Playing with fire

Print edition : October 31, 2014

Turkish forces patrol the Turkey-Syria border at Suruc on October 6 after Islamic State militants placed their flag on a hilltop on the eastern side of the town of Kobane, Syria. Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

A Syrian Kurdish woman walks through the southeastern Turkish town of Suruc after crossing the border on October 1. As many as 1,60,000 Syrian Kurds have entered Turkey, fleeing an onslaught by the Islamic State. Photo: BULENT KILIC/AFP

Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkish Prime Minister. He said Ankara would do whatever was needed to prevent Kobane, situated near its border, from falling into the hands of Islamic State fighters. Photo: REUTERS

Turkey decides to send its troops inside Syria and Iraq to fight the jehadis even as evidence emerges that a blowback from its earlier actions promoting them could singe its secular political edifice.

THE TURKISH PARLIAMENT VOTED IN THE first week of October to rubber-stamp the government’s decision to allow the deployment of the country’s troops inside Syria and Iraq. The government in Ankara is also demanding the introduction of a “no-fly zone” over parts of Syria.

Both the Syrian and Iraqi governments have reacted strongly to this, which they view as Turkey’s latest provocative move in the region. The Syrian government was quick to issue a statement characterising the move as “aggression” against a member-state of the United Nations. Nouri al-Maliki, who is now a Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq, warned Turkey against sending its troops into Iraq, saying that it would be a breach of the country’s sovereignty. The statement came immediately after the newly appointed Turkish Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, said that Ankara would do whatever was needed to prevent the Syrian town of Kobane, also known as Ayn al-Arab, situated near its border from falling into the hands of Islamic State (I.S.) fighters.

By the second week of October, Kobane was on the verge of being overrun by the I.S., despite the United States using massive firepower against its fighters. As many as 160,000 people, mainly Syrian Kurds, have fled the town and surrounding villages. The black flags of the I.S. flutter in the eastern part of the city.

Davutoglu had said that only Turkey had the capacity to turn the military tide against the resurgent Islamists. “No other country has the capacity to affect the developments in Syria and Iraq,” he said. Earlier, the Turkish Prime Minister had told the media that mere air power was not sufficient to rout the I.S. He said that at some point “ground forces will be essential” inside Syria.

Ankara has indicated that it wants to create a “safe haven” on the border with Syria for the so-called moderate groups such as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Islamic Front (I.F.). The top priority of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) continues to be a regime change in Damascus. Interestingly, the FSA leadership has refused to endorse the U.S. military action against the I.S., stating that the overthrow of the secular government in Damascus should continue to be the main objective. The FSA has ceased to be a serious fighting force in the last two years. It has virtually subcontracted the fighting to jehadist groups such as al Nusra Front.

According to reports, the Turkish army is not keen on directly confronting the I.S. or the Syrian Kurds. Until the second week of October, Turkish forces, which had massed near the town of Kobane, preferred to wait and watch as the I.S. made steady gains. Turkey had refused to sign the joint communique issued in September by 10 Arab states expressing a “shared commitment to stand united against the threat posed by all terrorism”.

Tactical move

The I.S. and the Syrian Kurds who control parts of northern Syria have been battling each other for the past several months. The Kurdish Democratic Union Party of Syria is a close ally of the separatist Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey. When the foreign-sponsored, armed uprising in Syria started four years ago, the government in Damascus, in a tactical move, granted autonomy to Syrian Kurds. The Kurds then became informal allies of Damascus in the fight against the terror groups. The Turkish government considers both these groups its enemies.

Turkey, on the other hand, had struck up a close economic and political relationship with the Kurdish government in northern Iraq. The Turkish government had reversed course after the U.S. occupation of Iraq in 2003 and given up its objection to the emergence of an independent Kurdish state in that country. Turkish companies invested heavily in northern Iraq. Much of the oil produced there was routed through Turkey. The country exports goods worth $12 billion through northern Iraq. Previously, Turkish exports were routed through Syria. That route has been closed for the past four years and now, with the advances being made by the I.S., the Iraqi route for Turkish exports to the region has been closed, at least temporarily. The I.S. is now targeting northern Iraq’s lucrative oil infrastructure.

The I.S. was on the verge of capturing Irbil, the capital of Kurd-controlled northern Iraq. It was only the initial intervention by the PKK and, later on, American warplanes that saved the Kurdish government in northern Iraq. The intervention of the PKK has alarmed the government in Ankara. The PKK has been branded a “terrorist” organisation by Turkey as well as the U.S., its North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) patron. The last thing Ankara wants is an alliance between the Turkish Kurds and the Kurds in northern Iraq. After the military reverses they suffered, the Iraqi Kurds have blamed the Turkish government for initially arming and supporting jehadist groups such as the I.S.

Ankara has so far not joined the U.S.-led “coalition of the willing” in the targeting of the I.S. in Iraq and Syria. Turkish officials said that targeting only the I.S. and other extremist groups would only strengthen the PKK and other Kurd separatists in the region. Just before the U.S. aerial bombardments started, Turkey had negotiated the release of 49 of its citizens held hostage by the I.S. in Mosul. The Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has hinted that the deal involves a prisoner exchange. According to reports, more than a hundred I.S. fighters, including two Europeans, detained by the Turkish authorities have reportedly been released as a quid pro quo.

Blaming Ankara

Immediately after the announcement by the Turkish Prime Minister about his plans to order the army into the two neighbouring countries, U.S. Vice-President Joseph Biden, in a moment of remarkable candour, put much of the blame for the rise of the I.S. and other jehadist groups on the government in Ankara.

Speaking to students at Harvard University, Biden said that America’s allies in the region were the “largest problem in Syria”. He said that countries such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) “were so determined to take down Assad” that they started “a proxy Sunni-Shia war” by funnelling in “hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tonnes of weapons” to any group, including jehadist groups such as al Nusra, that was fighting against the secular government in Damascus.

Biden stated that the U.S. could not stop its close allies from doing this. “The outcome of such policies is now visible,” he said. Biden claimed that his “old friend” Erdogan had admitted to sending in “too many people” across the border into Syria. “It took a while for Turkey, a Sunni nation, to figure out that the ISIL [Islamic State of Iraq and Levant] was a direct and immediate threat to their well-being,” Biden said in his lecture. He went on to add that the other allies of the U.S. in the region have now finally stopped funding the jehadi groups.

Francis Ricciardone, a former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, had also said that Ankara had supported radical Islamist groups like the Nusra Front. It was an open secret that arms and fighters were being channelled into Syria through Turkey but the Barack Obama administration did absolutely nothing to stop it. The I.S., which was until last year an Al Qaeda affiliate and was until a couple of years ago confined to central Iraq, found sanctuary in the areas that had gone out of the control of the Syrian government. It was only later that the I.S. fell out with al Nusra, the other Al Qaeda franchise in Syria. Biden glossed over the role played by the U.S. and its Western allies in encouraging and abetting the jehadist forces. U.S. intelligence agents were on the ground providing logistical support to the same groups whom they are now trying to obliterate. The New York Times reported that the U.S. government was paying the salaries of more than 10,000 fighters in northern Syria. The U.S. Congress recently approved an additional $500 million in funding for the Syrian rebels.

Another recent report revealed that a significant percentage of the ammunition used by the I.S. was of American origin. Much of the ammunition could have been directly supplied to the I.S. by the U.S.’ allies in the region. The rest of it may have been captured from the Iraqi army and the Kurdish Pesh Merga army of northern Iraq. As has been widely reported, the real fighting is done by the I.S. and al Nusra on behalf of the so-called moderate groups.

And for that matter, it is the Syrian army that has been valiantly fighting the extremists who at one time were literally knocking on the gates of Damascus, fuelled by the funds, arms and training provided by the West and the few countries who now band themselves as the “coalition of the willing”. It was only when the I.S. launched its attack against the autonomous pro-U.S. region in northern Iraq that the Obama administration sprang into action and created the “coalition of the willing” comprising the very states responsible for the creation of the I.S. and the Nusra Front.

The Obama administration has evidently still not learnt its lessons. The U.S. is now training Syrians on Saudi Arabian soil to fight both the secular government in Damascus and the I.S. Once they return to Syria, these Syrian fighters are more likely to team up with the I.S. and other jehadi groups with whom they share the same Salafi world view. President Obama, in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly, claimed that the U.S. “is training and equipping the Syrian opposition to be a counterweight to the terrorists of ISIL and the brutality of the Assad regime”.

President Erdogan has denied having expressed regret for Turkey’s policies on Syria to the U.S. Vice-President. The Turkish Prime Minister said that Biden’s remarks were “unacceptable”. Biden’s spokesperson said that the U.S. Vice-President had “apologised for any implication that Turkey or other allies and partners in the region had intentionally supplied or facilitated the growth of ISIL or other extremists in the region”. He has sent in apologies to the UAE and Saudi Arabia too for his recent remarks. Qatar too will be demanding one. As an editorial of The New York Times put it, “Biden apologises for telling the truth”.

Dubious record

Turkey’s dubious track record of covertly supporting radical Islamist groups is being compared to Pakistan’s role of supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Pakistan has been paying a big price domestically as the local offshoots of the Taliban have turned against the government with suicide bombings and terror attacks almost every other day. In the first week of September, the most radical wing of the Pakistani Taliban announced that it had affiliated itself to the I.S. The origin of the terror blowback in Pakistan can in fact be traced to the support provided to the mujahideen groups in Afghanistan when Gen. Zia-ul-Haq was in power. That effort, of course, had the blessings of Washington.

In Turkey, too, the West looked the other way when fighters and arms were routed through Turkey to Syria. The West continued to pretend that it was the FSA that was fighting the government in Damascus. The I.S. and the Nusra Front have been engaged in a major recruiting drive in the major cities in Turkey. It is estimated that around 10 per cent of the I.S. fighters are Turks. Shia places of worship, as is happening in Pakistan, have been targeted for arson attacks inside Turkey. The Alevis, who constitute around 20 per cent of Turkey’s population, are considered apostates by hard-line Sunni groups such as the I.S.

The I.S. has been blamed for the twin bombings in Rehanli, a Turkish town near the Syrian border, in May last year. That incident claimed the lives of more than 50 people. The fire from Syria and Iraq could fatally singe Turkey’s secular political edifice.

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