ISIS

Did ISIS Make a Bad Move by Attacking Istanbul?

The suicide bombing might end the cozy arrangement between the organization and the Turkish president

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ISIS's November terrorist attack in Paris might have made a bigger splash around the world, but its Istanbul attack

ISIS
Inquistur

last week might actually prove its undoing. That's because it might finally persuade Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, who commands the second largest NATO army after America, to stop playing footsie with this noxious outfit and start dealing with it.

This was not ISIS's first hit-job on Turkish soil — nor the bloodiest. The 10 lives it claimed — mostly German tourists — were less than the 30 killed in a July attack in Suruc, a town in the southeast, or the 100 killed in an October attack in Ankara, the national capital. (No one took responsibility for the Ankara attack but it was widely considered to have ISIS fingerprints). But the big difference is that ISIS's bombings in Turkey have largely targeted its Kurdish minority whose nationalistic insurgency Erdogan considers a mortal threat. Suruc is a Kurd-dominated town and the Ankara attack went after a pro-Kurdish rally. So it was convenient for Erdogan to look the other way.

But even before the latest bombing, turning a blind eye was getting harder to do. Now it will be nearly impossible.

For starters, this time ISIS targeted Sultanahmet — territory that is figuratively and literally sacred because it houses Istanbul's most iconic religious and historic monuments, such as the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and Topkapi Palace.

As it happens, I was vacationing in a hotel blocks away from the blast site the day before the attack. And it is usually jam-packed with people, stores, and eateries. If the death toll isn't higher and doesn't include more locals, it's perhaps because the ISIS attacker detonated late morning when mostly tourists are out sightseeing and locals are at home or already at work.

But that doesn't mean that the attack won't shock and outrage Turks. Their country is a hotbed of various Islamist, leftist, and Kurdish terrorist groups. Still, they weren't expecting this from ISIS. Indeed, a rather Westernized Sultanahmet restaurant owner, whom I queried about precisely such an attack before it happened, confidently assured me that ISIS might be audacious but it wasn't stupid. Striking Istanbul, he said, would be tantamount to biting the hand that feeds it.

He was referring to the fact that Erdogan has for two years aided and abetted ISIS despite being part of the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition. The reason is simple: Erdogan is terrified that the 15 million Kurds on Turkish soil will secede and join Kurdish-dominated regions in Iraq and Syria to finally forge the Kurdish state they've been longing for since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. (Hilariously, even after it was established that ISIS perpetrated this week's attack, Erdogan's first instinct was to condemn the Kurds and their Western sympathizers such as MIT's leftist linguist Noam Chomsky.)

Meanwhile, Syrian Kurds have proven ISIS's most formidable opponents, wresting back lost territory from it, something that has only fed Erdogan's worst fears about a Kurdish state.

Hence, he has allowed the free flow of ISIS terrorists and weapons across Turkey's southern border — which ISIS used last summer to infiltrate Kobani, a Kurdish-controlled border town, and massacre 150 civilians. Most Turks loathe Erdogan's enabling of ISIS but were resigned to giving ISIS its pound of flesh, so long as it followed the example of Kurdish guerillas and left its major city centers alone — including the Kurdish car bombing Thursday of a police station in Diyarbakir province.

But this cozy arrangement began to backfire because it pushed America, which has allied with the Kurds since the first Gulf War, even more into Kurdish arms. America has funneled arms and intelligence to Syrian Kurds who have mounted the only successful ground offensive against ISIS. To undermine this U.S.-Kurdish alliance and marginalize the growing Kurdish influence in the region, Erdogan was finally spooked last July into rounding up and imprisoning hundred of ISIS fighters ensconced in southern Turkey. Even more significantly, he allowed America to use Turkey's Incirlik air base to mount anti-ISIS air strikes. The Sultanahmet bombing is ISIS's blowback for this "treachery."

The reality, however, is that even if Turkey hadn't done an about face, ISIS wasn't going to play nice forever. That's because while Turkey (like Saudi Arabia) may be a predominantly Sunni country and ISIS is a Sunni outfit, ISIS's theological goal is to conquer Istanbul (like Riyadh) and create a pan-Arab Islamic caliphate, as Graeme Wood reported in his seminal Atlantic piece.

Middle Eastern politics are an exceedingly complicated game of chess where real-politik considerations — not principles or ideologies — drive players. But ISIS is a different animal entirely. In attacking Istanbul, it might have finally made a false move that could force Turkey to take seriously the long-term threat it poses. Nothing can be taken for granted in a part of the world for whom the term "byzantine politics" was invented. But should Turkey, which is quite capable of crushing ISIS if it chooses, awaken from its slumber, the world might finally start beating back this evil outfit.

This column originally apperared in The Week

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24 responses to “Did ISIS Make a Bad Move by Attacking Istanbul?

  1. What, they’re doing ISIS cat videos now?

  2. This article is like predicting that spiderman will finally destroy the joker because the joker just really pissed off the mayor of gotham. It is pure nonsense. “byzantine politics”, “different animal entirely”, “exceedingly complicated game of chess” – You discredit your own conclusions. Anyway ISIS is mostly funded by Saudi Arabia and Russia is also stirring the pot. Turkey has no stake in “finally destroying ISIS” because “10 dead Germans”. Now if you wanted to say that they want to do stuff to piss off Russia then I’d believe it. Hmm, what could Turkey do to really piss off Russia?

    1. Naw, there’s enough truth to it to be interesting and useful. Governments put up with all sorts of shadowy illegal stuff, as long as it suits their purposes and can be swept under the rug. It’s like cops defending other cops who frame people and otherwise violate the law; it takes something stupidly public which can’t be ignored to change the coverup, and then they go all out to show how serious they are. Here’s the same pattern — bunch of attacks against common enemies, easy to write off as collateral damage. But do it in a huge tourist spot with national historical monuments, in a manner which can’t be plausibly written off as a side dispute between two bad guys, and the powers-that-be have no choice but to make some public ruckus.

      1. Haha there is so much nonsense in that reply I don’t know where to start. ISIS is just a gang of thugs. And it’s barely a coherent organization. Anyone can bomb a tourist spot and claim “ISIS!” And even if everything you say is true then Turkey just says “OK guys do what you must but don’t come into Istanbul.” They will fund terrorists to kill indiscriminately and then they nick a marble statue and suddenly “destroy! destroy!” Give me a break.

        1. there is so much nonsense in that reply I don’t know where to start

          So I see.

        2. Do you seriously think things that weird don’t happen in politics?

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  4. Erdogan recently said that Turkey needs Israel. It is very weak to admit that publicly.

  5. I commend you for linking the use of Incirlik with the Istanbul bombing. However, your hypothesis appears to be that Turkey would naturally wish to oppose ISIS. I think you are a little too quick to see that scenario unfolding. I propose a different scenario. The regional balance between Iran and Iraq was irrevocably altered by the Iraq war. It thus became imperative for America to establish a new balance. Given Iran’s military capabilities, that balance required a whole collection of Sunni states, Turkey included. On that analysis, Turkey is not in this for a one night stand. This is a multi hundred billion dollar operation, bankrolled by KSA and Qatar. It will take a further two years to pull off. During that time, Iran will be shown that it is an exceptionally bad idea to try to become a regional hegemon in the Middle East. If my thesis is correct, it should be possible to pick up a stray data point indicating that the United States is, in fact, supporting ISIS long-term as a counterweight to Iran. And that’s exactly what we find in operation Zero Footprint. Consequently, I do not foresee Turkey turning against ISIS anytime soon, bombing or no bombing of Istanbul. Instead, I foresee an even further collapse of Syrian society, as Wurmser and the neocons have yearned for. This will not be over until Iran itself is firmly checked and–equally important–feels itself to be checked. Our 60+ year history of complicity with radical Islamists continues. Sad, but true.

  6. I have a simple explanation for this: Saudi Arabia hires a country yokel to cry “ISIS! Allah Akhbar!” and blow himself up at a tourist destination calculated to kill Westerners so that the Western powers cry “Boo ISIS! Trump Akhbar!” and bomb oil fields in Syria and Iraq that supposedly fund “ISIS operations” which raises oil prices and the Saudis chuckle as we sell them more weapons with the ‘deluxe package’ which suddenly they can now afford.

    1. Ha Ha there is so much nonsense in that post I don’t know where to start. Saudi Arabia is keeping oil prices low in the first place to shut down American oil.

      1. Haha thanks for demonstrating the persistence with which you guys will defend one conspiracy theory against another conspiracy theory by introducing a third with complete confidence. Yeah sure SA is keeping prices low to shut down American oil but not ISIS’s because that’s their ally. Genius.

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  8. Consider that Erdogan’s son and his cronies are making millions shipping and selling ISIS’s smuggle oil, this is a non-starter.

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  13. http://aranews.net/2016/01/17765/

    More proof that Turkey is not fundamentally at odds with ISIS.

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