Who is a ‘terrorist’ according to Turkey and the US?
On July 10, the Washington Post reported that Rifai Ahmed Taha, a 61-year-old Egyptian and a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood and Gamaa Islamiya, had been killed by the U.S. military in a drone strike near Idlib in the civil war-struck Syria in early April 2016. Taha’s death reportedly came days after he left Turkey, where he had stayed for three years following the coup that overthrew Mohamed Morsi, the elected president of Egypt.
The Washington Post article claimed that U.S. intelligence officers had been tracing Taha throughout that period and were waiting until he left NATO ally Turkey for an opportunity to strike. He eventually left in order to join a meeting in Syria aimed at bringing together a number of radical groups to fight against the common enemy, the Bashar al-Assad regime. The groups he wanted to help bring together were the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, and smaller jihadi groups, some of which are not officially considered terrorist groups either by the U.S. or by Turkey, but which are considered terrorists by Russia.
Turkish public opinion learned about the story as Hürriyet quoted the Washington Post story on its front page. But no official response has been heard since then. There was also no statement from the Turkish government when Taha was killed by the U.S. drone back in April, when U.S. officials said Taha was among the people close to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Gürsel Tekin, a member of parliament for the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), was quoted by Cumhuriyet TV as saying that it was “a shame that the Turkish people and members of the Turkish Parliament are having to learn about this from the American press.” Another CHP deputy, former journalist Enis Berberoğlu, also asked the government how it was possible that Taha was allowed to stay in Turkey for so long.
There might be more similar examples in the coming days and weeks, as the framework of a government plan to issue Turkish citizenship to Syrians (and apparently some other nationalities) emerges. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım has vowed that all refugees with links to any terror activity or organization will be excluded.
But who is a terrorist according to the Turkish government? For example, would a member of the hardline Jeysh ul-Islam or Ahrar ul-Sham - which are considered as rebel forces and which get backing from Turkey and the U.S.-led coalition - be able to get citizenship?
We can put the question into a different form: Who is a terrorist in the Syrian theater according to the U.S.? U.S. officials clearly do not count members of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the military wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) - the Syria extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been waging an armed campaign against NATO member Turkey for three decades. Despite all objections from Turkey, the YPG is not considered a terrorist organization by Washington; on the contrary, it is a partner fighting as a part of ground forces against ISIL in Syria.
What about a certain Bahoz Erdal (aka. Fehman Huseyin), who on July 8 was allegedly killed by a previously unknown Syrian Islamist group, the Tel Hamis Brigades, which claimed responsibility on July 9? Erdal is a wanted terrorist by the Turkish government for being the head of the military wing of the PKK (HPG) for many years, and for personally taking part in the killing of many soldiers and civilians in Turkey. He has recently been fighting as a YPG commander in the Munbij area of Syria. The Turkish government has not yet confirmed the death of Erdal, most probably because it is waiting for the U.S. to say something about his fate. Will Washington be sorry about losing a fighting comrade, or happy about the death of a wanted terrorist?
Such questions might be easier to answer if the Syria civil war came to an end - still a distant prospect. But as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently said, Turkish-Russian reconciliation would help in solving the Syrian crisis, as it will ease the hands of the Americans in their dealings with the Russians.