National Security & Defense

After Istanbul’s Suicide Bombing, Will Turkey Escalate Its Campaign against ISIS?

Police in Istanbul respond to the bombing attack on January 12. (Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty)

Today, an ISIS suicide bomber murdered at least ten civilians, including eight Germans, in Istanbul. The killer, identified by Turkey as a male ISIS fighter, detonated his explosives in a crowded tourist area close to the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace museums.

This attack could play a significant role in shaping Turkey’s policy in Syria. First, it’s personal: By slaughtering Western European and Turkish civilians in the physical and spiritual heart of Istanbul, ISIS has slapped Turkey’s president Erdogan in the face. The city holds special meaning to him — he served as its mayor and as a member of parliament for Istanbul. ISIS surely hopes that this atrocity, the country’s third major ISIS attack, will frighten Western tourists away from Turkey. This is a wakeup call for Erdogan.

Erdogan lost majority control in parliamentary elections in June, and since then he has focused on confronting restive Kurdish rebel groups and mobilizing voters in support of his leadership. Politically, it has worked: Erdogan’s AK party won a new parliamentary majority in a snap election in November. But strategically, Erdogan remains on shaky ground. He has ignored the growing ISIS whirlwind by obsessing about Kurdish rebel groups, which do pose a serious threat, while largely ignoring ISIS.

After today’s bombing, Turkey might escalate its campaign against ISIS. Unfortunately, any escalation will probably depend on the Obama administration’s response to this attack. After all, as I noted earlier this week at National Review, Erdogan’s first priority in Syria is countering Assad, not Kurdish rebels or ISIS.

Erdogan despises Assad for his genocide against Sunni Muslims and would like to see him fall from power. But Erdogan, like the rest of the world, watched as Obama precipitously dropped his demand of “Assad must go.” Since then, Erdogan has been unwilling to fully join American efforts against ISIS. Instead, Turkey has thrown money and support at a mix of Sunni rebel groups — some moderate, some extremist — that are fighting Assad’s regime.

#share#But if Obama pledges to Turkey that Assad’s removal is truly nonnegotiable, Erdogan might ramp up his campaign against ISIS. Recall that Turkey recently shot down a Russian fighter jet: Erdogan knows that Turkey’s powerful military and his proven willingness to use it are his key bargaining chips here. Turkey’s military, for instance, could carve out a safe haven along part of its border with Syria, and this would help in the battle against ISIS. The Obama administration, for its part, knows that it can influence Turkey by exerting pressure on Kurdish rebel groups that are threatening Turkey’s security.

If the U.S. does not work with Erdogan, he might well resort to the unpredictable authoritarianism that has become his specialty. Absent American influence, he’ll keep throwing money at groups that have little interest in making compromises to secure peace in Syria. And he’ll keep using the Kurds as a political whipping boy.

#related#The U.S and Erdogan should agree on Assad: The Syrian dictator is not the solution to Syrian political extremism, but rather its key source. Dealing with Erdogan would therefore facilitate a broader realist compromise — balancing the U.S., the Sunni monarchies (who would find new faith in the U.S. were it to strike a deal with Assad), and Erdogan against Iran, Assad, and Russia.

The key, of course, is Russia. But if countered robustly, Russia would probably sacrifice Assad in return for maintaining access to its Syrian bases on the Mediterranean.

Regardless, this attack is just one more example of the threat that I and others have long warned about: namely, that ISIS is a transnational project determined to destroy civil society across the world. Today in Istanbul, ISIS proved its evil truth by taking innocent lives outside a mosque that is a beacon for multicultural tolerance.

Tom Rogan is a writer for National Review Online and Opportunity Lives, a panelist on The McLaughlin Group, and a senior fellow at the Steamboat Institute. He tweets @TomRtweets. His homepage is

Tom Rogan — Tom Rogan is a columnist for National Review Online, a contributor to the Washington Examiner, and a former panelist on The McLaughlin Group. Email him at

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