Ankara on the fence

Turkey abolished one caliphate in 1924 – now it’s time to help get rid of another.

ONe year ago this week, a spokesman for the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIL) announced a new Islamist caliphate, declaring statehood for territory controlled by the group and demanding support from other Islamist groups.

“Listen to your caliph and obey him,” Abu Mohammed al-Adnani said, in the video released on the first day of Ramadan. “Support your state, which grows every day.”

ISIL has since solidified its so-called state and its system of governance by fear. More than 25,000 men and women have travelled to join the group, in addition to the countless swearing fealty from oceans away. With Tunisia and Kuwait added to the list last week, ISIL and ISIL-backed jihadists have now launched or inspired attacks in two dozen countries. ISIL generates as much as a million dollars’ worth of revenue every day, thanks to sales of oil, artefacts, humans, and other contraband.

By just about any measure, ISIL is the most successful terrorist group in the history of the world. Much ink has been spilled on its foundations and internal workings, but one aspect has been left largely unmentioned: How Turkey’s ambivalence towards the group is key to its success.

21st century caliph

The founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, abolished the world’s most recent caliphate in 1924. But by then, the concept had crumbled to near irrelevance, along with the Ottoman Empire.

The current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has revived many ideals of the Ottoman Empire and appealed to the broader Muslim world, making himself out as a sort of 21st century caliph.

His country, meanwhile, almost seems like an ISIL protectorate. About 1,000 Turks have crossed the border to join ISIL, according to police and intelligence reports, and as many as 3,000 Turks still at home are part of jihadist sleeper cells, awaiting orders. A jihad-themed bookstore in Istanbul peddles ISIL merchandise and a pro-ISIL Turkish-language website continues to operate, even promoting on its homepage a new ISIL publication that calls for the conquering of Istanbul.

ISIL has threatened Turkey repeatedly, and even executed two prominent attacks already this year: A suicide bomb on an Istanbul police hut in January, killing one officer; and two more bombs on a political rally in Diyarbakir, two days before the recent election, killing three people.

Still, Ankara remains tepid about combating the terrorist group. Erdogan responded to Kurdish fighters forcing ISIL out of Tal Abyad as “a threat to our borders”. Reports out this week say Turkey is considering sending some 18,000 troops into Syria – not to attack ISIL, but rather to curb the recent gains by Kurdish forces there.

That Turkish officials might worry about the success of Kurdish fighters across the border inspiring Kurdish separatists in Turkey is understandable: Like everybody else, they would like to avoid another bloody separatist war.

But preferring ISIL to the Kurds – as Ankara also seemed to do during the battle for Kobane last year – seems a bridge too far. The Kurds now control two-thirds of the Syrian side of Turkey’s border with Syria, which surely means fewer fighters and supplies flowing to ISIL. For Ankara, a closer alliance with Kurdish fighters in Syria and Iraq would help combat ISIL and encourage progress on Turkey’s peace process with Kurds at home.

Deep animosity

But that animosity runs deep, while Ankara’s embrace of conservative Islam and Syrian rebels is real. Seeking to oust Bashar al-Assad, Turkey reportedly shipped weapons and supplies to Syrian rebel groups through 2014. Since the ultimate destination of this military aid is mostly unknown, many hold Turkey indirectly responsible for ISIL’s growth.

Ankara has repeatedly denied any support for the group. A few weeks ago Erdoganaccused the editor of Cumhuriyet of espionage and threatened to jail him for life after his newspaper’s website posted a video that purportedly showed the state intelligence agency sending weapons to Islamist-held parts of Syria in early 2014.

Turkey has certainly done a commendable job hosting some two million(mostly Syrian) refugees – more than any country in the world. And it’s more than likely that Ankara does not directly support ISIL in any way, and hasn’t for some time, if it ever did.

But that’s largely beside the point. By not taking a clear stand against ISIL and its apocalypto-extremist ideology, Turkey has fostered an environment in which pro-caliphate marches and pro-jihadist websites are perfectly normal and disenchanted youth feel quite comfortable slipping across the border to join the jihad.

More anniversaries?

There have been signs of a shift. Turkish authorities have deported some 1,300 suspected foreign fighters in the past year. In recent weeks, Ankara has quietly been talking with Kurdish rebel forces in Syria about cooperating on improved border security. And Turkey is reportedly considering bombing ISIL positions in northern Syria, rather than sending in troops.

Yet apart from the deportations, the above is thus far just talk. In reference to ISIL, US President Barack Obama recently said that Turkish authorities “recognise it’s a problem, but haven’t fully ramped up the capacity they need”. The efforts of the anti-ISIL coalition haven’t exactly been stellar, and should certainly be subject to criticism and improvement.

But until Ankara sees ISIL as a clear national security threat and takes a strong policy stance against the group and its ideology, the international community has zero chance of keeping ISIL from celebrating more anniversaries. Turkish officials are right now attempting to cobble together a coalition government. It could offer a chance for a new start on ISIL, even with Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party in a leadership role.

Turkish leaders have in the past century already rid the world of one caliphate. With a great deal more at stake, the time has come to help do it again.

David Lepeska worked for the Kashmir Observer before moving to Istanbul (Turkey). He has written extensively  for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian, The Financial Times and other outlets. 

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