Athens — The ISIS attack on the Istanbul’s Ataturk airport is the result of Turkey’s failed policies in the region. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan supported Islamists groups fighting against the Assad regime, thinking he could control them. But instead of acting as proxies projecting Turkey’s influence, they turned on their benefactor. Now Turkey finds itself at war with ISIS and, because of its unjustified crackdown on Kurds, at war with itself.
When Syria’s violent conflict erupted in 2011, Erdogan tried to persuade President Bashar al-Assad to form a government of national reconciliation with Arab Sunnis. He was rebuffed. Erdogan became Assad’s fiercest critic, aligning with Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood.
Erdogan criticized President Barack Obama for failing to support Syrian rebels. Obama ran on a platform of disengagement from wars in the Middle East, and did not want to get militarily involved. Even when Syria used chemical weapons in August 2013, Obama refused to intervene.
Erdogan stepped up efforts to arm the rebels. According to Cengiz Candar, a well-respected Turkish journalist, Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency (MIT) helped “midwife” the Islamic state in Iraq and Syria.
MIT established an infrastructure for supporting fighters, ranging from military cooperation and weapons transfers to logistical support, financial assistance, and the provision of medical services. The jihadi highway ran from Sanliurfa in Turkey to Raqq in Syria.
Turkey turned a blind eye to ISIS oil trade, failing to seal its border. Turkish smugglers facilitated ISIS oil exports, which generated up to $500 million each year for the Islamic State. Turks profited at stages of the supply chain, undermining US efforts to deprive ISIS of financial support.
Vice President Joe Biden confirmed Turkey’s ties with jihadis in October 2014. “The Turks…were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war…they poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens, thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad…Al Nusra and Al Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.”
Erdogan vehemently denied Turkey’s support for Islamist militants. “Biden has to apologize for his statements,” said Erdogan. Otherwise Biden will be “history to me.”
Turkey arrested journalists and closed opposition media. Can Dundar, editor of Cumhuriyet, received a sentence of five years and 10 months, and Erdem Gul, the paper’s Ankara bureau chief, was sentenced to five years, for publishing photos of MIT’s shipments of weapons to Islamists in Syria. Dundar said the sentence was “not given only to suppress and silence us” but to “intimidate the Turkish media and make us scared of writing.”
The Obama administration pressured Turkey to participate in the fight against ISIS. After months of wrangling, Erdogan finally relented and allowed US warplanes to use Incirlik Air Force Base just 100 kilometers from the Turkey-Syria border.
But instead of attacking ISIS, Turkey launched air strikes against the PKK. To Erdogan, counter-terrorism means killing Kurds. Attacking the PKK was a cynical bid by Erdogan to bolster his nationalist base in advance of elections in September 2015.
Erdogan incurred the wrath of former Islamist allies by allowing US access to Incirlik. ISIS called Turkey an “apostate regime” aligned with “crusaders.”
In 2016, ISIS also launched a series of attacks in Ankara and bombings in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet Square and Beyoglu district. The attack at Ataturk Airport was yet another despicable act by ISIS, which is losing ground in Iraq and Syria.
Erdogan has a Hobbesian view of the world. He believes Turkey is surrounded by terrorists and evil-doers. He uses the label “terrorist” for the Islamic State, Kurds in Syria, the pro-Kurdish party in Turkey, opposition media, and civil society. Critics are prosecuted under Article 8 of the Anti-Terror Act and Article 301 of the Penal Code, which are used to silence dissent.
Today Turkey is isolated and has few friends. Its cooperation with the European Union is imperiled by the refugee and migrant crisis. Its relations with the United States strained by Erdogan’s Islamist and anti-democratic rule.
The Ataturk Airport attack is a wake-up call. Turks must rally to defeat ISIS. Instead of vilifying the Kurds, Erdogan should make them partners in Turkey’s fight against terrorism. This can be accomplished by resuming talks with the PKK and through cooperation with Kurds in Syria. Finding common cause with Kurds will make Turkey more secure and more democratic.
Mr. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He served as a senior adviser and foreign affairs expert to the State Department during the administrations of Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama. His recent book is The Kurdish Spring. His forthcoming book is entitled, Turkey: An Uncertain Ally.
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