On Sept. 20, Turkey secured the release of dozens of its citizens who had been held captive by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) since June. In an effort to not jeopardize the lives of the hostages, Turkish leaders have been reluctant to publicly condemn the group. In June, the famously bullish Recep Tayyip Erdogan even said, “no one should expect me to provoke ISIS,” responding to accusations that his government has been passive in dealing with ISIL. Ankara has also refused to allow the United States, its closest military ally since 1947, to launch airstrikes from U.S. bases in Turkey. Now that the hostages are freed, Ankara should openly join the U.S.-led coalition against ISIL.
After two years of tolerating the group as it funneled recruits and supplies into Syria, Turkey has come to the realization that the group represents a serious threat to its national security. How did Turkey get into such a predicament?
When the Syrian crisis began in 2011, Turkey doubled down on its ideological, financial and material support for the armed Syrian opposition with the hope that the U.S. would enter the fight. As the crackdown on Syria’s Sunni protesters mounted, Erdogan (at the time Turkey’s prime minister and now its president) and Ahmet Davutoglu (then its foreign minister and now its prime minister) endorsed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster. After all, U.S. President Barack Obama said that Assad had lost legitimacy and that it was time for the Syrian leader to go. Besides, the idea of an Islamist-aligned government in Syria resonated with Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman ambitions to see Turkey as a key player and tutor in the region.
Turkey then began lobbying Washington for intervention (PDF) while opening its borders to any and all Syrian rebel groups. The trickle of money, supplies and weapons flowing through Turkey eventually became a torrent. However, the Obama administration continued to pursue a policy of nonintervention in perhaps the most damaging way possible, calling for Assad’s ouster and setting red lines without following through. Meanwhile, the jihadist networks in Turkey ballooned.
‘A terrible bind’
Turkey realized that its interests were compromised only after the split between Al-Qaeda and ISIL became clear in February. When ISIL launched a series of attacks and threats against other rebels, it slowly dawned on Turkey that the extremist group could not be controlled or counted on in a campaign to remove Assad from power. ISIL’s threat to Turkey became crystal clear in June when ISIL fighters seized the Turkish consulate in the Iraqi city of Mosul and took 49 Turkish citizens hostage, including diplomats, women, children and special forces personnel.
“Turkey now finds itself in a terrible bind, as shutting off the spigot of money and people flowing from Turkey into Syria is not easily done,” said Michael Koplow, a Middle East analyst and the author of the blog Ottomans and Zionists, via email. “The government is loath to admit that it aided and abetted this situation.” Moreover, Turkish leaders believed their shared Islamic religiosity, even if of a very different brand, insulated Ankara from potential blowback.
They were wrong. ISIL and the al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra have built a sizable constituency of Turkish members. Up to 3,000 Turks have reportedly joined ISIL’s ranks.
The hostage crisis placed both Turkey and ISIL in a precarious position. “[The ISIL] knows that if it kills the hostages, it will attract the full scope of Turkish wrath,” Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told me just days before the hostages were released. “At the same time, ISIS knows if it releases them, this opens the way for a more public Turkish commitment to the United States to join the anti-ISIS coalition.”
Unless Erdogan comes to terms with Turkey’s foreign policy errors and their spillover into Turkish territory, his ‘new Turkey’ will be a far more dangerous place than the old one.
The biggest threat ISIL poses to Turkey had nothing to do with the hostages. The presence of its networks in Turkey, which reaches even into Istanbul’s suburbs, may haunt Ankara for years to come. In some ways, this is also unprecedented; Turkey never had a strong tradition of domestic jihadism. While its Sufi Islamist groups such as the Milli Gorus could be hard-liners, they favor political participation, similar to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Its leaders include former Turkish Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan and Erdogan himself, who broke from the movement and founded the ruling Justice and Development Party. ISIL and other Salafi Islamists reject Sufism. ISIL’s Salafi recruits in Turkey were almost totally foreign to the country’s religious landscape — until now. “Having benefited from Turkey’s lenience in dealing with the growing threat, [the] militants have developed their own networks and cell structures within Turkey, preparing themselves to carry out terrorist activities on Turkish soil in the future,” according to a new report by the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, an Istanbul-based think tank.
In May 2013 a car bomb in the border city of Reyhanlı killed at least 43 people. ISIL claimed responsibility for the attack, but the Turkish government initially blamed it on Assad. They were in denial. In March, ISIL fighters murdered a Turkish soldier, policeman and one civilian. On Sept. 18, a minibus full of ISIL suspects evaded police in Istanbul. The potential for these networks to metastasize and launch an armed campaign represents the real threat to Turkish society. It might be too late when the Turkish government wakes up from its slumber and begins to crack down on jihadist networks. There are also allegations that ISIL is using Turkey as a smuggling route for selling billions of dollars’ worth of oil. Ankara denies these claims, asserting that it has been clamping down on oil smuggling.
What can Turkey do now that the hostages are free?
First, Ankara can start by recognizing its foreign policy shortcomings. Koplow says the current crisis is a cumulative outcome of “Turkey’s lack of contingency planning and a hubristic foreign policy … that assumes it can shape events in the Middle East to its liking irrespective of any mitigating factors.”
Second, Turkey must change course on its ill-conceived Syria policy, which, according to Cagaptay, was always based on faulty assumptions. That entails taking responsibility for its failed policies without indulging in the tradition of blaming foreign powers, mysterious lobbies and American newspapers for the country’s woes. Despite Turkey’s precarious foreign policy position, Erdogan is politically stronger than ever and can candidly admit some of his policies did not unfold as originally hoped. Such an admission would show strength rather than weakness.
Third, Turkey should relentlessly crackdown on ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra cells operating on Turkish soil while taking a softer approach to the Turkish citizens the jihadists have lured into their ranks. These men and women must be induced back into Turkish society. Turkey can draw on French and British lessons from their deradicalization efforts.
Ultimately, unless Erdogan comes to terms with Turkey’s foreign policy errors and their spillover into Turkish territory, his “new Turkey” will be a far more dangerous place than the old one.