National Security & Defense

The Cost of Slow-Rolling ISIS Is Clear in the Turkish Airport Attack

Security personnel at Ataturk Airport following the terrorist attack, June 28, 2016. (Osman Orsal/Reuters)
Obama’s gradual strategy may defeat ISIS eventually, but that’s not good enough for the refugees or the region.

Today is a day to grieve with Turkey. At least 41 innocent people are dead, and another 150 injured, in a terrorist attack on Kemal Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul. Many more would have died if security at the airport had been less competently organized or Turkish security forces had not done their jobs with sharp professionalism (to spot the attackers) and courage (to engage them). Turkish security forces tackled one of the assailants, giving civilians time to flee before the attacker detonated his explosives. Sadly, Turkey’s security forces have come by that expertise through hard experience.

President Obama condemned it as a “heinous terrorist attack.” He should also, perhaps, have accepted some responsibility for it, because the stately pace of his approach to defeating the Islamic State is feeding the wildfire burning throughout the Middle East and taking a grave toll on states allied to us — most especially on Turkey and Jordan.

A year ago, President Obama claimed to be hitting ISIS “harder than ever.” He said the U.S. had launched more than 9,000 airstrikes into Syria, that “every day, we destroy as well more of ISIL’s forces — their fighting positions, bunkers, and staging areas; their heavy weapons, bomb-making factories, compounds and training camps.”

Those statements are true. The problem with President Obama’s approach to Syria is not that it won’t be successful; it most likely will, eventually. The problem is that in the time it will take to defeat ISIS by the very limited means he has committed to the fight, all sorts of horrible consequences that would have been averted by a faster outcome will manifest themselves.

RELATED: Obama Blames the Media for Failure of his ISIS Strategy

One of the worst of those effects is that ISIS has had the time to infiltrate Western countries, radicalize Western citizens, and plan and carry out terrorist attacks. We have seen it in Paris, in Brussels, in San Bernardino, in Orlando, in Turkey — especially in Turkey. There have been 14 terrorist attacks in Turkey in the past year, and those attacks have killed more than 400 people.

The majority of those attacks are not attributable to ISIS. Turkey has been fighting the PKK terrorist organization since the 1970s, and PKK and other Kurdish militant groups have been responsible for eight of the 14 terrorist attacks in Turkey in the past year. The airport attack was probably not a PKK effort, though. The PKK tends to attack military and police targets, not civilian “soft” targets, such as cultural centers, peace rallies, market squares, or shopping malls. Those have been the preferred targets of the Islamic State.

Turkey considers Assad the root cause of the region’s terror and ISIS a symptom of the atrocities Assad has spawned.

U.S. policy has refused to countenance Turkey’s central objective in the Syrian civil war: removing Bashar al-Assad. Turkey considers Assad the root cause of the region’s terror and ISIS a symptom of the atrocities Assad has spawned. And there is justification for the Turkish position: Most Syrian refugees are fleeing Syrian government forces, not ISIS. There were 69 chemical-weapons attacks in Syria last year, nearly all by government forces. Syrian government forces are estimated to be responsible for seven times as many deaths as ISIS.

The two countries should be able to find common ground, given than President Obama has repeatedly stated “Assad must go.” President Obama is not, however, prepared to take any actions toward that end. The Turkish government has tried both threats (withholding access to air bases in Turkey for U.S. operations in Iraq) and inducements (offering ground troops to fight in Syria if the U.S. will extend its war effort). Neither has produced any reconsideration of policy by the Obama White House.

#related#President Obama has attempted to deflect criticism of the glacial pace of his “degrade and eventually destroy” strategy by claiming that the only alternative is an Iraq-style invasion with hundreds of thousands of American troops. That sophistry cannot obscure the plain fact that countries in the region are willing to commit troops to the destruction of the Islamic State and the restoration of Syria and Iraq if we can be relied on to assist. After President Obama walked away from a war that had been won in Iraq, other countries will need greater reassurance of our commitment than just a promise: They will need our participation.

And they will need it fast. Jordan, too, has been subject to Islamic State attacks this week. Neither Turkey nor Jordan can much longer withstand the combined pressures of millions of refugees, fear of terrorist attacks, and the way both those circumstances are changing political life in their countries. The crumbling of America’s allies is the unacknowledged cost of President Obama’s slow-roll strategy to defeat ISIS.

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