive anti-government protests with the Turkish government responding by stepping up repression. Erdogan changed jobs from prime minister to the more ceremonial role of president, but he remains the power behind—or even in front of —the throne. Turkey has used anti-terrorism as an excuse to crack down on legitimate political dissent at home, straining ties with Europe and the United States. The government is increasingly authoritarian, with crackdowns on press freedom being particularly acute. (And whatever you do, don’t compare Erdogan to Gollum.) The good news is that Turkey is trying to break out of its growing isolation; the bad news is that it is doing so by mending fences with another authoritarian strongman, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In addition to the horrific loss of lives, the biggest danger of the ISIS attacks is that they push Turkey further toward authoritarianism and away from Europe and the United States.
Dictators throughout the Middle East use legitimate security and terrorism dangers to justify delaying reforms, repressing any form of opposition, and labeling all foes as terrorists.
The Turkish model, unfortunately, is a Middle Eastern one now.