The attack on Istanbul airport last night shows that Turkey is the front line in the current fight against terrorism. Whilst no group has yet taken credit for the attack the use of three attackers equipped with suicide belts and assault weapons echoes the modus operandi of the Brussels attack earlier this year and implies that ISIS is behind this latest atrocity.

Turkey has faced attacks recently from both pro-Kurdish independence groups, such as the PKK, and from ISIS. However, the PKK attacks have generally been limited to border region between Turkey and Kurdistan and are more likely to target the police or military than soft  targets like an international airport.

This is because Kurdish terror groups have a different strategy from that of ISIS. The Turkish Kurds are attacking Turkey in an escalation of a conflict about Kurdish independence which has been on-going for at least 30 years and which is about joining what they see as Kurdish territory in Turkey with that already controlled by the Kurds in Syria.

ISIS in comparison has only recently started launching attacks against Turkey. In the early stages of the Syrian civil war Turkey took a lasiez faire approach to ISIS and allowed the groups fighters, supplies and those travelling to live within the so called caliphate to move fairly freely across the border with Syria. Pressure from the international community and the growing success of the Syrian Kurds led Turkey to both close the border and to undertake artillery and air attacks against both ISIS and the Kurds.

The closing of the Turkish border to Syria hasn’t stopped the movement of people or goods completely but it has made ISIS’s life much harder and, as such, the group has a lot to gain from causing instability within Turkey.  To this end, ISIS have launched a series of escalating attacks attributed to ISIS over the last year and the Istanbul airport attack neatly fits with this wider pattern.

Turkey must now be careful not to overact domestically. Thanks to the founding father of Turkey – Kamal Attaturk – the country is fairly Western in how it is run and has a clear divide between religion and politics not seen in many other Middle Eastern states. A domestic over reaction to the Istanbul attack could lead to the radicalisation of some portion of the Turkish population which wants religion to play a larger part in the politics of the country and could lead to greater support for ISIS.

Turkey must also tread carefully on the international level with its response. Previously, the president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had proposed the creation of a buffer zone between Turkey and ISIS along the Turkish/ Syrian border but inside Syria. If Turkey now chooses to undertake this option it will inevitably be unpopular with the international community. This is because a large proportion of the land which this buffer zone would occupy is currently controlled by the Syrian Kurds who are being supported by the international community to battle ISIS. The deployment of the Turkish military across the border into Syria would also constitute an invasion, by a NATO member, of a country strongly protected by Russia. This could significantly increase global tensions and could potentially even spark a wider conflict.

The attack on Istanbul is heinous and the loss of life has to be mourned and the potential fallout from could cost even more lives.

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