Who’s Really to Blame for Istanbul Airport Attack?
A cynical strategy of supporting Islamists and playing enemies off one another has put Turkey's security at risk.
The chickens are coming home to roost. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim has publicly voiced what many of us thought — and tweeted — shortly after Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport came under attack: All signs point to an Islamic State operation. That would make Tuesday night’s assault, which killed 42 people, the third attack in Istanbul this year by the Syria-based jihadi group targeting key Turkish tourist and infrastructure sites where foreign nationals converge.
It’s been a year since the Islamic State trained its sights on Istanbul in a slick, Turkish-language digital publication replete with historical references to the metropolis bridging Europe and Asia. The first issue of Konstantiniyye — the Latin transliteration of the Ottoman name for Istanbul — titled “The Conquest of Istanbul,” featured several references to Fatih Sultan, aka Mehmet the Conqueror, who captured the city from the infidel Christians in 1453.
Konstantiniyye was launched two days after Turkey marked “Fatih Gullu,” an annual commemoration of the 15th-century battle that has turned increasingly baroque as Turkey’s latest wannabe sultan, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, embraces Ottoman trappings with florid enthusiasm. The magazine launch also marked a disquieting jihadi milestone: It was a declaration of the end of a tacit understanding that the Islamic State would not target Turkey as repayment for Erdogan’s generous open-border policy during the first four years of the Syrian conflict.
But the gloves are now off. Erdogan’s policy of supporting Islamist groups to muck around neighboring countries isn’t going exactly to script. Those ingrate jihadis are turning around like snakes to bite the hand that once fed them — just like they did in Pakistan. Terrorist attacks are now the new normal in Turkey — just like they are in Pakistan.
Erdogan’s support for Islamist groups of all stripes in the Syrian conflict is an old story, but woe to any Turkish journalist who dares write about this. A day before the Istanbul airport attack, I interviewed leading Turkish journalist Can Dundar, who survived a high-profile assassination attempt and is currently appealing a five-year prison sentence for publishing a report in his newspaper, Cumhuriyet, on Turkish intelligence services supplying arms to Islamist rebels in Syria. “This is a touchy subject, and therefore the reaction was so strong,” Dundar explained.
The government may intimidate the press from reporting the story, but there’s no escaping the fact that Turkey has incontestably, irrevocably turned into Jihadistan. The only solutions are tightened security and increased surveillance measures. But there’s a limit to how much those can achieve in a vast country of nearly 75 million that is now home to more than 2.7 million Syrian refugees and is effectively — despite fierce resistance from secular elites — turning its back on Kemalist values.
Last week, I was on the road from the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep to Kilis, a hardscrabble town right by the Turkey-Syria border. Kilis has been hit periodically by rockets launched from the Islamic State-controlled region on the Syrian side of the border, killing more than 20 people this year. In prime jihadi highway zone, our minibus was stopped just once, at a checkpoint manned by jandarma, or Turkish gendarmes. ID cards were nonchalantly passed to the driver — some didn’t even bother — who passed them on to the jandarma before they were returned minutes later, and the minibus sped on past scrublands dotted with the occasional pistachio or olive grove. On the way back to Gaziantep, the minibus was not stopped: Iftar — the evening meal during the holy month of Ramadan — was approaching, and after a hard day’s fasting, water and food topped the agenda.
At the Kilis bus station, a plainclothes security official charged with ensuring no jihadi goes into or out of Syria cursed his latest punishment posting. No amount of pep talk about his critical role on the front lines of his nation’s security would cheer him up. Kilis was hopeless, awful, boring, and unsafe — could he move to the United States, he asked? What’s the story with the green card lottery?
Turkish security forces are stretched. Ataturk Airport may be well-secured (now), and Turkish citizens are famously resilient. But security officials and civilians are bearing the brunt of the government’s dangerous policies. Erdogan scrapped a peace process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in a successful bid to win the November 2015 general election. After an inconclusive June 7, 2015, poll that saw the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) cross a historic threshold to enter parliament, he wasn’t taking any chances. The Kurds, he calculated, were the perfect old-new enemy to unite Turks and ensure a victory for his Justice and Development Party (AKP), and he was right.
Turkey’s renewed conflict with the PKK has thrust the Kurdish-majority southeastern region back to the brutal 1990s, with towns such as Suruc and Sanliurfa turning into war zones where few journalists dare go. Erdogan’s crackdown on the press is so thorough that journalists risk arrest, firing, or deportation for perceived transgressions.
And so, an increasing number of Turkish security and intelligence officials — many of them probably pining for the comforts of big city Istanbul or the United States — are being deployed to crappy little southeastern towns to fight an old domestic bogey that has ironically supplied the best fighters in the war against the Islamic State.
The Syrian conflict is changing Turkish society for the worse. Takfiri ideology — which advocates excommunication for Muslims not practicing the faith the strict Salafi way — is replacing the traditionally syncretic form of Islam practiced in Turkey, where Sufism and Hanafi Sunnism has long prevailed.
In places like Gaziantep, the primarily conservative Syrian Sunni Arabs I met had no love for the Islamic State. But they had a passion for a sharia state that stems from decades of hating a Baathist, Alawite-led regime. They also had a disdain for “Western democracy” that comes from decades under a closed, paranoid dictatorship that used anti-Semitism to discredit the West and kept the Sunni majority in check by deploying Islam as an appeasement strategy. When Syria’s Christian community elders say they fear a Sunni takeover of the country, they have a point. As for the Syrian Arab view of the Kurds, it mirrors — if not betters — Turkish levels of distrust. From their vantage points in exile, many Syrian Arabs are convinced the Kurds are out to grab their lands and reduce their power.
The onslaught of takfiri ideology on the one hand and the AKP brand of Islamism on the other threatens to chip away at the hard-fought gains in women’s rights. Polygamy levels, by all accounts, are rising. While statistics do not as yet exist, several news organizations have featured reports on Turkish men taking on hapless, impoverished Syrian women as second wives. Polygamy is illegal in Turkey, but the practice has always existed, especially in the remote southeastern regions. But now the issue is going mainstream. This month, a pro-government Turkish TV station featured an all-male panel complaining that Muslim men in Turkey were not free to observe their religion since they had no legal rights to take up second, or third, or fourth, wives.
Many Turkish women are incensed by the rise in polygamy. Local women’s rights groups are launching awareness campaigns, and lawyers are ready to take cases to court — if only they could get some. If this issue keeps spiraling, it will increase the divides in an already divided country. This, in turn, could trigger a backlash against Syrian refugees in a country that has borne the brunt of the migrant crisis.
The Turkish people have been exceptionally hospitable to the Syrian refugees living in the border areas, as well as major Turkish towns and cities. But there’s a palpable frustration as Turks complain of rising rents, Syrians receiving free education while they have to pay school fees, Syrian fighters getting immediate medical attention at government hospitals while they have to wait in line … and so on. A day after the Ataturk Airport attack, when Prime Minister Yildirim visited the wounded at an Istanbul hospital, he was met with hostility and cries of, “You have turned us into Syria,” according to Turkish press reports.
Erdogan’s popularity levels are still high, but a number of Turks confess that while they voted for the AKP last year, they’re fed up and can’t see themselves voting for Erdogan’s party again. In sharp contrast, every Syrian I met in Turkey proudly declared himself or herself a fan of the Turkish president. “I love Erdogan because he welcomed me. I love him because he provided me security and I can live here, as a Muslim, freely,” a Syrian translator in Gaziantep told me.
It’s not often that the leader of a country so generously serves the citizens of another, putting his own nation’s security at risk. The Ataturk Airport attack may well highlight these discrepancies and may open yet another dangerous chapter in the history of the Syrian conflict.
Photo credit: Turkish Presidency/Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images