Istanbul Terror Attack Was Aimed at Turkey, but Delivered a Message to the World

While Turkey is stabilizing on the diplomatic front vis-à-vis Israel and Russia, the terror attack at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport is a reminder that it isn't immune to the efficient terror networks of ISIS and PKK.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Passengers embrace outside Ataturk airport`s main entrance in Istanbul, on June 28, 2016, after two explosions followed by gunfire hit Turkey's largest airport.
Istanbul's Ataturk airport`s main entrance became a congregation point for grieving passengers after two explosions followed by gunfire hit Turkey's largest airport, June 28, 2016.Credit: Ozan Kose, AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

While Turkey is stabilizing on the diplomatic front, the terror attack Tuesday at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport made it clear yet again where the real battlefront lies.

This was the second terror attack in Turkey this month and the seventh in the past year. Some of the attacks were apparently carried out by the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), others by ISIS.

It's been a long time since Turkey could insist it was immune to attacks by ISIS, since it joined the Western military alliance against the extremist movement. An attack like Tuesday's wasn't done in the spur of the moment. It shows that despite Turkey's huge investment in intelligence in order to track down ISIS cells, and to pursue its perennial battle against the PKK, an efficient terror network that managed to stay below the radar of Turkish intelligence exists in Turkey.

It would be too much to ascribe the timing of the terror attack to signature on the reconciliation agreement with Israel, or to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's apology to Putin over shooting down the Russia jet last November.

What it will achieve is to frustrate Turkey's hope that reconciliation would bring tourists back. In fact, Turkey has been considered hazardous for tourists for some time now, but the terror attack on an airport bristling with security forces, where the security arrangement are considered to be excellent, attests not only to daring and ability by the terrorists but to an escalation in choice of targets. The attack may have been aimed at Turkey, but it delivered a message to the world, as did the attacks in the Brussels airport.

Just eight months ago, Turkey's situation had been different. Then it was still believed to be hand in glove with ISIS. Russia’s deputy defense minister, Anatoly Antonov, claimed to have proof that Turkey downed the Russian fighter to protect ISIS, and charged that Turkey and Erdogan and his family were making money from oil deals with the radical organization. "Turkey is the main consumer of the oil stolen from its rightful owners, Syria and Iraq," Antonov charged in December, adding, "According to information we've received, the senior political leadership of the country - President Erdogan and his family - are involved in this criminal business."

In response, Erdogan vowed to resign if Moscow could prove Turkish participation in oil trading by ISIS.

In any case, the exchange of snarls was immediately augmented by Russian economic sanctions, which were among the most extreme Turkey has ever experienced. Turkish workers in Russia had their work permits revoked. Turkish companies operating in Russia had to scale back operations. Fresh Turkish fruit and vegetables were held up at the border, but the worst was the halt of Russian tourism to Turkey, which ruined hundreds of hotels, restaurants and traders who rely on the 5 million Russian tourists to Turkey each year.

Turkey's loss in tourism revenue could reach $15 billion in 2016, the Tourism Investors Association darkly predicted two weeks ago. That in and of itself explains Erdogan's urgency to apologize to Putin and write him a letter not only apologizing for downing the jet, but waxing warm on the friendship between Russia and Turkey.

But the issues at stake aren't just economic. Russia has allied with the Kurdish rebels in Syria – who Turkey accuses of terrorism, and of collaborating with the PKK, which Ankara holds to be a terrorist organization.

Fear that the Kurdish enclave in Syria will expand to the point of creating territorial continuity, that could serve as a basis for an autonomous land sheltered under a Russian umbrella, worries Turkey as much as the economic fallout.

Turkey managed to persuade Washington not to directly assist the Kurdish militias. But it has had no diplomatic relations with Moscow for some eight months. Only today, Wednesday, will Erdogan be talking with Putin by phone for the first time in all that time; in two days the Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt avuşoğlu will be meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, at a conference in Sochi.

Could Erdogan smile on Egypt again?

A clear signal as to Turkey's intention of changing its foreign policy arrived shortly after the appointment of Erdogan crony Binali Yildirim as prime minister, after the noisy departure of his predecessor, Ahmet Davutoğlu.

Yildirim said that Turkey intends to restore its friendly ties with the nations of the region, after finding itself in inglorious isolation in the Middle East.

Davutoğlu, who had clashed with Erdogan, opposing his presidential-sultanic regime, had advocated the strategy of "zero problems with the neighbors," which collapsed after the war in Syria began. Davutoğlu had designed the refugee agreement with the European Union and was considered the sane architect of foreign policy versus the unpredictable Erdogan.

We can speculate that Erdogan's desire to support Yildirim, and to position himself as the leader who restored Turkey to its "natural" place as a regional superpower, are now playing a major role in the diplomatic repositioning.

As such, Turkey needs to fix relations not only with Israel, which controls Turkey's access to the Palestinian arena, at least to Gaza. It also has to improve its relations with the Arab Middle East, from which it has been distanced for years. Ankara's profound rift with Egypt, following the expulsion of President Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and the rise of Brotherhood enemy Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, made Turkey an outcast in the Gulf as well, notably in Saudi Arabia.

The death of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah and the coronation of Salman this year supplied Turkey with a rare opportunity, when Salman decided to forge the Sunni coalition against Iran, and brought in Turkey as an honorary member.

Visiting Turkey in April, the Saudi Arabia king strove to bring about reconciliation between it and Egypt, and to persuade Erdogan to recognize Sissi as the legitimate president of Egypt. That didn't work.

Maybe now, following the reconciliation with Israel and with Russia, Erdogan might change his tune on Egypt, which could again become a crucial commercial bridge between Turkey and Africa. That bridge had existed in the past, but collapsed with a thunderous roar when Egypt canceled most of its commercial agreements with Turkey, tagging it as a hostile entity – to such a degree that the Jerusalem-Ankara reconciliation pushed Sissi to ask Israel for clarifications and assurances that the rediscovered friendship wouldn't be at Egypt's expense.

Erdogan's new policy drive extends beyond the region, however. Erdogan is irked by the sluggishness of negotiations to bring Turkey into the EU, the European demands to change the draconian terror law and assure freedom of expression as conditions for canceling the visa requirement for Turks; and there are the anticipated changes to the European Union following Brexit. All this encourages Erdogan to reconstruct a new circle of countries friendly to Turkey. The renewed ties with Russia (which supplies more than half of Turkey's gas consumption) and with Israel (which could dilute Turkey's dependence on Iran and Russia) could give Turkey the regional clout it needs to clarify to the EU that it isn't dependent on it, that it isn't isolated, and that it can become a player in the regional arena again, despite having failed time after time.

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