Tuesday night’s suicide attack on Istanbul’s Ataturk airport that killed 41 people is yet another reminder of the dangerous times Turkey is living through. Its southern border has become a transit point for jihadists travelling to Syria. In the east and southeast, government troops are locked in a deadly conflict with Kurdish militants. The Istanbul attack, the fourth major terror strike in the city this year, points to the worsening security situation in urban centres. No group has claimed responsibility for the latest assault. But the Turkish government and Western analysts say it is an act of the Islamic State. If so, it is a blowback for Turkey, after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s aggressive Syria policy helped extremists mushroom in West Asia. From the advent of the Syrian crisis, he has led the call for President Bashar al-Assad’s resignation. Turkey teamed up with Mr. Assad’s other regional rivals, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in bankrolling the anti-regime forces in the Syrian civil war. And, Turkey kept its 800-km-long border with Syria open so that militants from around the world could transit to Syria. This ‘open-border’ approach was pivotal in the IS’s efforts to build an army of foreign fighters.
But, playing with extremist groups for short-term goals is invariably counterproductive in the long run. By the time Turkey started changing its policy towards the IS, partly under pressure from Western allies, the group was already a formidable terrorist organisation and had turned its bombers northwards. First it attacked two left-wing gatherings in Turkey, in Suruc and Ankara last year, and now it is targeting Istanbul in a stark warning to the establishment. Mr. Erdogan has said that Turkey will “continue the fight against terrorism until the end”. But what is his strategy? The major security challenges Turkey faces today are directly or indirectly linked to the Syrian war. Whether Mr. Erdogan acknowledges it or not, his ambitious plan to expand Turkish influence in a post-Assad Syria has come to naught. The earlier he changes tack the better for both Syria and Turkey. To begin with, Ankara should seal its border with Syria to stop the cross-border terrorist movement. It should also cease the proxy war it is fighting against Mr. Assad, and join international efforts to broker peace in Syria between the regime and the rebels. Having done this, it could narrow its focus to an isolated IS and assist in regional efforts to defeat the group. It will not be an easy shift to make, given the geopolitical investment Turkey has already made in Syria. But no amount of strategic manoeuvring will serve Turkey’s interests if its cities fall to chaos and violence.
This piece originally appeared on The Hindu.
The Afghan Tribune | The Hindu | Published: June 30, 2016, 04:49 PM