by Burak Bekdil
The Gatestone Institute
July 27, 2015
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (the Islamic State, or IS) has been the number one target for the world's democratic nations since it captured large swaths of land in Syria and Iraq last summer and declared caliphate under sharia law in the lands it controls. The United States and its allies have been waging a war against IS at a distance. So is NATO ally Turkey, at least theoretically, and not at a distance.
In reality, things are a bit different. Especially since the beginning of this year, several press reports in local and international media outlets told chilling stories about how jihadists move freely and recruit fighters in some of Turkey's biggest cities. "It is no secret that Turkey has become a fertile ground for jihadist activity. Turkey says it fights IS. Maybe it does. But just randomly and reluctantly," said one EU ambassador in Ankara.
Last month a news report detailed stunning revelations of Huseyin Mustafa Peri, a Turkish citizen who joined IS in September but, after being shot and wounded, was captured in early June by Syrian Kurds. He explained the recruiting process with chilling clarity in a video.
As if to confirm Peri's revelations, the chronology of how a youth in southeastern Turkey was recruited by IS to detonate a bomb at a pro-Kurdish rally in Diyarbakir in early June either exposes a huge security vulnerability within Turkish law enforcement, or malice. (The twin blasts killed four people and injured over 100, two days before Turkey's June 7 parliamentary elections.)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has effusively praised Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's contributions to the fight against IS.
The father of the suspect said he had contacted the police when his son disappeared in October 2014. He said that he suspected that his son, who expressed strong jihadist opinions, could have gone to join IS. The family even pleaded with Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu for help. Later, officials told him the young man had joined IS. Strangely, shortly before he detonated the bombs, the young man -- known only by his initials, O.G. -- was briefly detained at the rally due to some conscription irregularity. The police released him, even though their records should have listed his name as a "lost person in connection with terrorism." Officials later explained that there was some procedural error that caused the bomber to be released. Not many people were convinced.
Turkey's fiercely pro-government media went a bit too far in revealing where Ankara stands in Syria's civil war. "Turkish Pravdas" ran the stories and headlines praising IS and condemning pro-Kurdish fighters in northern Syria who fought the Islamic State with the help of US-led air strikes.
One daily,Sabah, which openly supports President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, ran the headline, "YPG (a Kurdish militia) is more dangerous than ISIS." Other notoriously pro-government newspapers such as Star,Yeni Akit and Aksam ran similar stories. That is no doubt "good journalism" for Turkish officials. But not every Turkish journalist is necessarily a good political scientist.
Last month, three journalists at the border with Syria were briefly detained for angering the local governor by asking questions about possible infiltrators from IS. The three journalists, from the Turkish dailies Cumhuriyet and Evrensel and Germany's Die Welt, were taken to a police station for interrogation on orders from the governor.
The Turkish state helps IS. Not just with its police force and local governors and other officials in Ankara. Recently, two Chechens, who were accused of beheading three priests in Syria two years ago, avoided sentencing on murder charges, although an Istanbul court sentenced them to 7.5 years in prison for being members of a terrorist group.
The jihadist Chechens, Magomet Abdurakmanov and Ahmad Ramzanov, were captured in Istanbul in early July. The court refused to hand down a murder sentence on the ground that "the crime was not committed against Turkey and the lack of an agreement on extraditions." Now the Chechens will serve only two years in prison, due to the Turkish penal code, which automatically lowers prison sentences. A police report said Abdurakmanov might be one of the militants seen in a video that was uploaded on YouTube, which allegedly shows the beheading of the priests.
Revealingly, Abdurakmanov told the court that he had received support from Turkish intelligence when he was in Syria. "Turkish intelligence would not help me if I were a member of al-Qaeda," he said. "We were in contact with Turkish intelligence all the time. Turkey sent us arms, cars and money when we were fighting in Syria. Turkey was helping us because we were fighting against [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad."
More recently, an interview with a discontented nurse was published. The nurse, an Alawite (an offshoot of Shiite Islam), claims to work clandestinely for a covert medical corps in Sanliurfa, a southeastern Turkish city bordering Syria. The nurse divulged information about the alleged role that Sumeyye Erdogan, President Erdogan's daughter, played in providing extended medical care for IS's wounded militants who were brought to Turkish hospitals. "No sooner did they become cognizant of my faith," she said, "then the wave of intimidation began. I knew many things... who was running the corps. I saw Sumeyye Erdogan frequently at our headquarters in Sanliurfa ... I am indeed terrified."
Meanwhile, Turkey keeps on telling the world how it fights the IS terrorists in Syria. Even more ridiculous than this claim is that some people apparently buy the Turkish fairy tales. In April, US Secretary of State John Kerry underlined that Turkey was an essential partner of the US in the fight against IS and praised Turkey's contributions. "I want to emphasize this afternoon the importance of the ties between the United States and Turkey, particularly the security relationship at this particular moment," Kerry said after a meeting with his Turkish counterpart.
So it is natural that the Turks think they can always fool their allies: they help jihadist terrorists and in return get pats on the shoulder.
Burak Bekdil, based in Ankara, is a columnist for the Turkish daily Hürriyet and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.
(WHAT'S OBAMA GONNA DO - PUT UP A BUNCH OF "ISIS-FREE ZONE!" SIGNS?!)
U.S., Turkey working to establish ISIS-free zone in northern Syria
Police carry out anti-ISIS raids in Istanbul, Ankara
By Zeina Karam and Julie Pace, The Associated Press Posted: Jul 27, 2015 4:49 AM ET Last Updated: Jul 27, 2015 8:54 AM ET
Turkey and the United States have agreed on the outlines of a plan to rout the Islamic State group from a strip of Syrian territory along the Turkish border — a plan that opens the possibility of a safe haven for tens of thousands of displaced Syrians but one that also sets up a potential conflict with U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish forces in the area.
The move further embroils Turkey, a key NATO ally, in Syria's civil war, and also catapults it into a front-line position in the global war against ISIS. A senior Obama administration official said Monday that U.S. discussions with Turkey about an ISIS-free zone focused on a roughly 110-kilometre stretch still under ISIS control.
The U.S. has been conducting airstrikes there, which will accelerate now that the U.S. can launch strikes from Turkish soil, the official said. No agreement between Turkey and the U.S. has yet been finalized, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity under regulations.
- Turkey ramps up anti-ISIS fight with airstrikes in Syria, raids in Istanbul
- Turkey scrambles jets after ISIS attack on soldiers
- Blast kills 28 in Turkish town near Syrian border
While details of the buffer-zone plan have yet to be announced, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Ankara and Washington have no intention of sending ground troops into Syria but wanted to see Syria's moderate opposition forces replace ISIS near the Turkish border.
"Moderate forces like the Free Syrian Army will be strengthened, a structure will be created so that they can take control of areas freed from ISIL, air cover will be provided. It would be impossible for them to take control of the area without it," Davutoglu told Turkey's A Haber television. ISIL is an alternate acronym for the Islamic State group.
Tactical shiftThe discussions came amid a major tactical shift in Turkey's approach to ISIS. After months of reluctance, Turkish warplanes started striking militant targets in Syria last week, and allowed the U.S. to launch its own strikes from Turkey's strategically located Incirlik Air Base.
Turkey has also called a meeting of its NATO allies for Tuesday to discuss threats to its security and its airstrikes. Davutoglu said "NATO has a duty to protect" Turkey's border with Syria and Iraq, and that Ankara will seek the alliance's support for its actions at the meeting in Brussels.
But a Turkish-driven military campaign to push ISIS out of territory along the Turkish border is likely to complicate matters on the ground.
U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in Syria, who have been the most successful in the war against ISIS, control most of the 910 kilometre boundary with Turkey, and have warned Ankara against any military intervention in northern Syria.
The Islamic State controls roughly a smaller stretch of that border, wedged between Turkish-backed insurgents with Islamist ideologies to the left and Kurdish forces from the People's Protection Unit, known as the YPG, to the right.
The Turkish-U.S. plan raises the question of which Syrian rebel forces would be involved in a ground operation against ISIS. The U.S. has long complained about having no reliable partners among them. Defence Secretary Ash Carter acknowledged earlier this month that the U.S. has only 60 trainees in a program to prepare and arm thousands of moderate Syrian rebels in the fight against ISIS militants.
The Obama administration official said the U.S.-led coalition was looking to anti-ISIS forces such as Syrian Kurds and the Free Syrian Army. He did not elaborate.
Syria's main Kurdish militia — the YPG or the People's Protection Units — is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which has waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey and maintains bases in remote parts of northern Iraq.
Nawaf Khalil, head of the Germany-based Kurdish Centre for Studies, said Ankara is likely trying to limit advances by the Syrian Kurdish forces by using the war against ISIS as a pretext and to steer Washington away from the YPG, but "this will not work."
In a reflection of the complexities involved, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Monday refused to draw a distinction between the Islamic State group and the PKK.
"There is no difference between PKK and Daesh," Cavusoglu said, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State group. The PKK is fighting the ISIS "for power, not for peace, not for security," he said.
Also, the YPG and an activist group said Turkish troops had shelled the Syrian border village of Til Findire, targeting Kurdish fighters and hitting one of their vehicles on Sunday night. The village is east of the border town of Kobani, where the Kurds handed a major defeat to the Islamic State group earlier this year.
But Turkish officials dismissed the claims, insisting their forces were only targeting the ISIS group in Syria, and the PKK in neighbouring Iraq.
An Ankara official said Turkey returned fire after Turkish soldiers at the border were fired upon, in line with Turkey's rules of engagement.
"The Syrian Kurds are not a target of the operations. Our operations only target IS in Syria and PKK in Iraq," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of rules that bar officials from speaking to journalists without authorization.
In Washington, State Department spokesman John Kirby on Monday stressed that "Turkey has a right to defend itself" against the PKK.
Late Monday, a major in Turkey's military police died after suspected PKK militants fired on his car in the southeastern province of Mus, said the region's governor, Vedat Buyukersoy. The major was among the highest ranking Turkish officers to be killed in attacks in recent years.
Turkish police raided homes in a neighborhood in the capital earlier in the day, detaining at least 15 people suspected of links to the Islamic State group, the Turkish state-run news agency said. The number of suspects detained in a major anti-terror operation launched on Friday has reached 1,050, according to the office of Turkey's prime minister.
However, in the absence of a no-fly zone to neutralize Syrian President Bashar Assad's warplanes, it is not clear how the possible buffer zone may be considered a safe haven where displaced people could return.
And despite the U.S. and Turkey's shared interests in fighting the Islamic State, the Turks have also prioritized defeating Assad. While the U.S. says Assad has lost legitimacy, it has not taken direct military action to try to remove him from office and says he is not the target of its efforts in Syria.
Ege Seckin, a Turkey expert at IHS Country Risk, said ISIS is a national security threat for Turkey, but was nonetheless secondary.
"The two key points in Turkey remain: one — topple the Assad regime, and two — prevent the establishment of a continuous Kurdish territorial entity in the region," he said.