Istanbul Ataturk Airport Attack: Turkey Could Knock Out ISIS, but Will It?
It’s got a huge army on ISIS’s doorstep—and all the motivation in the world to use it. Will Turkey finally go on the offensive this time?
Cleaning crews were still clearing the rubble and broken glass, and barriers proclaiming a “maintenance zone” blocked what had always been the main arrivals area, but just a half day after suicide bombers staged a major terror attack at Istanbul’s main airport, the crowds had returned and most flights were operating.
It wasn’t quite business as usual at Ataturk airport, one of Europe’s busiest, but the recovery seemed remarkable, and there was little sign of enhanced security. Some passengers no doubt stayed home, but there were long lines at airline check-ins, and even longer lines at ticket offices to rebook their flights.
Forty-two people were killed, 12 of them foreigners and the rest Turks, and 239 wounded, according to the Turkish government. Among the wounded were an American and a Canadian, but officials did not give their names. Nor did the government identify the three suicide bombers, who arrived by taxi Tuesday evening toting explosive vests and submachine guns.
One of them blew himself up near the entrance to the arrivals section, and in the confusion, the other two entered the arrivals area, shot people randomly, and then blew themselves up.
Reopening the air terminal is one way to respond to the outrage which the Turkish government believes was carried out by Islamic State extremists: resuming the appearance of normalcy, while pursuing all avenues to close down the network that facilitated the attack. (U.S. CIA director John Brennan, using the American government’s preferred acronym for the so-called Islamic State, said the attack in Istanbul “certainly bears the hallmarks of ISIL’s depravity.”)
The other way is to take direct action against the force, which operates out of an effective sanctuary in Syria. Unlike Belgium, whose main airport in Brussels was attacked in March, Turkey is directly next door to ISIS’s so-called caliphate with its capital in Raqqa, Syria.
Its army of some 400,000, supported by its NATO allies, could deliver a knockout blow against the caliphate, but there’s no sign that anything of the kind is in the works, or that NATO allies would support it.
As a mid-sized power of some 80 million, Turkey is reluctant to intervene in an Arab state that was part of the Ottoman Empire until World War I. Its own public shows no sign of supporting a unilateral military intervention inside Syria, and there are at least four other big reasons why it’s reluctant to act against the extremists: Iran, Russia, Syria, and Turkey’s own disputed role in the rise of ISIS.
Turkey has been criticized for allowing extremists to move back and forth into Syria until spring of last year, when it ordered its borders closed. It has also been at loggerheads with Washington over the U.S. decision to ally in the battle against the Islamic State with a Kurdish militia in Syria that Turkey considers a part of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK. Officials here say Turkey has killed over 1100 ISIS fighters, and that “we’re at war with these guys.”
U.S. officials aren’t so sure. “Maybe this will get Turkey to see ISIS as a priority over [Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad and the Kurds,” one such U.S. official told The Daily Beast. “They need to better secure that border.”
Obama voiced “heartbreak” over the Istanbul attacks, but introduced no new plans to counterattack. Apparently, he plans to continue the low-profile approach of high altitude bombing in support of local ground forces attacking ISIS fighters.
In a phone call to Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan, Obama expressed “his deep condolences,” the White House said. And he offered support “in the investigation” and as Turkey takes additional steps to strengthen its security.
But those steps will likely be limited. One reason Turkish officials cite for their hesitance to intervene directly in Syria is Russia, which sent warplanes into Syria in late September and has been bombing civilians and moderate Syria rebels backed by the U.S. and Turkey ever since. Ankara had expected the U.S. to step up its supply of arms to the Syrian opposition to blunt the Russian intervention and to protect the civilian population, but it didn’t happen.
Instead of raising the price, Turkish officials saw U.S. policy as one of offering Moscow a permanent grip on the region. “You need to change your attitude toward the Russians,” one senior Turkish official said. But the U.S. did not heed its frontline allies and instead teemed up with Russia to supervise a cease-fire that Russia and its Syrian ally, have continually broken.
Although Russia has withdrawn some of its warplanes, it has continued the bombing, not just of U.S.-backed moderate rebels, but also hospitals, schools, and camps for the displaced. And most recently it’s been using cluster bombs and even phosphorus bombs against civilians, independent humanitarian aid groups say.
But the Obama administration says little about the bombing campaign and even classified its intelligence, so it almost never publicly blames Russia for violating the cease-fire.
When Turkey shot down a Russian plane in early October that had strayed into its territory, the U.S. said little to support Turkey publicly. And after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced economic sanctions and a tourist boycott of Turkey, there was no sign that Washington would try to fill the gap in any way and make Turkey whole. After months of holding back, Turkey’s Erdogan expressed regrets this week, and Putin said he’d lift the sanctions and the travel boycott.
Turkish officials said if Turkey intervened in Syria against the Islamic State, and Russia retaliated, they doubted that the U.S. would back its NATO ally.
Turkey has repeatedly pleaded for U.S. support to create a safe area inside Syria for the millions displaced from their homes by regime barrel bombs and missile attacks, but been turned down repeatedly. This would, of course, be a massive logistical operation—one with the potential to create the kind of refugee camps that have often become breeding grounds for extremism. But Turkish officials see another reason for the American reluctance: fear that Iran—the principal outside backer of President Assad would send in volunteers to oust a pro-Western force of Syrian rebels that Ankara envisaged would provide security for the zones.
“The Iranians feel a kind of free hand in the region,” one Turkish official said in a 2015 interview. “They know they don’t have a determined counterpart. They know the U.S. will never at against them.” He said Iran was taking advantage of this “policy of appeasement” because “they won’t have such an opportunity for decades to come.”
Then there’s the matter of Iran’s ally, the Assad regime, which would surely brand a Turkish incursion to destroy the Islamic State, even in the name of self-defense, as a declaration of war. The administration says it won’t send forces into Syria to fight the Assad regime, and that decision seems to apply to U.S. allies as well.
But there’s another reason—the U.S. reliance on the People’s Protection Force or YPG, a Syrian Kurdish force, which is based in northern Syria and serves as the spearhead in the U.S.-backed battle against the Islamic State in Syria. Turkey has repeatedly voiced its reservations about the strategy, viewing the YPG as the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), with which it is now actively fighting in southern Turkey. It seems highly unlikely that the YPG would allow Turkish forces to cross its territory unscathed. Nor is the Turkish government in the mood to, in effect, bolster the YPG and PKK.
The current policy “needs to be revised,” a Turkish government official said Wednesday. If the Islamic State “is a serious threat, there must be a change in strategy.” But he said that seemed unlikely until the United States completes presidential elections in November.
For now, U.S. officials are trying to nail down that ISIS was really behind the airport plot. While those officials could not point to any intelligence showing who perpetuated the attacks, they increasingly said the attack itself suggested that ISIS not only inspired the attack but had some role in crafting it. (“To my knowledge, there is no credible claim of responsibility at this point, but that’s not very surprising because, at least in most instances, if not all, ISIS has not claimed credit or responsibility for attacks that are perpetrated inside of Turkey,” Brennan said Wednesday.)
Unlike most violent incidents inspired by ISIS, which are led by lone attackers, the attack at Ataturk airport consisted of multiple bombers. And rather than one major attack, Tuesday’s attackers staged an assault that consisted of an initial blast and second explosion intended to create an opening for another major assault. This use of multi-pronged strikes to create maximum effect has become an ISIS calling card.
Moreover, the bombs used Tuesday were sophisticated, not the kind of explosive constructed by an lone attacker, merely inspired by ISIS’s ideology of hate.
The location of the attack also suggested an ISIS plot, not only because they struck an airport but one in Turkey, which increasingly has drawn the ire of ISIS.
Perhaps most importantly, the attack came one day on the purported two-year anniversary of the group’s declaration that it had formed a caliphate.
What remains unclear is whether the attackers lived in Turkey or traveled from neighboring Syria as that border is a commonly used ISIS thoroughfare. One U.S. defense official told The Daily Beast that it appears to be a combination of both kinds of fighters.
There are challenges for ISIS to use either kind of attacker. Using only Turkish attackers could expose to local security officials an ISIS network inside Turkey. On the other hand, ISIS cannot easily pull fighters from Syria. ISIS increasingly needs those fighters to maintain its grip in parts of northeastern Syria as it comes under assault from the U.S.-led coalition and local ground forces. The terror group would need those militants even more, if Turkey ever decided to launch a major offensive of its own.