ISTANBUL — The brazen assault by three suicide bombers on Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport has set the stage for a more violent conflict between Turkey and the Islamic State, a development that would deepen Turkish involvement in the Syrian war.

There has been no claim of responsibility for Tuesday’s carnage, but Turkish officials blamed the Sunni extremists for the attack, which killed 41 people and injured at least 239.

The raid marked the fifth bombing attack in Istanbul this year, and struck the country’s most important transportation hub. While Kurdish militants have also recently attacked targets in Istanbul, analysts said the operation bore all the hallmarks of the Islamic State.

On Wednesday, a senior Turkish official gave a timeline of the attack: First, a militant detonated explosives in the arrivals area on the ground floor of the international terminal. A second attacker exploded minutes later in the departures area upstairs, the official said. Finally, a third bomber detonated in the parking area amid the chaos and as people fled to escape the attacks inside.

It was unclear at what point security forces exchanged gunfire with the attackers, according to the official’s timeline. But witnesses on Wednesday spoke of scenes of panic, fear, and wounded fellow travelers.

But even as the country reeled from the violence, the assault on one of the world’s busiest airports – and symbol of Turkey’s modern economy – threatened to propel the country into a wider war with the Islamic State.

The airport handles more than 60 million passengers each year, and is a hub for Turkey’s official carrier, Turkish Airlines.

“If the Islamic State is indeed behind this attack, this would be a declaration of war,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “This attack is different: the scope, impact and deaths of dozens in the heart of the country’s economic capital.”


“It will have widespread ramifications,” he said. And Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has depicted himself as a strong, conservative leader, “cannot afford to let this go.”

Turkey has taken steps to battle the Islamic State, which grew strong amid the bloody civil war in neighboring Syria. But critics have blasted Turkey for its reluctance to take the fight to the extremists.

For years, Turkish security forces turned a blind eye to the militants that slipped across the border, where mostly Islamist rebels have been battling forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Turkey wanted the Syrian leader to step down, and also saw the Sunni rebels as a bulwark against Syria’s own autonomy-seeking Kurds. Turkey’s ethnic Kurdish population has long sought greater independence from the Turkish state. And the rise of a Kurdish enclave in northern Syria worries nationalist Turks who fear it will inspire the Kurds in Turkey.

The jihadists gathering on the Turkish-Syrian border – many of whom eventually joined the Islamic State – used Turkey as a crucial route for weapons, recruits and supplies.

But lax enforcement along the frontier allowed the militants to develop sprawling networks inside Turkey, even as they grabbed land across Syria and Iraq.

And when the détente between Turkey and the jihadists came to an end – when Turkey joined the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State and opened its Incirlik Air Base to U.S. aircraft – the networks were tapped for the new battle with the Turkish state.

The Islamic State has either claimed or been blamed for at least five major suicide attacks in Turkey in the past year, including the assault at the airport and two bombings in Istanbul earlier this year.

Now, the two sides are edging toward full-fledged conflict, analysts say.

“They went from a Cold War, to a limited war, and are now moving towards full-scale war” with each other, Cagaptay said of Turkey and the Islamic State.

But among the questions is whether Turkey, a NATO member and U.S. ally, could actually escalate its role in the campaign in Syria.