The suicide bombers who killed at least 41 people and wounded hundreds more at Istanbul's main airport Tuesday have suddenly upped the ante for the Turkish government and its ambivalent attitude toward the Islamic State terrorists suspected of being responsible. Like the recent attacks in Brussels and Paris, the wanton slaughter of innocent civilians was unforgivable, an outrageous assault not only on Turkey but on all civilized values. The loss of life was horrible, but we also hope it will bring home to Turkey's leaders the folly of believing they could cooperate with ISIS when it was in their interest without fatally compromising their country's security.
Like so many of the region's woes, Turkey's on-again, off-again relationship with ISIS grew out of the chaos of Syria's civil war. Because Turkish leaders, like ISIS , oppose the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, the nation until recently was content to turn a blind eye to ISIS fighters who used its porous southeastern border to funnel men and supplies into Syria. The tacit understanding enabled Turkey to concentrate on putting down a Kurdish insurgency while avoiding a direct confrontation with the Islamic State. Rather than blaming ISIS, it scapegoated the Kurds for a spate of recent bombings around country.
It was only a matter of time before that marriage of convenience came apart. Over the last year ISIS has been steadily losing ground in Iraq and Syria. That, in turn, has spurred the group to carry out terror attacks on distant targets in Europe to demonstrate its continued global reach. At the same time it's also stepped up its attacks on Turkey in an attempt to drive a wedge between the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and its Western allies, particularly the U.S. Last year, for example, Turkey allowed U.S. warplanes to use its main military air base at Incirlik to launch strikes against ISIS in neighboring Syria. Islamic State bombers have also hit targets in Istanbul and other Turkish cities.
No one has yet claimed responsibility for this week's attack on Istanbul's Ataturk airport, one of Europe's busiest, but Turkish officials said the bombings bore all the hallmarks of an ISIS operation. A pair of gunmen first sprayed a fusillade of bullets at a security checkpoint outside an arrival gate then detonated explosives that set off two huge fireballs in the international terminal. A third attacker detonated explosives in the parking lot. Though most of those killed were Turkish citizens, the attack clearly was also aimed at the foreign travelers who support Turkey's once vibrant tourist industry, which accounts for a significant share of the country's economy.
Like their counterparts in Brussels and Paris, the Turks seem determined not to be intimidated by the terrorists. They have drawn together in solidarity against the threat, much as the citizens of Western countries have done in the face of unspeakable horror. By Wednesday the airport had reopened even as workers continued clearing away debris from the explosions and replacing shattered windows in the terminal.
But officials in Ankara now face a stark choice about whether they can continue the hands-off policy that allowed the cancer of religious extremism represented by Islamic State to grow in their midst. If they once thought they could use ISIS as a convenient proxy against Damascus they must now recognize that was a cruel illusion; ISIS has shown that it is as quick to turn on potential benefactors as on its avowed enemies. Trying to use it as an instrument of state policy is a fool's errand because the group recognizes the legitimacy of no state but its own. It's a menace to established governments everywhere, and it can never be trusted.
The U.S. and Europe have long known that countries that tolerate terrorists are flirting with disaster. Turkey has just learned that lesson the hard way and has paid for it with the blood of its citizens.