Editorial Board

Turkey's Terrorism Problem

The Kurdish conflict distracted Turkey's leadership from a more important threat.

Tourist target.

Photographer: Arif Hudaverdi Yaman/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Tuesday’s terrorist bombing in Istanbul wasn’t as deadly as last year’s in Ankara, and there’s at least one other difference that’s encouraging -- if such a word can be used for an attack that killed at least 10 people and injured 15 more: This time, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hasn’t tried to blame it on Kurdish militants.

Turkey deserves all the help and sympathy it can get after this attack on the heart of the country’s vital tourist industry. While the details remain sketchy, it appears that a Syrian-born man carried out a suicide attack next to the 3,500-year-old Obelisk of Theodosius, in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district.

Afterward, Erdogan warned his people that they must now stand either with the government against terrorists -- including both Islamic State and the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party -- or with the terrorists. But the government would do well to consider its priorities, too: It can focus on the crucial fight against Islamic State or allow itself to be perpetually distracted by the fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, in northern Iraq and eastern Turkey.

If Erdogan sounds defensive, it’s because many Turks hold him personally responsible for what they see as blowback from both the PKK and Islamic State. In the case of the PKK, that’s because Erdogan ended the peace process he had been fitfully pursuing until last summer, a decision that -- whether by accident or design -- helped him to claw back votes for his party ahead of parliamentary elections last year.

As for Islamic State, its adherents hide in plain sight among the 2 million or more Syrian refugees in Turkey. In his attempts to dislodge President Bashar Al-Assad from power in Syria, Erdogan turned a blind eye to extremist fighters crossing the border, including Islamic State fighters. This allowed the group to put down roots in Turkey.

In recent months, security forces have at last begun to sweep up Islamic State cells in Turkey and close the border. But as the response to last year’s suicide bombing in Ankara -- the worst in modern Turkish history -- showed, the government remains consumed by its focus on a war with Kurds it did much to fan.

In truth, Turkey was always going to be caught up in Syria’s civil war simply because of geography. Yet the best way for Erdogan to demonstrate his determination to take on Islamic State now would be to de-escalate the Kurdish conflict. Turkey’s Kurds have negotiable demands on language rights and autonomy. And while the PKK carries out terrorist attacks, too, its leader -- Abdullah Ocalan -- is in Turkish custody and available for talks. Peace-minded Kurds are represented by elected politicians in the Turkish parliament, and rather than continue to accuse them of “treason,” Erdogan should talk with them about cooperation. Turkey’s Kurdish problem, in other words, is difficult, but solvable.

Islamic State’s goals, in contrast, can never be accommodated. Rather than fight a war on two fronts, Turkey’s security forces should be able to focus all their resources and efforts toward eliminating Islamic State.