The gut-wrenching tragedy at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport offers a chance now to strike more damaging blows against ISIS. The cold-blooded massacre of June 28 reveals key facts that call for a rapid and comprehensive response. Recognizing the truth of this massacre opens the door to a new start in Turkey’s own war policy to complement its recent diplomatic efforts to improve its international ties. Turkey can also turn away, if it wishes, from the skein of its foreign policy setbacks to a path that will strengthen its security, help restore its international status and perhaps bring closer an end to the Syrian civil war.
We can draw three immediate lessons from this attack and those of the last few days.
- ISIS is now global against soft targets and can deploy willing recruits. In Turkey, the ISIS hand is stronger than ever. Despite warnings and precautions, Turkey has shown it cannot stop these assaults on society. Since June 2015, five attacks in Turkey have been attributed to ISIS.
- The caliphate is now virtual. ISIS expects the loss of further territory and may be preparing to declare a global ‘virtual caliphate.’ The long sought collapse of ISIS in Syria, even if successful, will not mean the end of ISIS, its global attraction to innocents and misfits, and its power to deliver lethal blows. ISIS is able to strike nearly anywhere, including the United States, as San Bernardino has shown. These attacks, including Brussels and Paris and now Dhaka, demonstrate that recruits from the country attacked are available, trained and prepared for further attempts.
- Global reaction to the attack gives Ankara a way to add momentum to its recent diplomacy and move past its foreign policy lapses since the Syrian war began in 2011. The chief result of these attempts to either go it alone or compel other countries to adopt the Turkish line increased the threat to Turkey, further divided the Turkish people, rekindled a civil war with the Kurds, blocked reconciliation with Israel, broke relations with Russia, alienated the United States, deepened skepticism in Europe and undermined traditional relations in the Middle East.
There are two actions Turkey could pursue immediately. First, Ankara could close the border gate at Jarabulus. The Turkish army should seize it, and Turkey’s new opening with Russia now makes this move possible. Millions of dollars in revenue flow to ISIS through that gate every month. Closure would be the clearest possible signal to Washington and Moscow about Turkey’s determination to prosecute the fight against ISIS. This issue has been burning for three years while ISIS recruits flow through Turkey, and ISIS recruiting and operational cells dig into Turkey’s social fabric. The new opening with Russia and the hope of the Americans for more Turkish action against Jarabulus make this option especially timely and attractive. Turkey has a reputation for being tough. This would be an excellent time to show that toughness.
Closing Jarabulus would also give Turkey additional leverage with Washington on how to prosecute the war in Syria. The United States has learned not to depend on Turkey and to placate Ankara as much as possible while moving forward with its Kurdish allies. Turkey’s current position also leaves a major bone of contention with the Russians over Moscow’s Kurdish policy in Syria. Turkey is in a hole here, and as the common aphorism goes, it is time to stop digging deeper. Better relations with Moscow and Washington, a genuine body blow to ISIS, ought to look like a good deal.
Secondly, Turkey could begin cease-fire talks with the P.K.K. as a prelude to a new effort to settle this war that has raged on and off for over 30 years. Ankara will not crush the P.K.K. so long as it has territorial sanctuary in Iraq, active recruiting in Turkey, and financial and political support externally. The Kurds will not force Ankara into concessions via urban terrorism and violence that is destroying Kurdish villages. The chances that the Turkish government will opt for a cease-fire option may be remote, admittedly, but the logic of the war has long since vanished, and the benefits of peace through reconciliation would be enduring. There are many deeply felt reasons why this would be difficult for Turkey. Nevertheless, a new focus on ISIS would give Ankara room to maneuver against its external threats in order to turn afterwards to improving domestic tranquility.
The United States realistically always has only one option with Turkey—to focus on the long view. Whatever the aggravations and frustrations, Washington knows that a progressive Middle East and eastern Mediterranean needs a stable, prosperous, democratic and collaborative Turkey. Ankara traditionally badly misinterprets this reality and translates it into an assertion that the United States needs Turkey more than Turkey needs the United States. This logic of the bazaar is a cul-de-sac. The tragedy of Istanbul could provide an occasion for these two partners to rethink their positions and begin a genuine move to work more closely together.
No one expects Turkey’s president to take these opportunities to turn to focus on ISIS. The odds are high that he will continue announcements of arrests of ISIS cells, and ISIS fighters killed in Syria by Turkish artillery. He is likely to continue to prefer the Kurds as a target to ISIS. The Jarabulus gate will continue to pump resources into ISIS coffers. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will continue to aggregate power to himself above all other priorities. But the opportunity exists now for a change in course, and if Erdogan does not seize it now, Turkey will be once again left in the wake of the actions of others. Already there are strong indications of further U.S.-Russian cooperation in Syria. If that happens, Turkey will only be able to watch—and weep.