September 9th, 2015
By Julie Lenarz and Michael Miner
“The Turkish authorities did not mind. We were told that Turkish soldiers were patrolling the border, but there was no reason to be afraid – they only shoot in the air; they know who you are; they are complicit.” The damning testimony of Ebrahim B., a recently returned German former fighter with the Islamic State (IS), confirms the suspicions of many Western policy makers and intelligence experts: Turkey is turning a blind eye to extremists crossing the border in hope they will weaken the Kurdish resistance and crush the Assad regime. This is discouraging not only from the perspective of the Kurds, but the loosing of violent extremists and unchecked aggression fosters instability in a region increasingly bereft of any sense of security on either side of the border.
Turkish officials attended the meeting last year, which formed the basis for the US-led anti-IS campaign, but – unlike representatives from countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates – refused to sign the official document sealing its participation. With the second most powerful army in the region, Turkey could have turned the tide against extremism. However, it was only in the aftermath of the devastating IS suicide bombing in the district of Suruç in late July that Ankara’s calculus of risk shifted and permission was granted to the US to carry out its first drone strike in Syria from Incirlik air base. This long delayed engagement and initial miscalculation has provided breathing room and operational space for IS forces to reinforce positions of strength, and actively move forces around the region.
Erdogan’s government does little to stop the flow of foreign fighters and Turkey serves as a highway for jihadists eager to join IS and other extremist groups in Syria. As we discussed in 2014 there is good reason for the West and its allies to be concerned with free flowing foreign fighters moving across the region as their ability to move, collaborate, and organize attacks against domestic and international targets of their choosing. IS fighters increasingly able to blend into the civilian landscape coupled with a decreased ability to track individual movements and weapons transport, fosters a dangerous area rife with security gaps and challenges.
There is no shortage of evidence for Turkey’s consistent backing of Sunni extremists like Ahrar ash-Sham and the umbrella group of rebel battalions named Jaish al-Fatah – a policy which stems from the notion that the Kurdish resistance must be weakened and military pressure put on the Assad regime to force him to step down.
The predominately Salafist-leaning Ahrar ash-Sham was formed in 2011 in northern Syria and has known ties to al-Qaeda and its affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. Whilst Western governments refuse to collaborate with the group, Turkey has actively strengthened Ahrar ash-Sham in the form of weapons and financial support. Both Ahrar ash-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra are part of the recently formed Jaish al-Fatah, which also receives assistance from across the border.
A flash drive seized after the killing of IS’s director of oil and gas operations in Syria, Abu Sayyaf, reportedly revealed “undeniable” and “clear” links between Turkey and the terror organization with regards to financing, weapons smuggling and illegal oil sales and artifact trade. A senior Western official alleged that the findings “could end up having profound policy implications for the relationship between us and Ankara.” Indeed, although one may be able to point to several governments in the region and identify links to extremist groups, ironically leadership that held lofty aspirations to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) suggests not only are its current policies out of step with Western allies, they very well may have been running entirely opposite.
Turkey’s “no hear, no see” policy badly backfired when IS carried out a suicide bombing in the district of Suruç, which killed 32 and wounded many more. Within days, Turkey conducted anti-terror raids across the country and bombed IS installations in Syria and Iraq. It would, however, be simplistic to assume that Turkey at last has seen IS for what it really is. Although Erdogan has characterized his country’s retaliation as a national campaign against terrorist organizations of all ideological backgrounds to safeguard Turkey’s security, his actions speak a different language. The PKK so far has been the main target of Turkey’s military wrath. Whilst the country carries out sporadic air strikes against IS, 500 strikes against the PKK and YPG have been reported in the last month.
Turkey’s discriminatory outrage can only be understood within the context of the election in June, which busted Erdogan’s dream of a new constitution. In his orbit, democratic elections serve only one purpose: reinforce the status-quo leadership. Democracy is welcomed as long as the desired outcome is achieved. Although the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, emerged as the strongest party, it suffered a significant loss in support and, for the first time in 13 years, now has to rely on a coalition partner to form a government. By winning 12 percent of the votes, it was the pro-Kurdish HDP which denied the AKP its majority.
Support for Erdogan’s party among the Kurdish community had steadily decreased for months, but dropped like a stone after the IS siege of the Kurdish city of Kobane on the Turkish-Syrian border. Turkey sat on its hands whilst Kurdish civilians were indiscriminately slaughtered and enslaved by the terror organization and even went so far as to block reinforcement in form of weapons and fighters until very late in the day. The breakdown of trust and the bitter taste left by the AKP election defeat has shattered the already fragile peace process between the Turkish government and the PKK.
Erdogan’s response is clear: war. In times of chaos and terror, people rally around the flag and support the government. Selahattin Demirtaş, the leader of the HDP, is likely to get stripped of his immunity and an official investigation into the party’s ties with the PKK has been launched. In the event of a forced dissolution of the HDP, Erdogan could have the last stumbling block on the road to an all-powerful presidency removed once and for all, in a snap election which could be held as soon as October or November this year.
In short, Turkey’s campaign against IS remains anything but straightforward. It is a smokescreen to crush the Kurdish opposition at home and abroad with the potential to undermine Turkish democracy, as well as bringing down the regime in Syria at all cost. This is counterintuitive to the interests of its Western allies, as the Kurdish people remain the most sound prospect for stable democratic government in the Middle East. Prosperous, and the increasingly diverse Kurdish region of Iraq, points to the potential for cooperation despite historic differences; lessons that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has taken to heart in his new oil sharing agreements.
Deep inroads toward educational opportunities for citizens and anticorruption government reform provides a foundational bulwark against extremism that threaten western interests. A cohesive government with less divisive politics can better adapt and to meet the challenge posed by IS; and this new government might look to the Kurdish people for inspiration. No group of people have fought as valiantly in opposition to the crushing yoke of extremism born out of poverty and despair. The Kurdish people have time and again risen to the occasion in defense of values coherent with western civilization; in stark contrast to the barbarism of any proclaimed Islamic caliphate. One of the few bright lights and positive influences within fractured Iraq, the Kurdish people have fought, man and woman alike, to secure their country and prevent IS from advancing. No doubt Turkish president Erdogan has taken note of the Kurds success and realizes a prosperous democratic Iraq may pose an even greater threat to neighboring autocrats. If he wants to be on the side of victory and a just ruler, it would be well for him to look at Kurds as an ally versus adversary.
The US and its coalition should look hard as its position in siding with an ally that fears a Kurdish State more than an Islamic one. In the grand scheme of alliances, friends must be honest with each other, set higher expectations concerning mutual interests, and revisit policy decisions impacting regional partners. Protecting the Kurdish people and supporting vibrant democratic principles are central tenets of America’s national interests in the world and regional allies. It is both a moral imperative and pragmatic approach toward encouraging stability in an unstable region.