An Unholy Attack In A Holy Time: Turkey Suffers, the World Mourns


This week’s ISIL-initiated terrorist attack in the heart of Turkey’s main transit hub, Istanbul’s Ataturk airport, has garnered significant international attention. Unfortunately, this attack is not isolated nor new and it’s certainly not the deadliest. In fact, it is one of fourteen attacks experienced in the last year alone. However, something about striking the international symbol of Turkey’s cosmopolitan openness seems to have invoked universal sympathy from across the world. Istanbul’s airport is one of the world’s busiest and fastest growing, serving more than 60 million passengers in 2015 alone with connections to every continent and part of the world. Tuesday’s attack, therefore, wasn’t directed at Turkey alone, but also at global citizens of all countries. And while bombings and attacks are tragically becoming ever more normal for Turkish citizens, this attack was markedly different in its execution and intended targets. It, therefore, has implications not only for Turkish domestic politics, but also for Western and global security.

Turkish Domestic Politics: Anything But Domestic

Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, and more significantly in recent years, Turkey has been dealing with multiple security threats from internal and external terrorist groups. Istanbul has had four terrorist attacks so far in 2016, with over 60 people killed. Following these attacks, either ISIL or the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) — specifically, its extremist offshoot TAK — would be suspected and claims of responsibility would be awaited. Both groups are linked to Syria, albeit in different ways, which is in the midst of a long civil war and humanitarian crisis. Since the start of Syria’s civil war, Turkey has become the world’s largest refugee host country with 3 million Syrian refugees.

The Syrian offshoot of the PKK, known as the PYD, has been locked in combat with ISIL. Meanwhile, Turkey faced a conflict: either turn a blind eye against Kurdish fighters as an ally to fight ISIL in Syria, or maintain a strong stance against their mortal enemy and internationally recognized terrorist group no matter who they may be fighting. With enemies on both fronts, increased tension between the Turkish state and Kurdish terrorist groups, and the world’s largest humanitarian crisis on its hands, Turkey is struggling to stay afloat. Turkey cannot fight extremism, maintain peace, or re-establish order and stability without international collaboration in security and humanitarian endeavors.

Turkish insecurity means global insecurity. So while Turkey mourns its tragic loss of life, U.S. and Western allies are reevaluating their roles and foreign policy approaches in the Middle East. However, in order for the United States and its western allies to change their foreign policy agendas, they must first consider domestic policy implications.

U.S. Foreign Policy: More Domestic Than You’d Think

Emerging from the hawkish, uncompromising post-9/11 policies, President Obama’s foreign policy approach has been criticized as being too hands-off. Indeed, ISIL’s rise came about in the aftermath of the United States’ long and messy intervention in Iraq, a decision that Turkey had opposed. Now, as ISIL adds franchises in the Middle East and Asia, U.S. responsiveness and engagement has waned. And while Turkey is an active member of the anti-ISIL coalition, their focus on the PKK and PYD has made way for a relatively soft tone towards ISIL.

The attack on Istanbul’s Ataturk airport was a harsh wake-up call for the United States, Turkey, and the rest of the anti-ISIL coalition. Despite attempts at joint coordination and intelligence sharing, clearly more must be done. The regional interests of Washington and Ankara may never fully align, but this heinous attack should drive these long-standing allies closer together. Just like after the Brussels airport attack in which Turkish intelligence could have reportedly been used by Belgium and French authorities to track down some of the perpetrators, Turkey must examine its own security policies and intelligence sharing with Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Uzbekistan from where the attackers came. As the world condemned the attacks, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for an international “joint fight” against terror and emphasized the importance of solidarity amongst the allies. He said:

Unless all governments and the entire mankind join forces in the fight against terrorism, much worse things than what we fear to imagine today will come true. The Ataturk Airport attack should serve as a turning point in the fight against terrorism around the world and especially in Western countries.

Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton responded to this call with a promise of increased engagement. “Today’s attack in Istanbul only strengthens our resolve to defeat the forces of terrorism and radical jihadism around the world.” Clinton continued, “it reminds us that the United States cannot retreat,” signaling an involvement-based foreign policy vision towards the Middle East.

A Positive Shift for the United States and Turkey?

Erdogan’s response in the wake of the attack, which didn’t blame the Kurds and was answered by Clinton, signals a step back in the right direction for U.S.-Turkey relations. It is no longer enough to view U.S. foreign policy towards the Middle East within the context of debates over non-intervention and hawkishness. Instead, Western allies and the international community — led by the United States — must approach terrorism and radicalism in the region with a more immediate and multilayered approach. Such an approach would recognize root causes of regional issues on a strategic level and then identify the best way for specific partners to tactically approach them at different levels

It is imperative that collaboration transcends divergences and disagreements within the anti-ISIL coalition. Greater intelligence sharing and counter-terrorism work must take place to prevent future attacks not just in Turkey but anywhere ISIL could be operating. A unified focus on destroying ISIL’s global terrorist network begins with putting them on the defensive in their home base of Syria and Iraq will require greater international efforts to more efficiently prevent new attacks. Turkey just witnessed a transition of prime ministers, as well as significant rapprochement efforts with Israel and Russia which are tangentially connected. The American public is focused on domestic debates in a historically polarized election, as the European Union debates Brexit’s implications on its very existence. In spite of all that, the latest attack highlights the urgency and salience of collective, decisive, and thoughtful action in combatting terrorism.

Tackling multi-dimensional crises requires multi-pronged solutions involving financial and military collaboration on both humanitarian and security fronts. President Erdogan, as well as other actors in Turkey, are right in calling on the international community to consider a more proactive response to crises in the Middle East. Equally they must be willing to step forward to lead the fight against a cancer that is emanating not just from their region but in their own neighborhoods. Turkish, American, and Western allies must do more to work together to prevent extremism and provide assistance in a efficient and productive way. As the holy month of Ramadan winds to a close for Muslims around the world, let our collaboration as countries mirror our mourning as humans.


Joshua W. Walker, PhD (@drjwalk) is a Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, formerly worked on Turkey for the US State Department, and is Vice President at APCO Worldwide where he leads the APCO Institute.

Selma Bardakci (@selmabardakci) is an Atlas Corps Fellow from Istanbul, Turkey.