A version of this article was published at NOW Lebanon
After years of threatening, Turkey directly intervened in Syria on Friday, launching airstrikes against the Islamic State (ISIS), and finally allowed the U.S. to use Incirlik for jet and drone attacks against ISIS. Concurrently, Turkey launched airstrikes into Iraqi Kurdistan against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Ankara is framing this as an equal-opportunities war on terrorists, but Turkey’s actions over the last four years in Syria give a lot of cause for wonder as to which side Ankara is on when it comes to terrorism.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ‘zero problems with neighbours’ policy unravelled when the Syrian uprising erupted in March 2011. Not taking sides was itself a choice, and after Bashar al-Assad lied to the face of Erdogan’s foreign minister about his intention to murder unarmed protesters, Erdogan decided to get rid of Assad at all costs. Erdogan bet on trying to condition a Muslim Brotherhood-led post-Assad government in Syria.
Erdogan opened Turkey’s border to anyone who wanted to fight Assad, though Ankara had favourites. In 2012, the Free Syrian Army-branded rebels—nationalist, democratic, and essentially secular—were overwhelmingly dominant, yet Turkey (and Qatar) poured resources into strengthening Brotherhood-sympathetic rebel units. The March 2013 Turkey-PKK ceasefire led to signs of a working relationship with the PKK’s Syrian offshoot, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), at least to protect Turkey’s 565-mile border with Syria. That triangulation ended in the autumn of 2014. Many Kurds believe the open-border policy to the Salafi-jihadists was intended to thwart a Kurdish statelet in northern Syria. The Turkish bombardment that hit PYD positions on Monday and the evidence that Ankara’s turnaround on targeting ISIS and letting the U.S. use its territory to do so was influenced by Syrian Kurdish territorial gains is not going to calm the suspicions Turkey supports Islamist extremists to block Kurdish autonomy.
Turkish support for Ahrar al-Sham—the most extreme Syrian insurgent group, with links to Al-Qaeda and a close battlefield alliance with Al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, Jabhat al-Nusra—is hardly a secret. Turkey flatly told the Americans that it regarded Ahrar and Nusra as reconcilable elements that could form a supportable post-Assad government. Turkish support for Ahrar could be seen in the fall of the city of Idlib in March to the Jaysh al-Fateh insurgent coalition, which Ahrar effectively leads.
In a recent op-ed for The Washington Post, Ahrar’s foreign political officer made no mention of Turkey’s or Qatar’s support and instead said that the seamless reconstitution of Ahrar after its leadership was eradicated in a mysterious bombing last September testified to “the high level of institutionalism and professionalism” of the group and its “deep support […] within the local population.” But this isn’t true, according to Hassan Hassan, a fellow at Chatham House and co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror. “The only reason Ahrar survived is because of Turkish logistical support and Qatari money,” Hassan told me.
Turkey’s support for Jaysh al-Fateh also confirmed the more serious allegation that Ankara was supporting Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, since Nusra is part of Jaysh al-Fateh. Nusra had clearly taken advantage of Turkey’s open-door policy on anti-Assad foreign fighters, and there had been plausible reports that Turkey’s support to Nusra was more direct—with Turkish intelligence shipping weapons to Nusra, for example1.
The most electric allegation is that Turkey supports ISIS. While ISIS’s emergence in April 2013 sparked a bitter intra-jihadist feud in Syria, it had less effect on the networks—e.g. in the Balkans—bringing Salafi-jihadists from all over the world to the Fertile Crescent, most of them through Turkey. This was also true for a time inside Syria. The ambiguity over ISIS’s status within Al-Qaeda until its expulsion in February 2014 allowed ISIS to capitalize on streams of Salafist funding, as did the lax environment Turkey provided for such fundraisers, who were pretty openly “camped out in hotels along the southeastern Turkish frontier,” as Jonathan Schanzer, of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, put it in testimony to Congress earlier this year. Funding intended for Nusra could thus, in 2013 and early 2014, easily go astray. But this could suggest confusion or benign neglect, rather than direct support from Turkey to ISIS.
When I asked Schanzer by email whether the oft-made accusation that a NATO Member State is supporting ISIS had any merit, he said: “If support is flowing to [Nusra], it is undoubtedly flowing to the other jihadi groups, too.” “Had Turkey done more to shut down its […] border with ISIS, there would be significantly fewer foreign fighters,” he added. “Had Turkey clamped down on the oil sales, antiquities smuggling, gun-running and cash transfers, ISIS would be significantly hobbled financially.” In short, ISIS is a lot stronger today than it would have been if Ankara had pursued a different policy.
Buttressing Schanzer’s findings, documents recovered after the U.S. raid into Syria in May that killed ISIS’s “oil minister,” Fathi al-Tunisi (Abu Sayyaf al-Iraqi), provide the clearest evidence yet of “direct dealings between Turkish officials and ranking ISIS members.” When ISIS smuggled oil from captured fields in eastern Syria, the majority went through Turkish buyers. One American official told the Guardian that even before all the data had been analysed, “the links [between ISIS and Turkey] are already so clear that they could end up having profound policy implications for the relationship between us and Ankara.”
Turkey’s problem now, having ostensibly recognized that ISIS is a menace, is that when ISIS brags, “If they close the borders we will cause civil and economic chaos,” it is not an empty threat, as the suicide bombing in Istanbul in January 2015 demonstrated. Turkey has evidently known about some of ISIS’s sleeper cells for some time, but it can’t know about them all and they could devastate Turkey’s tourist industry—which provides 4.6 percent of its GDP directly and much more indirectly—or even cause wide-scale internal strife in Turkey where the flow of Syrian refugees has upset the fragile sectarian balance in the east.
What Turkey intends with the attacks on ISIS is uncertain. Without Turkey, the anti-ISIS coalition is fundamentally hollow, but Turkey is very unlikely to have altered its (correct) analysis that Assad must go before ISIS since Assad is the premier spur to Islamist militancy. More likely, Turkey has been spooked by the PYD’s gains along its border—enabled by U.S. airstrikes—and has determined to take a larger hand in deciding who replaces ISIS in these areas, while procuring tacit U.S. approval for a wider campaign against the PKK. Put simply, Turkey fears a Kurdish state more than the Islamic State, and unless these airstrikes are accompanied by moves to shut down the cross-border networks that have kept ISIS financially afloat, they are something more like enforcing a redline on ISIS’s behaviour, and perhaps also an attempt at strategic messaging.
Turkey’s government justly feels aggrieved at Western policy over Syria. Erdogan got out way in front of his population in calling for Assad’s downfall and had a right to expect collective NATO action after Assad shot down a Turkish jet in June 2012. The feeling in Ankara that they have been left holding the bag is essentially true, and the anger in Turkey that the U.S. is increasingly aligned with Assad is understandable. But the methods Turkey adopted in its go-it-alone anti-Assad policy after the U.S. stopped trying to topple Assad mean that when Turkey claims to be a victim of terrorism after incidents like the Suruc massacre by ISIS on 20 July, this is at best half-true. The victims of what would be called, if it happened to Westerners, “blowback,” are the Turkish people.
[*] CORRECTION: Notably when Can Dündar, the editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet Daily, which received the video of the Jan. 19, 2014, incident where MIT was found taking weapons to Syrian insurgents, wrote in The Guardian in December 2015, Dündar did not repeat the accusation that the recipient was Jabhat an-Nusra. It is also notable that Today’s Zaman, which first circulated the story that MIT was caught arming Nusra, is a Gulenist outlet, and the Gulenists—who also have considerable control (thanks to Erdogan) of the courts—are engaged in a major internal struggle with Erdogan’s AKP. Still, it was against Turkish law for MIT to ship weapons to anyone in Syria, and Erdogan responded crudely by arresting Dündar under State secrecy legislation. But there is every difference between shipping weapons to a designated al-Qaeda affiliate and—as it seems in this case—Ahrar a-Sham.