The truth about Turkey and ISIL (I)

The truth about Turkey and ISIL (I)

When the Syrian Civil War began in March 2011, Turkey was still in its blissful mood of having “zero problems with neighbors.” The government even also believed it could help solve problems in its neighbors through its active diplomacy and soft power. That is why during the first six months of the war in Syria, Ankara tried to put the flames out by repeatedly talking to Bashar al-Assad and trying to convince him for a “peaceful transition to democracy.”

But al-Assad, and his regime, proved to be a ruthless leopard that would not change its spots. Then, after August 2011, came the second phase of Ankara’s involvement in the Syrian civil war: Giving full support to the Syrian opposition.

This was not a wrong policy, for at the time the Syrian opposition was led by the Free Syrian Army, and the Syrian National Coalition, which were supported in the West, as well as “moderate” forces that aspired to a democratic Syria. However, as time went by and the war unfolded with more and more bloodshed, two problems emerged. The foreign “jihadists” who came to fight the al-Assad regime (not for democracy, but for sectarian victory) began to dominate the scene. Meanwhile, Turkey, which kept insisting that “al-Assad is the problem,” did not realize this new threat. Rather, Ankara’s own initially pragmatic and moderate stance began to be compromised by the sectarian dynamics of the Syrian Civil War.

Meanwhile (throughout 2012 and early 2013) Turkey’s Western allies kept warning Ankara about the trouble with jihadists in Syria. But for a long time, these warnings fell to deaf ears. Admittedly, it was not possible to figure out exactly which “foreign fighter” who crossed the Turkish border would join exactly which brigade in Syria. (There were so many of them, and some were more moderate.) But both the U.S. and the Syrian Kurds probably had a point when they accused Ankara, especially for supporting the al-Nusra Front. You could even find pro-al-Nusra sympathies in Turkey’s pro-government media.

Our current nightmare, the so-called “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” (ISIL), came onto the scene after all this, with a zeal, fanaticism and brutality that surpassed every other jihadist group on the scene. (No wonder other jihadist groups formed an “Islamic coalition” to fight against ISIL, which had already condemned them as “infidels” in late 2013.) To give a historical analogy, it is like the most brutal of all Bolsheviks, Stalin, dominating the scene in the late phase of the revolution and denouncing his relatively moderate comrades as traitors.

But did Turkey support ISIL as well? Some, including voices within the Turkish opposition, are more than willing to say “yes” to this question. But my answer is no. Rather, Turkey did realize ISIL was as a threat about a year ago. The wiretapped and leaked “secret meeting on Syria” at the Turkish Foreign Ministry last March was about nothing other than Turkey’s military options against ISIL, which was then threatening the tomb of the grandfather of the Ottoman Empire’s founder - a tiny Turkish territory located within Syrian borders.

In other words, it is unfair to blame the Turkish government for supporting ISIL. But it is fair to criticize it for not foreseeing this danger, and unintentionally paving its way by giving a blank check to jihadists, thinking that they were fighting the good cause. To give a historical analogy, it reminds me of the CIA of the 1980s, which supported the Afghan mujaheddeen for fighting the cause - against the Soviets - but did not foresee that some of those same mujaheddeen would evolve later into al-Qaeda.