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Turkey’s cat-and-mouse game with the Islamic State

People look at the Brandenburg Gate, onto which a Turkish flag is projected in a show of support in Berlin on June 29, 2016. (Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert/European Pressphoto Agency)

The terror attack on Istanbul's main airport is both a tragic reminder of Turkey's vulnerability to militant violence as well as yet another sign of the deadly reach of the Islamic State. The extremist organization has, as yet, not asserted responsibility for the triple bombings that claimed at least 41 lives and injured hundreds more late night on Tuesday. But both Turkish and American officials see its hand behind the hideous assault.

“If the Islamic State is indeed behind this attack, this would be a declaration of war,” Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told my colleague Erin Cunningham. “This attack is different: the scope, impact and deaths of dozens in the heart of the country’s economic capital."

On the sidelines of a North American leaders' summit in Ottawa, President Obama offered his support to a vital NATO ally. “We stand with the people of Turkey," Obama said, "and we intend to do what’s necessary to make sure that these kinds of terrible events are not happening."

On one level, the attack is not that different from others. Suspected Islamic State terrorists have already killed hundreds of people in Turkey; a bombing at a leftist rally in Ankara last year remains the worst terror attack in Turkey's modern history.

But the chaos in Ataturk airport does signal a new, perilous moment. Unlike previous alleged Islamic State attacks in Turkey -- in some instances, lone wolves hitting soft targets -- it had the hallmarks of the jihadists' strike on Brussels this year, which included a coordinated assault on the Belgian capital's main airport. The Istanbul attack has led to renewed fears of a drop in Turkey's tourism industry, which accounts for more than a tenth of the nation's GDP.

Even as the Islamic State's forces suffer defeats on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, its proxies have been able to cast a wide net of terror. The militants who struck this week hit supposedly one of the most secure airports on the planet. And that has senior U.S. officials worried.

"It’s not that difficult to actually construct and fabricate a suicide vest," CIA director John Brennan said Wednesday. "So if you have a determined enemy and individuals who are not concerned about escape, that they are going into it with a sense that they are going to die, that really does complicate your strategy in terms of preventing attacks.”

He added a dire warning, using another name for the Islamic State: “I’d be surprised if Daesh is not trying to carry out that kind of attack in the United States.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has talked tough about his government's efforts against the Islamic State, and he expects the international community's support and sympathy.

"For terrorist organisations, there is no difference between Istanbul and London, Ankara and Berlin, Izmir and Chicago or Antalya," Erdogan said, reiterating long-standing talking points that the West does not adequately recognize what his nation has to endure.

"What Turkey's Western allies tend to ignore is that terrorists are not just enemies of European countries or the United States," complained an editorial in the pro-government Daily Sabah. "In fact, Turkish Islam represents an existential threat to DAESH's twisted interpretation of the peaceful faith." It extolled Erdogan for fighting "a historic battle."

In recent months, Turkey has engaged in heated clashes with Islamic State forces operating along its border; by one account, the Turkish military has killed nearly a thousand of the extremist organization's fighters this year and sealed up a series of its major smuggling routes into and out of Syria.

But critics say this has come only after years of Turkey's looking the other way while instead worrying more about the advances of Syrian Kurds across the border from Turkey's restive Kurdish-majority southeast. Turkey still fumes over Washington's perceived cozying up to Syrian Kurdish factions that Ankara asserts are an extension of outlawed Kurdish separatist groups in Turkey. Kurdish militia both in Iraq and Syria have been on the front lines in the battle against the Islamic State.

"For years," writes Cunningham, The Washington Post correspondent in Istanbul, "Turkish security forces turned a blind eye to the militants that slipped across the border, where mostly Islamist rebels have been battling forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad."

The attack on Istanbul Ataturk Airport may somewhat change that. After moving toward rapprochement with Israel and Russia this week, there are suggestions that the Turkish government may also be cooling on its determination to make Assad's departure the first priority of its Syria policy. U.S. officials hope this will change.

"For more than two years, the Obama administration has been cajoling and pleading with Turkey to close a roughly 70-mile hole in its border with Syria, west of the Euphrates River, which has been a superhighway for extremist fighters, cash and supplies," explains The Post's David Ignatius. "The Turks have made counter-demands and complained about U.S. reliance on a Syrian Kurdish militia called the YPG, which the Turks claim (largely correctly) is an arm of the Kurdish nationalist group called the PKK that they claim is terrorist."

Ignatius concludes that the winds are blowing in favor of a joint strategy: "The Turks, in short, may have grumbled in public, but behind the scenes they have been fairly cooperative allies."

Ever since the explosion of Syrian civil war, Turkey under Erdogan has found itself in a geopolitical minefield. It has welcomed millions of Syrian refugees across its porous southern border while abetting a host of rebel factions on the other side. It has clamored for the ousting of Assad while waging a bloody counterinsurgency campaign against Kurdish rebel groups within its borders. It has watched the rise of the Islamic State in slow motion, and now after a brazen assault linked to the extremists, is lurching into a full-blown war.

The Islamic State doesn't claim responsibility for its actions within Turkey, in part to sow suspicion within a country that's already deeply polarized. The current security environment, writes Istanbul-based columnist Mustafa Akyol, is "the result of the president’s rigid, divisive and combative policies. He has picked fights with our neighbors and tried to crush his opponents at home."

"In any case," writes Murat Yetkin, a journalist for Hurriyet Daily News, "the Turkish government has to find better ways to decrease the vulnerability of its people to terrorist attacks."

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