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Istanbul Airport Bombing Follows String Of Attacks In Turkey


Turkey is no stranger to terrorism. This attack is the latest of more than a dozen in the past year alone. Some of those Turkey has blamed on a Kurdish separatist group it's been fighting for years. Other attacks, including this one, it has blamed on ISIS.

Soner Cagaptay is the director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and he says this attack on the airport is different from all the ones that came before. I asked him why.

SONER CAGAPTAY: This is the third-busiest airport in Europe, eleventh-busiest in the world and the airport which is the entry point for a majority of the more than 35 million people who visit Turkey. It's also an image of Turkey being a safe place to visit and to do business.

So this will not only unfortunately kill Turkey's very lucrative tourism industry, but also it will hurt the country's economic standing, investment credibility. And I think as a result of that, Turkey will have to come down on ISIS with full vengeance.

SIEGEL: Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has fashioned himself as a strong man. He's turned the presidency of Turkey...

CAGAPTAY: Correct.

SIEGEL: ...Into a very powerful office. He doesn't look so strong if his country's being attacked by terrorists.

CAGAPTAY: That's also correct. Erdogan has thrived on an image of a right wing, strongman president. He does not let anybody get away with insulting him. We have seen him go after journalists. He's also obviously been a strong man in foreign policy. He's just got the Israelis to apologize as a condition for normalizing relations. He cannot let the Islamic State get away with this attack, so he has to come down very strongly.

Two ways he can do that - one is with the U.S. He's going to now increase cooperation with the United States, but he also has to go into Syria where the root cause of the ISIL problem is.

SIEGEL: But Turkey's main concern in Syria in the war next door has been ousting President Bashar al-Assad, not fighting against ISIS's or the Islamic State. This now changes.

CAGAPTAY: Correct. It changes as of yesterday. Until yesterday, Turkey had one priority in Syria. It was ousting Assad. Turkey's entire Syria policy has been based on one premise. It is that Assad will go. Good guys will take over. And if a few bad guys have gone in in the meantime, that's OK. They will help accelerate Assad's demise. Well, guess what? Assad is not going. And I think Turkey hasn't acknowledged that reality until today.

So now it faces, first, the prospect that Assad is staying and, second, that those bad guys that went into Syria, some of whom have morphed unwillingly in front of Turkey's eyes into what's called ISIS, are now a threat to Turkey. And Turkey has to go after that threat now more than it goes after Assad.

SIEGEL: In this odd three-cornered conflict that Turkey is involved in in which it's against ISIS - it's also against the Syria Kurds, and the Syria Kurds are in fact fighting against ISIS - I mean, it would seem to me that the Turks would regard ISIS at a great bother that can stage terrorist acts and murder people but doesn't threaten the integrity or the existence of the Turkish republic. Will they ever regard ISIS as a bigger threat than a Kurdish movement?

CAGAPTAY: The perception that Turkish leaders did not see ISIS as an existential threat was probably correct until yesterday's attack. That has changed with the attack. Until yesterday, ISIS was engaging in what I call limited warfare against Turkey. Yes, it carried out suicide bomb attacks in Turkey, but they were nowhere near in terms of destruction, scope and impact compared to what you saw at the Istanbul Airport attack.

And I think ISIS has gone now from having being engaged in limited warfare against Turkey to being engaged in full-scale warfare, and Turkey will react with full war as well. I would expect Turkey's vengeance to come down on ISIS like rain from hell.

SIEGEL: I'm trying to imagine myself as a U.S. policymaker right now. Would I be pleased to see that Turkey is now saying, OK, we're going to give up the project of ousting Bashar al-Assad as president; instead, we'll mobilize, send forces into Syria and take on ISIS?

CAGAPTAY: I think that this is a closer alignment of Turkish-U.S. positions. For a long time now, the U.S. has prioritized defeating ISIS or ousting Assad regime. Turkey's priorities have been the opposite until yesterday, and I think the ISIL attack in Turkey now of course makes it necessary that Turkey, too, prioritizes defeating and combating ISIS just as the U.S. has been doing. So the U.S. and Turkey will be much more closely aligned as of today than they were before the attack.

SIEGEL: Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, thanks for talking with us.

CAGAPTAY: It's always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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