In the summer of 2013, as Turkey found itself battling Iran over Syria, Saudi Arabia over Egypt, and the world over the Islamic State, Turkish presidential advisor Ibrahim Kalin claimed that Istanbul treasured its “precious isolation”. Islamic principles, leaders of Turkey’s right-wing government would say time and again, mattered more than cheap popularity. Tuesday night’s bombing of Istanbul airport, which has claimed at least 41 lives, could be an outcome of a foreign policy driven by hubris. Though the jury is still out on who carried out the attack, both the likely perpetrators — the Islamic State and the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê, or Kurdish Workers Party — could be said to have been birthed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s delusions of grandeur.
Turkey’s Islamist-leaning government saw the Arab Spring as an opportunity to build a kind of born-again Ottoman Empire, with Istanbul at its centre. Ahmet Davutoglu, then foreign minister and later prime minister, declared a policy of backing democratic Islamist parties to “reintegrate the Balkan region, Middle East and Caucasus”. The Islamist democrats Turkey backed, though, were swept aside by jihadists. Istanbul’s efforts to buy off the jihadists ended up empowering monsters like the Islamic State. As Syria descended into anarchy, Kurdish nationalists were also empowered, sparking off one war. Then, as Turkey responded to international pressure to clamp down on the Islamic State, it brought the war home. It may not be coincidental the airport attack came just hours after prosecutors filed indictments against 36 suspects for an Islamic State attack in Ankara last year, which claimed 37 lives.
The airport attack came just hours after President Erdogan had finally started trying to drag his country out of the hole he had dug for it. In a June 27 letter to President Vladimir Putin, Erdogan voiced deep regret over Turkey’s downing of a Russian combat jet bombing the Islamic State last year. Istanbul’s action led to Russian sanctions which are estimated to have cost Turkey over $9billion. Even worse, from the point of view of Turkish Islamists, Turkey and Israel signed a deal to normalise their relationship after six years of strained ties, which followed the killing of 10 Turkish activists when Israeli commandos raided a flotilla seeking to break a blockade against Gaza. Finally, Turkey’s new prime minister, Binali Yildirim, said he was ready to normalise ties with Egypt, strained ever since the military coup which overthrew its Islamist-leaning president. The bombing, though, could be a reminder that for Turkey, setting things right again will not come easy.