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​Turkey between rock and a hard place in US fight against ISIS

Can Erimtan
Can Erimtan

Dr. Can Erimtan is an independent scholar residing in İstanbul, with a wide interest in the politics, history and culture of the Balkans and the Greater Middle East. He attended the VUB in Brussels and did his graduate work at the universities of Essex and Oxford. In Oxford, Erimtan was a member of Lady Margaret Hall and he obtained his doctorate in Modern History in 2002. His publications include the book “Ottomans Looking West?” as well as numerous scholarly articles. In the period 2010-11, he wrote op-eds for Today’s Zaman and in the further course of 2011 he also published a number of pieces in Hürriyet Daily News. In 2013, he was the Turkey Editor of the İstanbul Gazette. He is on Twitter at @theerimtanangle

Dr. Can Erimtan is an independent scholar residing in İstanbul, with a wide interest in the politics, history and culture of the Balkans and the Greater Middle East. He attended the VUB in Brussels and did his graduate work at the universities of Essex and Oxford. In Oxford, Erimtan was a member of Lady Margaret Hall and he obtained his doctorate in Modern History in 2002. His publications include the book “Ottomans Looking West?” as well as numerous scholarly articles. In the period 2010-11, he wrote op-eds for Today’s Zaman and in the further course of 2011 he also published a number of pieces in Hürriyet Daily News. In 2013, he was the Turkey Editor of the İstanbul Gazette. He is on Twitter at @theerimtanangle

​Turkey between rock and a hard place in US fight against ISIS
Turkey, a happy crossroads connecting Islam and Christianity, is heavily embroiled in the military aggression on its southern borders while trying very hard to act appropriately with regard to its NATO allies and EU partners in the West.

Syria has been mired in violence and mayhem ever since apparently initially peaceful protests against the Assad regime in Damascus morphed into outright military confrontation, due in no small part to outside meddling. Using the US Air Force base in Incirlik, Turkey, as its operational hub, "the US and Turkey have been giving logistic aid and military training to the Syrian armed opposition since 'April-May 2011'," according to notorious whistleblower Sibel Edmonds.

More than three years have passed and the current conflict has managed to spread into Iraq as well. The terror group formerly known as ISIS (or ISIL), but currently preferring to call itself the Islamic State (IS), has now carved out its own territory comprising parts of Syria and Iraq. Over the past years, the fight against Assad has led to the growth of numerous Jihadi and other extremist outfits in Syria, and quite naturally, the press in the West quickly started using the name Al-Qaeda in this connection (the bogeyman getting everyone's attention). As such, even certain Turkish opposition voices easily used the name to insinuate that the government led by then-PM-but-now-popularly-elected President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was harboring extremist tendencies by supporting Jihad across the border.

One such prominent voice belongs to Abdullatif Sener, originally a co-founder of the AKP (or Justice and Development Party), who has since left to become a vocal critic of Erdogan. At the beginning of this year, Sener declared that “there is a [direct] link between Turkey and [Al-] Qaeda elements,” explaining that Turkey has even provided “weapons for Al-Qaeda, [delivering them to] a region [in Syria] controlled by Al-Qaeda.”At that time, the Turkish politician was arguably referring to the Syrian opposition fighters, united under the banner of the Al-Nusra Front (ANF or Jabhat al-Nusra), and referred to in the media as an “Al-Qaeda offshoot”. Recently, the Turkish politician has been joined by Francis Ricciardone, who served until late June as the US ambassador to Ankara, in denouncing Turkey's government led by the self-proclaimed Muslim-democrat AKP. Earlier this month, Ricciardone told the press that the "Turks frankly worked with groups for a period; including Al-Nusra, whom we finally designated as [being groups] we're not willing to work with.”

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Reuters / Mohamed Azakir / Files)

The emergence of the Islamic State

I have earlier argued that Syria's not-so civil war was originally meant to provide a battleground for a "proxy-war pitting the West, as represented by the US and its NATO and other allies, against the new unholy trinity of Russia-China-Iran.” While, simultaneously, the Islamic world is now also going through its own "increasingly more and more overt conflict between the Sunni faction and the Shiite minority,”a conflict that has been brought out in the open in Syria where numerous Sunni extremist groups are battling the Alawite Assad regime, backed by Iran - the one-and-only nation led by a Shiite religious establishment. Among the many Sunni groups fighting in Syria, the IS has managed to emerge as the strongest and most ferocious faction.

And now that they have moved their fight into Iraq as well, the IS leader, the Caliph Ibrahim (aka Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) has decided to openly taunt the US, and now the UK as well, by means of internet publicized beheadings of American and British captives. In this way, the West or the US and its allies, if you will, has been pulled directly into the Intra-Islamic Cold War, thereby forcing President Obama to re-engage in the Iraqi battlefield, a theatre of war he had previously vowed to vacate so robustly and which turned out to be a pledge that he actually fulfilled by means of withdrawing active US combat troops in a period of 2 years, 5 months, 2 weeks and 4 days, ending on 18 December 2011. Faced by video footage depicting the brutal beheadings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, Obama acted quickly by assembling his own "coalition of the willing", like his predecessor George W. Bush. And now the internet-spread video of the beheading of British aid worker David Haines seems to have equally forced the hand of the referendum-beleaguered PM James Cameron to become the new Tony Blair. In fact, both leaders have not exactly been shy stepping into the boots formerly occupied by their forerunners.

Obama's Iraq War

Previously, US planes carried out air strikes in support of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces battling IS fighters in the north of Iraq, close to Mount Sinjar, to protect fleeing Yazidis. But on Monday, 15 September 2014, Obama's troops struck targets south-west of Baghdad in support of the Iraqi security forces, as the "beginning of intensified action" against IS militants in Iraq, as worded by a US defense official speaking to the American broadcaster NBC. These strikes came in the wake of Barack Obama's speech the previous week, when he vowed to "degrade and ultimately destroy" ISIS. As for Obama's coalition of the willing, the Guardian reported that "more than 40 countries have signed up to a US-led plan, but not all are willing to offer Iraq direct military support. Arab participation in military action would give a wider sense of legitimacy to the campaign. No Arab state has [so far] publicly promised to participate in military action but it is believed several have in private, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.” But, at a 20-nation summit in Paris on 14 September, Cameron indicated that the UK was "ready to take whatever steps are necessary" to fight the threat posed by the Islamic State. And this time around even the French proved less awkward to their American allies, pledging to execute reconnaissance flights over Iraq in support of the Iraqi army. Nevertheless, the UK as well as the US has categorically ruled out deploying ground troops in either Iraq or Syria.

U.S. President Barack Obama (Joe Raedle / Getty Images / AFP)

The Intra-Islamic Cold War and anti-Americanism

The Bush invasion of Iraq in 2003 provides a reason for the Islamic State's willingness to lure Western soldiers into the fray. The US invasion removed Saddam Hussein from power, but also ensured that the Shia powerhouse of Iran was to receive a friendly co-religionist as its neighbor. The Sunni Hussein had all but disenfranchised Iraq's Shiite majority, and following the US withdrawal, the sectarian policies carried out by the Maliki government drew Iraq closer to Iran, as well as managed to deprive the Sunni minority of its erstwhile privileged status and many of its rights. In his 2006 book The Shia Revival, Vali Nasr, currently Dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins, argues that "this [shift in Iraq's political landscape] has led to a Shia revival in the region . . . [meaning] that this half of the population in the Middle East has now developed an expectation of better things to come." The Maliki government was highly reliant upon Tehran, and arguably, this clear sectarian alignment in some ways contributed to the development of the current volatile situation, a situation that has become a veritable Intra-Islamic Cold War. And Caliph Ibrahim is goading Obama (and now Cameron too), because "militant Salafis [such as the IS fighters] see anti-Shiism as the other face of anti-Americanism,” as opined by Nasr. Thus, in a somewhat twisted way, it seems that Bush, Jr.'s preoccupation with Saddam and with various ways of getting rid of this Sunni tyrant has now ushered in a new reality, a new reality that has transformed the Intra-Islamic Cold War into another avenue for opposing the West and the American Way.

Turkey to join the U.S. against the Islamic State?

As a result, it seems that Obama had better build up and strengthen his “coalition of the willing” if he is really determined to "degrade and ultimately destroy" ISIS, as the latter seems determined to oppose America to the very end. And to this end last week, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel followed by US Secretary of State John Kerry both visited Turkey. Alas, President Erdogan and Prime Minister Davutoglu appeared unwilling to commit Turkish troops to the good fight, sufficing instead to pledge logistical support and humanitarian aid. This in spite of the fact that the Secretary of State stressed that the operation would be more of a counterterrorism effort than a war, possibly trying to appeal to Turkey's sensitivities, given its decades-old counterterrorist actions against the terrorist PKK.

In addition, Kerry also seems to have drawn attention to Turkey's porous borders, allowing for the easy transfer of those willing to fight for Caliph Ibrahim. In fact, Turkey also has its own citizens crossing the border to join the caliphal forces of the IS. Turkish news media reports and US government officials indicate that as many as 1,000 Turks coming from the cities of Adıyaman, Bingol, Mardin, Diyarbakır, Kırşehir, Konya, Ankara and even Istanbul have joined the Intra-Islamic Cold War, waged by the terror group. And in a way that only seems to heighten tensions between Ankara and Washington, on 13 September 2014, David Sanger and Julie Hirschfield Davis argued in The New York Times that Turkey is heavily involved in oil smuggling activities which constitute a serious source of income for the Islamic State. President Erdogan remarked upon this piece talking to the press returning from his trip to Doha. Tayyip Erdogan called the allegations downright lies, while affirming Turkish willingness to cooperate in the establishment of a buffer-zone in the border region and stating that air strikes will not prove sufficient to defeat the Islamic State; thereby echoing words uttered by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C: "to destroy ISIL [or ISIS or the Islamic State], you have to kill or capture their leaders, take the territory they hold back, cut off their financing, and destroy their capability to regenerate"; and these actions would necessitate American boots on the ground, he implied.

AFP Photo / Wakil Kohsar

But earlier this month Jana Hybaskova, a former Czech Member of European Parliament and currently European Ambassador to Iraq, has also come out accusing Turkey in conjunction with Iran and the KRG of some sort of complicity with the terror group. Hybaskova claimed that the two countries and the one aspiring nation involved are guilty of facilitating the export of oil produced by the Islamic State from fields seized earlier this year. When the IS captured Mosul earlier this summer, then-FM-now-PM the wily Ahmet Davutoglu talked to Turkey's consular staff in the city via the telephone reassuring them that "ISIS is not hostile to Turkey, they will not harm you. Do not leave the Consulate,” and as a result, at present 49 Turkish citizens are being held hostage by the terror group.

His earlier dealings with members of the Islamic State seem to have led Davutoglu to misjudge the situation in Mosul. Earlier, the Turkish government had successfully interacted with the group in order to free the captured Turkish photo-journalist Bunyamin Aygun at the beginning of this year. Aygun was held for 40 days, escaping decapitation as a result of his status as a nominal Muslim but turning more devout under pressure. Fortunately, Turkey's National Intelligence Organization’s (MIT) was active behind the scenes trying to liberate the captured Turk. Members of MIT got in touch with Ahrar al-Sham fighters who were able to free Aygun and then handed him over to the Turkish authorities. Bunyamin Aygun told the journalist Amberin Zaman recently, "when I heard Davutoglu’s voice on the telephone [speaking to] me, that is when I knew I was finally free.”

Turkey, Ahrar al-Sham and the IS

As the organization MIT is "directly attached to the figure of theprime ministerby means of laws #644 (1965) and #2,937 (1984)"; its dealings with the Jihadi fighters of Ahrar al-Sham thus have to be seen as a matter of national policy, as an interaction that must have received official approval. Led by Hassan Aboud (aka Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi), the group is a coalition of Islamist and Salafist units fighting to unseat Bashar al-Assad. Over time, Hassan Aboud's outfit even became the "principal constituent force" of the Syrian Islamic Front (or SIF), set up in December 2012 as a "Salafi umbrella formation, which is arguably the best fighting force within the opposition" to the Assad regime in Damascus, in the words of the Richard Borow Fellow at the Washington Institute and founder of the website Jihadology, Aaron Zelin and Charles Lister, the Visiting Fellow, Brookings Doha Center.

And now, it has apparently been established that Turkey's AKP-led government is in direct contact with these “Sunni extremists”, and that Ankara even utilizes their services via the nation's National Intelligence Organization (MIT), but these apparently cordial relations do clearly not extend to the Islamic State. In spite of allegations that Turkey somehow supports Al-Qaeda, the MIT-link to a salafist group that was never declared a terrorist organization by the United States and that adheres to a national boundary (i.e. Syria, as illustrated in its name meaning “The Free Men of Syria” and its role in the SIF), as opposed to the universalist Islamic State, indicates that AKP-led Turkey is clearly not reluctant to pursue its Sunni line abroad yet still remains very much tied to the mere concept of the nation or rather sovereign state. The question now emerging is whether the 49 Turkish citizens held hostage really do constitute the main reason behind Turkey's reluctance to actively join Obama's “coalition of the willing” or if more nefarious negotiations subject to certain conditions are being held behind closed doors and removed from prying eyes . . .

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.