The Turkey-ISIL relationship

The Turkey-ISIL relationship

There have been extensive allegations lately regarding the relationship between Turkey and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Let’s start with the argument that Turkey has been supporting the terrorist organization. Since the emergence of ISIL, Ankara has argued that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad tolerated ISIL because it has been fighting against the Syrian rebels. So, why would Turkey support an organization that strengthens the position of its enemy, al-Assad?

What's more, Turkey has tried to convince the U.S. to engage in a military operation against ISIL since its emergence in Syria and, because Washington did not resort to military attacks, Ankara held the U.S. responsible for ISIL's rise.

The basis of the mentioned allegation is the fact that Turkey has not taken strict measures regarding the transit of jihadists over its borders. However, Ankara has tightened Turkey’s borders following recent successive meetings with top U.S. officials, indicating that Turkey has faced up to the mistakes it made in the past.

Still, criticizing Turkey for not having taken strict measures against ISIL is not the same thing as claiming that it directly supports the group. It is also worth remembering the insensitivity of European countries on this matter. They have only now started sharing intelligence with Ankara about their nationals who cross through Turkey to join ISIL.

Furthermore, Ankara has always argued that the Syrian rebels should be supported more strongly and systematically, and it has also delivered direct aid to moderate rebels. But even the moderate rebels officially supported by the West share a broad base with the radicals, making it is almost impossible to differentiate between the two camps. There is also frequent cross-over between moderates and radicals, enabling the cross-over of arms as well. That is why it is almost impossible to control the last stop of arms deliveries.

The gap between how Turkey and the U.S. define “moderate” and “radical” has also fueled these allegations. Al-Nusra is the best example of this. Turkey has argued that al-Nusra fights together with moderate rebels against ISIL and that leaving al-Nusra on its own and/or banning it would radicalize the group, pushing it closer to ISIL. In short, Turkey might have recognized the gray elements on the ground, beyond the black and white recognized by the U.S., as Turkey shares a 900-kilometer border with Syria.

That Turkey is trying to stay out of the emerging anti-ISIL coalition and does not verbally attack the group has also led to allegations that it supports the jihadists. However, the 49 Turkish hostages held by ISIL and the risk of an ISIL attack in Turkish territory would be enough to explain its stance.

The percentage of ISIL sympathizers in Turkey is marginal. It is natural to argue for stricter measures to be taken against these groups, but the presence of these groups does not mean that the Turkish government supports them.

Another allegation is that arms that Turkey delivered to the Syrian rebels reached the hands of the radicals, therefore assisting the rise of ISIL. However, it is exactly this fear held by the U.S. that has left the Syrian moderate rebels weak; this, in turn, has also benefited ISIL. President Obama seems to have realized this fact, since he has just pledged stronger support for the moderate rebels.

It has been argued that Turkey cannot become a regional power as it is not joining the coalition. However, both the U.S. and regional countries seem to understand Turkey’s concerns, and what's more U.S. allies both in the West and in the region are also avoiding the operation due to similar concerns. Even Washington's closest ally, the U.K., is staying aloof, despite the fact that ISIL just beheaded a Scottish aid worker.

Beyond all of this, what really matters is together showing sensitivity on issues regarding human life and national security in such a complicated region, regardless of our political affiliations.