Istanbul airport assault

Turkey and ISIS in for more bloodshed

A Turkish anti-riot police officer on patrol at Ataturk airport. ISIS has been linked to at least five suicide attacks in Turkey in the past year, including two bombings in Istanbul earlier this year.
A Turkish anti-riot police officer on patrol at Ataturk airport. ISIS has been linked to at least five suicide attacks in Turkey in the past year, including two bombings in Istanbul earlier this year.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Latest attack viewed as declaration of war, could deepen Turkey's role in Syrian conflict

ISTANBUL • The brazen assault by three suicide bombers at Istanbul's Ataturk airport has set the stage for a more violent conflict between Turkey and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a development that would deepen Turkish involvement in the Syrian war.

There has been no claim of responsibility for Tuesday's carnage, but Turkish officials blamed Sunni extremists for the attack, which killed 43 people and injured at least 239.

Police have detained 13 people, three of them foreigners, after counter-terrorism teams led by police special forces launched simultaneous raids at 16 locations in the city, in connection with the gun and bomb attack.

The three suspected bombers were from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Dagestan - a federal subject of Russia bordering Chechnya - a Turkish government official said.

The pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper said the organiser of the attack was suspected to be a man called Akhmed Chatayev, of Chechen origin. Chatayev is identified on a United Nations sanctions list as a leader in ISIS who is responsible for training Russian-speaking militants, and as being wanted by the Russian authorities.

The Hurriyet newspaper named one of the attackers as Osman Vadinov, also Chechen, and said he had come from Raqqa, the heart of ISIS-controlled territory in Syria.

"If the Islamic State is indeed behind this attack, this would be a declaration of war," said Mr Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Programme at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"This attack is different - the scope, impact and deaths of dozens in the heart of the country's economic capital. It will have widespread ramifications," he said.

And Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has depicted himself as a strong, conservative leader, "cannot afford to let this go", he added.

ISIS has either claimed or been blamed for at least five major suicide attacks in Turkey in the past year, including the assault at the airport and two bombings in Istanbul earlier this year.

Now, the two sides are edging towards full-fledged conflict, analysts said. "They went from a cold war, to a limited war, and are now moving towards full-scale war" with each other, said Mr Cagaptay.

But among the questions being asked is whether Turkey, a Nato member and United States ally, could actually escalate its role in the campaign in Syria.

Turkey's air strikes against ISIS positions were suspended after Moscow threatened to shoot down Turkish planes over Syria, in response to Turkey's downing of a Russian jet that it said was flying over Turkish territory last October.

Russia intervened in Syria last year to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the face of a rebel onslaught. Since then, however, Turkey has flown only surveillance and reconnaissance missions in its own airspace.

But this week, Mr Erdogan met Russian President Vladimir Putin's demand for an apology for the incident. The two leaders spoke by phone on Wednesday, and Mr Putin expressed his condolences for the victims of the Istanbul attack.

If Turkey wanted to engage with ISIS anywhere in northern Syria, "they cannot do it without Russia's blessing", Mr Cagaptay said.

But even as Turkey mulls over its options in the fight against ISIS, the latest bloodshed "unfortunately suggests the beginning of the type of attacks that are coming", he added.

"The capability of ISIS... is likely to continue to expand," said Mr Ege Seckin, an analyst at IHS Country Risk, a political risk analysis firm. And the size and nature of the terror cells in Turkey mean preventing their attacks will be difficult, he added.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 01, 2016, with the headline 'Turkey and ISIS in for more bloodshed'. Print Edition | Subscribe