Turkey is still reeling from the terrorist assault unleashed last week at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, an attack that killed 44 people and wounded 240 others. No one has claimed responsibility for the bombing, but the likely culprit is the Islamic State group. The attack comes in the wake of a foreign policy shift by President Recep Tayyip Ergodan, who is attempting to reclaim Turkey’s position as a critical player in Mideast politics. The turnaround by Ankara is the right move, but it will likely lead to more terrorist attacks.
When he took power over a decade ago, Erdogan presented himself as a moderate Muslim leader who would position Turkey as a bridge between the West and the Middle East, and the Islamic world more generally. Over time, Erdogan has shed his moderation, consolidating more power and pushing the boundaries of secularism in domestic policy.
A foreign policy that sought to reach out to Israel as well as Turkey’s more traditional partners in the Arab world tilted increasingly away from Tel Aviv. When Israel attempted in 2010 to interdict a flotilla of pro-Palestinian activists reportedly trying to break the blockade against Gaza, the incident turned bloody. Nine Turkish citizens were killed and dozens of others wounded. Turkey suspended ties with Israel and Erdogan denounced the country at the United Nations, calling the act a “bloody massacre” and “state terrorism.”
When the Syrian civil war broke out, Erdogan took the position that resolution was only possible with the defeat of Syrian President Bashar Assad. He also feared that chaos in that neighboring country could inspire Kurds throughout the region to seize the opportunity to realize their long-standing ambition and create a Kurdish state composed of territory from Syria, Iraq and Turkey. To prevent that outcome, Turkey provided virtual free passage to fighters who sought to join IS and battle Assad.
That position created tension with NATO, which takes a longer view of the IS threat and seeks to defeat the terror group. It also put Ankara at adds with Moscow, which backs the Syrian president. That difference led to a clash between Russian and Turkish aircraft last year — the former attacking Syrian opposition targets, the latter defending Turkish airspace — and the downing of a Russian fighter. Erdogan was unrepentant, even though tensions had damaged Turkey’s economy, which substantially benefited from Russian tourism.
In recent weeks, Ergodan has reversed course. He struck a deal with Israel last month that will allow those two countries to resume relations and he apologized to Russia for the downing of the Russian fighter. The Russian and Turkish foreign ministers have been saying that they must work together to find a joint solution to the Syrian problem.
Those two deals follow an agreement to allow NATO to use Turkish bases to attack IS targets in Syria and Iraq. Perhaps even more troubling to the radical Islamic groups has been Ankara’s decision to close its doors to fighters that entered Turkey and then crossed the border with Syria with impunity to join IS.
The result has been a series of terrorist attacks against Turkey, although IS has rarely taken credit for them, perhaps hoping that it can persuade Ankara to again change course. This year, Turkey has experienced eight suicide bombings, and at least 140 people have been killed. While the Turkish government originally claimed that Kurdish extremists were the likely culprit for several of the attacks, in several cases that charge made no sense since Kurds made up the majority of the victims. It has become increasingly clear that IS is the more likely suspect.
Following last week’s attack, Turkish security forces reportedly identified two Russian nationals as the likely perpetrators; the third is thought to be from Dagestan. The alleged organizer of the attack is said to be a Chechen national, Akhmed Chatayev, who is identified on a United Nations sanctions list as a trainer in IS of Russian-speaking militants.
More such attacks can be expected if Erdogan sticks to his new foreign policy. As the tide turns against IS on the battlefield, foreign fighters will return home to promote jihad against softer targets. Turkey has many reasons to be concerned. As a neighbor of Syria it has been overrun by refugees, some of whom are likely to be terrorists. There are IS sympathizers among Islamic hardliners within Turkey. And IS clearly sees Ankara’s shift in foreign policy as a betrayal that warrants a punishing response.
As the conflict in Syria drags on, Assad looks increasingly likely to survive, even if only to negotiate the terms of his own retirement. Turkey’s implacable opposition to him and the desire to use the civil war to address its own domestic problems — the Kurds — threatened to marginalize Ankara as those negotiations preceded. Erdogan’s foreign policy switch positions him and his country to play a larger role in the region and as the civil war plays itself out. Unfortunately, it is likely to trigger yet more bloodshed in the interim.
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