- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Turkey has for years been an ambivalent partner in the U.S.-backed military campaign against the Islamic State, but that may be about to change.

As investigators increasingly focus on the likelihood that it was Islamic State operatives who carried out Tuesday’s triple suicide bombing at Istanbul’s largest airport, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan faced new pressure to put the full force of his nation’s military into the fight against the Syria- and Iraq-based extremists.

But it remained unclear whether the horrific attacks that left 41 dead and more than 235 wounded will shift the posture of the man who has long been accused of using the war across Turkey’s southern border as a cover to crack down on Kurdish separatists rather than to carry the fight to the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

The Turkish president spoke in broad terms Wednesday night, vowing that Turkey will succeed in overcoming terrorist groups in general, whether they are Islamic State or Kurdish separatists.

The attackers were “not Muslims” and “have prepared their place in hell,” Mr. Erdogan said.

While there has been no claim of responsibility for the attack, top U.S. officials joined their Turkish counterparts Wednesday in asserting that the assault bore hallmarks of an Islamic State strike.

In an interview published by Yahoo News, CIA Director John O. Brennan said the method of attack — suicide bombers wearing explosives-laden vests — pointed to the Islamic State rather than to Kurdish nationalists, who have waged their own campaign of violence against the Turkish state for decades.

“It was a suicide bombing [which] is usually more an [Islamic State] technique,” said Mr. Brennan, adding that he would “be surprised if [Islamic State] is not trying to carry out that kind of attack in the United States.”

The CIA director credited effective U.S. homeland security measures and intelligence for the fact that the group has been unable to attack America directly — the recent Orlando and San Bernardino mass shootings having been carried out by so-called “lone wolves” who drew inspiration from Islamic State but had not had apparent direct training of support from the group.

U.S. officials have predicted that as Islamic State comes under increasing pressure from U.S.-backed coalition forces on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria, it will scramble to carry out more so-called “external operations,” such as the coordinated suicide bomber and gunmen assaults that rocked Paris last November and Brussels in March.

Just this week, Islamic State propaganda operatives have spread claims of responsibility for a wave of simultaneous suicide attacks that killed 43 people in Yemen and a single suicide attack that killed seven Jordanian security forces at a border crossing between Jordan and Syria.

Tuesday’s bombing at Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport follows a wave of recent attacks in Turkey, some of which have been credited to Turkish separatists, while others have been pinned on Islamic State.

The most recent came on June 7, when a car bomb ripped through a police bus in central Istanbul during the morning rush hour, killing 11 and wounding 36. There was also no immediate claim of responsibility for that attack.

New details

Details of this week’s attack, meanwhile, continued to emerge Wednesday as investigators pored over closed-circuit TV footage from the scene.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said one suicide bomber blew himself up outside the airport’s main terminal, giving the other two the opportunity to get inside the building.

“When the terrorists couldn’t pass the regular security system, when they couldn’t pass the scanners, police and security controls, they returned and took their weapons out of their suitcases and opened fire at random at the security check,” Mr. Yildirim said.

Video footage showed one attacker inside the terminal building being shot, apparently by a police officer, before falling to the ground as people scattered. The attacker then blew himself up around 20 seconds later.

Turkey’s Dogan News Agency, without citing any official sources, said autopsies on the three bombers, whose torsos were ripped apart, had been completed and that they may have been foreign nationals.

President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin condemned the attack in separate phone calls with Mr. Erdogan.

Speaking to reporters at a summit in Ottawa, Canada, Mr. Obama said the attack Tuesday at Istanbul’s main airport was “an indication of how little these vicious organizations have to offer beyond killing innocents.”

“They’re continually losing ground, unable to govern those areas that they have taken over,” Mr. Obama said in an apparent reference to the Islamic State. “They’re going to be defeated in Syria, they’re going to be defeated in Iraq. We will not rest until we have dismantled these networks of hate that have had an impact on the entire civilized world.”

The Pentagon offered a similar message, with Defense Secretary Ashton Carter characterizing the attack as “a cowardly assault on a stalwart NATO ally and enduring partner in our efforts to confront the threat of terrorism” in his call to his Turkish counterpart.

But behind the scenes animosity has swirled between the two NATO allies recently over the extent to which Turkey’s military is truly eager to participate in the U.S.-backed campaign against Islamic State.

While Mr. Erdogan has since July 2015 allowed the U.S. military to run airstrikes against Islamic State targets from Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey, Washington and Ankara have struggled to operate on the same page.

U.S. officials have expressed concern that the Erdogan government is using the chaos and jihadi threats in neighboring Iraq and Syria as a pretext to crush the very Kurdish militants that Washington is relying upon to play a major role in retaking territory from Islamic State in the coming months.

For his own part, Mr. Erdogan has argued that Turkey’s interests are too often overlooked in the U.S.-led fight, including its long battle with militant Kurdish separatists and the burden Ankara is shouldering as it houses vast numbers of Iraqi and Syrian refugees who’ve flooded into the nation since the Syrian civil war began five years ago.

Some analysts say Tuesday’s attack may change Mr. Erdogan’s calculus.

“If ISIS is indeed behind this attack, as the U.S. and Turkey say, this would be a declaration of war. Turkey’s vengeance will come down like rain from hell,” said Soner Cagaptay, who heads the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank.

“ISIS may be trying to sow domestic suspicion by not claiming responsibility for the airport attack, but the incident could still spur Turkey into full-scale war against the group,” Mr. Cagaptay wrote in an analysis for CNN Wednesday.

“Thus far, Turkey has avoided engaging ISIS in full war, instead prioritizing its battle against Syria’s Assad regime as well as blocking advances by the Syrian Kurds,” he wrote. “For Turkey, fighting ISIS as a first-order battle could now be unavoidable.”

Dave Boyer contributed to this report.

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