Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

Dateline: Turkey's Double Game with ISIS

Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

Dateline: Turkey's Double Game with ISIS

Article excerpt

Turkey's Islamist government has had rational reasons to support discreetly its own Frankenstein monster: the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The jihadists who have conquered large swathes of Syria and Iraq since the summer of 2014 may have the habit of beheading every infidel they catch, Muslim or non-Muslim. But they are merely the excessively savage next of kin to Turkish Islamists, who pursue similar political goals in Western-style suits and neckties instead of Arab gowns imitating the Prophet Muhammad's attire.

Their kinship diverges over methodology rather than objectives. But there is also a pragmatic attachment built on a shared obsession with common enemies. The Shiites whom ISIS militants love to slaughter are privately viewed by Turkey's Sunni supremacists as heretics (therefore, infidels). Likewise, Ankara views Syria's Kurds as a major security threat. The Turkish government believed that investing in ISIS (and its brothers in arms such as Ahrar ash-Sham and an-Nusra Front) would facilitate the downfall of Syrian president Bashar Assad, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan's friend-turned-nemesis. They miscalculated, and thus began Turkey's own Frankenstein story.

Supporting the Islamists

Ankara's quiet support for any jihadist, ISIS or otherwise, has long been an open secret. It became undeniable in January 2014 when Turkish prosecutors sent a team of gendarmerie officers to search three trucks in the southern province of Adana. The Syria-bound trucks, with a bizarre cargo of missiles, rockets, and ammunition in boxes marked in Cyrillic-were escorted by Turkish intelligence officers.1

A prosecutor arrested the men and seized the cargo, but then all hell broke loose. The governor rushed to the scene and declared that the trucks were moving on orders from then prime minister, now president Erdogan. They were then handed back to Turkish intelligence. One of the drivers testified that the cargo had been loaded from a foreign airplane at Ankara's Esenboga Airport and that "we carried similar loads several times before."2

In the summer of 2014, a military prosecutor took charge of the legal proceedings and ruled that "this is a military affair."3 Shortly afterward a court ordered a total media blackout on the incident. Today, the law enforcement officers who searched the trucks stand trial on charges of "international espionage."4

But what was the destination of the cargo in Syria? The answer, once again, is an open secret. Two months after the seizure of the cargo, an audio recording was leaked to the social media by unknown sources. It contained full minutes of a top-secret meeting at the Turkish foreign ministry's premises of some of Turkey's most important men: then-foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu (now prime minister); his undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioglu; chief intelligence officer Hakan Fidan; and deputy chief of the general staff, Gen. Yasar Güler.

The recording offered a realistic reading of Ankara's Syria policy. For instance, the Turkish bigwigs were heard saying that "an attack on Syria 'must be seen as an opportunity for us [Turks].'" The spymaster is heard saying that a false flag operation would be very easy, and he could "send a few men to Syria to attack Turkey." Fidan is also heard saying that "he had successfully sent two thousands trucks into Syria before."5 That solved the mystery of the trucks with the curious cargo two months earlier.

A year later, further evidence of support for ISIS emerged when an ISIS jihadist indicated that the Turkish government had delivered stocks of weapons and military hardware to the group's fighters in Syria. Mehmet Askar, now being tried in a high criminal court in Turkey along with eleven other suspected ISIS fighters, revealed that a 2011 plan to transfer arms to ISIS and to an-Nusra Front, as well as to the more moderate Free Syrian Army, was hampered by the Syrian army's capture of a key border town. Askar's accomplice, Haisam Toubalijeh, who was involved in a weapons transfer thwarted in 2013 by Turkish forces, reassured him that contacts inside the Turkish state would help facilitate the movement of the cache, which included some one hundred NATO rifles. …

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