Istanbul’s Atatürk International Airport was once a gloriously modern, efficient airport for a country with big ambitions. Over the last decade, it reached well beyond its capacity and became a frustrating slog for anyone accustomed to the hurry-up-and-wait aspect of international travel. After the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, came to power in late 2002 with an expansive foreign policy that included a leading role for Turkey in the Muslim world, the country’s national air carrier, Turkish Airlines, began to spread its wings. The airline added service throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and East Africa. Prior to the emergence of the AKP, it was easy to get a good connection to Cairo via Istanbul, but by the mid-2000s passengers could also fly Turkish from New York City to Erbil, Iraq; Algiers, Algeria; Sanaa, Yemen; and Mogadishu, Somalia.
As difficult as it had become to negotiate the crowds, Atatürk International Airport is actually one of those places where people momentarily abandoned their mutual suspicions and identity politics in the service of the high principles of consumerism. Middle Easterners, Africans, Europeans, Asians, and a smattering of Americans politely maneuver around one another as they shop for Johnny Walker Black, Toblerone chocolate, Mavi Jeans, Dolce and Gabbana sunglasses, and Turkish delight while they wait.
This scene is consistent with the AKP’s worldview and its image of itself. It’s also what makes Turkey so vulnerable to the attacks that took place Tuesday at that very airport, killing 41 people and injuring hundreds.
Since Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP emerged from a split within Turkey’s Islamist movement in 2001, the party has portrayed itself as open to the world, business-friendly, Europe ready, and a leader in the Arab and Muslim worlds. The AKP made a connection between the Ottoman era, Turkey’s present, and its future. It was from Istanbul, the Ottoman capital, that Turks dominated the Middle East, North Africa, and the Balkans for the better part of 600 years. Almost a century later, a newly confident Turkish leadership, riding high on economic and political success at home, sought to position itself as a moral force, economic driver, and political power in the Muslim—but particularly Arab—world. But the bubble has burst, leaving behind a trail of blood stretching from Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeastern cities to the international arrivals area at Atatürk International Airport on the European side of Istanbul. Terrorist attacks have killed 250 in the last year, laying bare Turkey’s current reality: a three-front war made far worse by the fragmentation of two of its neighbors.
Terrorism and political violence are hardly unknown in Turkey. In the old days, security would march passengers out on the tarmac at Turkish airports, where they would have to identify their luggage before it was loaded into the hold. This wasn’t TSA-like security theater, though. Since the mid-1980s, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, has waged a war against the Turkish state that has killed 40,000, most of them Kurds residing in the southeast but also members of the security forces. The PKK has lashed out in urban areas in the western part of the country and even reached into Europe to go after Turkish interests.
Before the war with the PKK, almost 5,000 Turks lost their lives in the late 1970s from communal bloodletting between rightist and leftist groups. Yet for all that Turks have been forced to endure in the last four decades, there seems to be something unprecedented about the current violence. Yesterday’s attack was the 11th in the last 12 months. In the past, when a bomb went off near an Istanbul police station, it was fairly clear before the investigation even began that it was likely the work of the PKK. Now, while the PKK is still the largest threat (for a few reasons), Turkish authorities must identify the perpetrators from several potential suspects who have attacked political rallies, tourist sites, and now Turkey’s major international airport. How does a government protect people from groups with disparate motives when everywhere is a potential target? The Turks will ramp up arrests of suspected ISIS supporters, intensify their attacks on the PKK and a group called the Kurdish Freedom Falcons, or TAK, and reinforce its passive defenses. In other words, they will do what they have already been doing even though it has had little effect. Expect more bloodshed in Turkey.
The Turkish capital, Ankara, sits at the geographic center of a variety of pressing global political, diplomatic, and security issues. The same location that makes Turkey such a valuable partner for the United States and the West also makes the country vulnerable. The destabilization of Iraq and especially the fragmentation of Syria have accentuated Turkey’s preexisting security challenges and created new ones. The Turks, once the most likely neighbor to invade Iraq to prevent that country’s Kurds from declaring an independent state, have now forged an alliance of sorts with the Kurdistan Regional Government. Still, Iraq’s instability has had a profound effect on Turkey’s security. There is, of course, the broad and growing problem of ISIS.
But the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 breathed new life into a PKK that had been pounded throughout the late 1990s and thoroughly demoralized after its leader, Abdullah Öcalan, was apprehended in 1999 and confined to a Turkish island prison in the Sea of Marmara. In 2004, the PKK called off a unilateral ceasefire and, from its bases in Iraq’s Qandil Mountains, began attacking Turkish security forces while there were still tens of thousands of American soldiers in Iraq. The PKK presence in Qandil was not something new, but the group clearly took advantage of Iraq’s new reality to resume its violent campaign against the Turkish state. The Turks and the PKK began tentative peace negotiations in 2015, but nationalist politics on both sides conspired to undermine them. It remains entirely unclear who fired the first shot in this renewed war, but once again, Turkey’s air force is bombing PKK positions in Iraq and Syria (and Turkey). Both the PKK and the TAK have responded in kind by killing Turks in the streets.
It is the civil war in Syria, however, that has contributed to the deterioration of Turkish security. And it is here where the Turks themselves have much to answer for. After developing close ties with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during the mid-2000s, then–Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (who now serves as president) became one of the Syrian leader’s primary foes. Yet the Turks were unwilling to make good on their conviction that Assad must go, opting instead to try to cajole the Obama administration into regime change. When the White House was not forthcoming, the Turks turned a blind eye to people arriving at Atatürk International Airport on their way to wage jihad against Assad in Syria. The malign neglect soon became coordination with various extremist groups, though Ankara insists that the Islamic State remained beyond the pale for them. The Turkish opposition claims otherwise, based on reports from the newspaper Cumhuriyet, whose editor was jailed in retaliation for reporting on the alleged relationship between Turkish intelligence and ISIS.*
Moreover, at the same time that foreign fighters began pouring into Turkey, the PKK helped its Syrian counterpart, the Democratic Union Party, set up an armed force called the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, to protect Syria’s small Kurdish population from Assad. It turns out that the YPG is a pretty good fighting force and, with the help of American air power, has been able to push ISIS out of most of a strip of territory running along the Syrian-Turkish border. That is good for the United States and the anti-ISIS coalition but bad for the Turks. That territory is now the de facto autonomous region of Rojava, or Western Kurdistan. From the Turkish perspective, Rojava is a terrorist state in the making on the Turkish border that is inextricably linked to the PKK.
It is a problem that the Turks could have prevented, however. The YPG has enjoyed its battlefield success because when Washington went searching for allies after ISIS overran Mosul in June 2014, the Kurds raised their hands while the Turks prevaricated. Ankara did not want ISIS to retaliate in its streets and thought Washington’s anti-ISIS strategy could not possibly succeed as long as it did not include ending the Assad regime, and the Turks were more worried about Kurdish nationalism than ISIS nihilism. When Turkey finally agreed to join the anti-ISIS coalition after a year of negotiations and allow the use of Turkish bases, which are closer to Raqqa and Mosul than airstrips in the Persian Gulf, the Turks themselves remained ambivalent, focusing their firepower on fighting the PKK. A year later, Syria has laid waste to Ankara’s approach to the conflict there. With Washington’s help, Syria’s Kurds control territory, Assad remains in power, and Turkey itself is in ISIS’s crosshairs.
It is hard to know where it all ends for the Turks. The fight against Kurdish nationalism has widened and is connected to and complicated by the American fight against the Islamic State. Suddenly Turkey, which was touted as recently as 2011 as a “model” for the Arab world, is manifestly unstable and a portion of its territory is at risk. In the imagination of the ruling AKP, Atatürk International Airport was the place where the world would first experience its allegedly liberalizing and outward-looking view of the world and the Turkish place in it. That was true for a while, but now it is a place where the volatile mix of Turkey’s political traumas and extremist ideologies blew up.
Correction, June 29, 2016: The article originally misstated that the editor of the Cumhuriyet was currently jailed. The editor has been released. (Return.)