Turkey’s terrorism troubles are bad and getting worse. At least 41 people died Tuesday in a terrorist attack on Istanbul’s airport. Authorities say that ISIS attackers opened fire on crowds at the airport and then detonated suicide vests, wreaking havoc. For Turks, such an attack is not a surprise: The country has seen as spate of attacks throughout the country in recent years.
ISIS has not formally taken credit for the attack as of Wednesday morning, but it has struck Turkey repeatedly and with growing frequency: ISIS has previously hit Istanbul twice in 2016, including a January suicide bomber attack on Sultanahmet Square that killed 12 in the heart of Turkey’s tourist district. In 2015, Turkey suffered its most deadly terrorist attack ever when more than 100 people were killed after bombs went off near Ankara’s railway station, targeting a rally opposing Turkey’s conflict with its own Kurdish population. In 2013, more than 50 people were killed when car bombs went off in Reyhanli near the Syrian border. Although ISIS is usually blamed for these attacks, Turkey’s Kurds, the Syrian regime, and Syria’s al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra have all been named as suspects. The sheer number of possibilities and the politicized finger-pointing reveals how daunting a challenge Turkey faces on the counterterrorism front.
The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is trying to fight ISIS, but this is only one of its problems and, so far, not its No. 1 priority. Erdogan’s government also seeks to topple the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, and manage its own and the regional Kurdish problem—tough enough tasks without having to also shore up the government’s declining legitimacy.
When the Arab Spring broke out in 2011, Turkey seemed a model for aspiring democracies in the Middle East. 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. For many Turks, the Istanbul attack is part of this changing landscape. Asli Aydintasbas, a Turkish analyst, described a “world turned upside down” to the New York Times: Istanbul “was a happening town, cutting edge in arts and culture. It’s the kind of place that Condé Nast would write about. Now this is a Middle Eastern country where these things happen.”
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.