Why Istanbul residents blame Erdogan, not ISIS, for instability

Istanbul's Ataturk airport reopened within five hours of Tuesday's attack, in contrast to the 12 days it took Brussels to resume operations. But many Turks are struggling with a spike in attacks.

Osman Orsal/Reuters
Turkish flags few at half mast on June 29, 2016, following the attack at Ataturk airport the night before.

With the headline “NEVER SURRENDER” emblazoned across its front page, Turkey’s pro-government Daily Sabah newspaper today asserted that “the determination not to succumb to terrorism was on display throughout the city” – including how Istanbul’s main airport reopened just five hours after a triple suicide attack killed 43 late Tuesday. 

Turkish officials praised the outward return to normalcy after suspected Islamic State (IS) militants inflicted the 10th suicide attack on Turkey in a year. They noted with pride that, in contrast, it took 12 days to reopen the Brussels airport after a similar attack in March.

But amid Turkey’s spiraling violence and tense political climate, many Istanbulis do not share the government’s defiant resolve. They say it has been difficult to shake the fear that attackers could again strike anywhere, any time. 

Their overriding feeling is not resilience but resignation, quietly adjusting their daily patterns rather than holding the kind of tearful rallies seen in Paris, Brussels, and Orlando, whose citizens vowed to not let terrorism change daily life.

“That’s what the terrorists want, an uncertain future for everyone,” says Cem, a coffee shop owner who began changing his routine months ago to avoid crowded places and the underground metro. “It’s a way to sow chaos, as people decide not to go outside."

But like many here, he blames not IS but President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for bringing such violence upon the country. Mr. Erdoğan's support for anti-government forces in Syria – including, for a time, the free flow of fighters and weapons to jihadist groups like IS – is widely seen as one driver of the current instability, as Turkey in the last year has sought to clamp down on IS. Another is a resumed war against Kurdish militants, who have perpetrated some suicide attacks, as well as a polarizing style of politics.

“When you see it you want to go out onto the streets and scream out to the people who voted for this government,” adds Cem, whose shop is near Istanbul’s central Taksim Square, the epicenter of major anti-government protests in 2013. “It’s IS who carried out the attack, but it’s politics.”

'If they care, we can do anything'

Turkish media reported that intelligence services warned three weeks ago about IS attacks against soft targets, and specifically named Ataturk airport, prompting some security measures to be stepped up.

The attackers reportedly were citizens of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia’s Caucasus region, with some reports indicating they had come from the IS headquarters city of Raqqa, Syria.

Turkish police on Thursday morning arrested 13 people including three foreigners, as they raided 16 suspected IS cells in Istanbul, and made nine more arrests in the western coastal town of Izmir, a gateway for Syrian refugees crossing by boat to Greek islands.

The rising instability has taken a toll on Turkey’s economy, with tourism dropping 35 percent since last year. And Turks have struggled to regain a sense of normalcy, amidst the string of attacks.

In Istanbul, a security guard at a clothes shop on the popular pedestrian avenue of Istiklal, near Taksim Square, says the crush of crowds that once made walking difficult have thinned beyond recognition. Mustafa was on duty the morning of March 19, when an IS suicide bomber blew himself up a few strides away, killing three Israelis and one Iranian tourist.

Wearing a radio on his hip and a narrow black tie on his uniform, Mustafa recalls how the glass shattered and the CCTV cameras “exploded” in the blast, leaving a gory scene he will never forget.

“When we saw the explosion we were afraid and thought we would never open again, but after two days we opened and pretended not to remember it,” says Mustafa. Several shops have closed and many Turks have moved to safer areas, he says. Most customers now are Arabs and other tourists from the region.

Unprompted, he also blames Turkish leaders and divisive politics for creating the atmosphere for such attacks, including the airport one.

“The parliament, the president, if they care, we can do anything; if not, we can’t do anything, the citizens can’t do anything,” says Mustafa, as he keeps a sharp eye on the entrance of the shop. “He wants to be a sultan, he doesn’t care about this, only his own sultancy,” he says, referring to Erdoğan and his ambition to create a stronger presidential system.

'Going to war, because of one man'

Similar skepticism and concern is found at another shop nearby, where a young bookseller named Sadik was working that morning in March. There had been warnings of an attack near Taksim, and when the bomber struck, he dove behind the checkout counter.

“For me, when I pass through this part of the street, I remember the [carnage],” he says. “It doesn’t get normal. They don’t allow us to get normal, with every month a new bomb.”

He says his motivation for working here has dropped because “intellectual and quality people are not coming” as they used to, and most sales are CDs.

The string of bombing attacks by IS and Kurdish militant groups have been costly to Sadik: He lost three friends in the IS bombing that killed 34 in the southern city of Suruç last July, and another five friends in the twin suicide attacks against a peace rally in the capital Ankara last October, the bloodiest single attack in Turkish history that killed 101 people.

Some of his friends worked at the airport, but were unharmed. He says politics can’t be separated from the attacks, and claims that Erdoğan’s “sultancy” means Turks are “going to war, because of one man.”

“It’s a way of making politics, with bombs instead of talking,” says Sadik. “Psychologically, I’m not going to forget my friends who died, or what I saw here. Finding normalcy? The easiest way is to normalize politics.”

Follow Scott Peterson on Twitter at @peterson__scott

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