Today’s bombing in a historic Istanbul square frequented by tourists was the indirect result of Turkey’s wildly adventurist policy toward the Syrian conflict. It is a lesson to other countries, including the United States: Do not believe you can control insurgent groups inside Syria. Meddle too deeply in their conflict, and the war will come home to you.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that the suicide bomber was a young Syrian. Efforts by the government to limit reporting of the incident add to the presumption that the ISIS terror group was responsible. That would make sense.
Erdogan was once a bosom buddy of the Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad. When the first antigovernment protests erupted in Syria in 2011, Erdogan advised his friend how to respond. Assad replied that he needed no advice and would do what he believed best. That set off Erdogan’s volcanic emotions. He vowed to do everything in his power to depose Assad — including supporting terror groups like ISIS.
Turkey has allowed foreign fighters to pass through its territory to join those groups. It has allowed ISIS to maintain clinics inside Turkey where wounded fighters are treated and then sent back to the battlefield. Its intelligence service has illegally shipped weapons to insurgents in Syria. When journalists discovered one caravan of weaponry, and military officers protested, Erdogan had them arrested.
Under intense pressure from the United States and its other NATO allies, Turkey has begun to reassess its support for anti-Assad groups. That led ISIS to carry out suicide bombings inside Turkey. The first two served Erdogan’s purposes because they targeted Kurds: one outside a Kurdish cultural center in the border town of Suruc in July, which killed 33 people, and then a horrific follow-up in Ankara in October in which more than 100 were killed as they marched to protest attacks on Kurdish groups. Kurdish political leaders complained bitterly that the government was not protecting them.
Erdogan sees two great enemies in Syria: the Assad government and Kurds. He was happy to collaborate with any group, including ISIS, that shared his wish to destroy those two forces. Terror groups, however, are never satisfied with anything less than total commitment. It was folly for Turkish leaders to believe they could manipulate Syrian rebel groups for their own ends. They did not heed President John F. Kennedy’s famous observation that “those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.”
Today’s bombing in Istanbul may be the incident that finally brings Turkey to shift focus and concentrate its efforts on the true enemy: violent jihadist groups like ISIS and the Nusra Front, which is Syria’s Al Qaeda affiliate. It is late in the game for such a switch. By allowing ISIS and other anti-Assad groups to move freely in Turkish towns along the border, Turkey set the stage for conflict. It was inevitable that ISIS would continually demand more from Turkey. When Turkey reached a limit, it became an enemy.
Until now, terror attacks inside Turkey have been carried out either in the border area, the Kurdish region, or places where critics of Erdogan’s government gather. This one is different. It happened in a historic square near magnificent mosques and Byzantine ruins that attract millions of tourists each year. The dead include foreigners, mainly Germans. This will naturally affect tourism, but more important is the symbolism of such violence striking at the nation’s historic heart.
In a rant that reflected his emotion-driven approach to politics, Erdogan said foreign academics and writers shared responsibility for the attack. He even named MIT professor Noam Chomsky, a longtime defender of the Kurds, as one of them. That reflected his evidently deep-seated view that Turkey’s estimated 15 million Kurds pose more of a threat to the nation than terror groups like ISIS. Today’s bombing may finally force him to reconsider.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.