Turkey’s Commitment to Defeating Islamists in Doubt

It’s hard to say if Turkey supported the self-declared Islamic State, but it isn’t doing much to stop it.

Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu visits the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in Ankara, August 3
Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu visits the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in Ankara, August 3 (AKP)

Turkey’s joining of the American-led air campaign against the self-declared Islamic State in Iraq and Syria last month was hailed as something of a “game changer” in Washington DC where leaders had long urged their NATO ally to help defeat the fanatical Islamist organization.

Almost two weeks later, there are serious doubts about Turkey’s commitment to the effort.

As the Atlantic Sentinel has reported, Turkey seems more interested in suppressing Kurdish nationalism — both in northern Syria and within its own borders — than routing the Islamic State.

The start of Turkey’s bombing campaign against both Islamic State and Kurdish fighters in Syria coincided with a wave of arrests of Kurdish and left-wing activists at home, following the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party’s surprising breakthrough in the June election when it won seats in parliament for the first time and denied the ruling Islamist party an absolute majority.

Last week, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said allies could only use its strategic Incirlik Air Base for operations against Islamic State targets. Missions that could possibly benefit Kurdish fighters in Syria — who have been among the most successful in keeping the caliphate at bay — still need to be flown out of Jordan or from aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf.

Al-Monitor reports that Turkey carried out a single strike against the Islamic state in Syria while it launched a large assault on the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.

The air force dispatched 75 F-16s and F-4E 2020s in three waves during July 24-26. Some 300 smart bombs were dropped in 185 sorties against approximately 400 PKK targets.

While Turkish concerns about links between the PKK and Kurdish militants in Syria are clear — it fears an independent Kurdistan in northern Syria would exert pressure on its own Kurdish minority to secede — its reluctance to engage the Islamic State has puzzled some of its Western allies.

Turkey previously shied away from fighting the Islamists on its border, probably because it fretted that a military intervention against the caliphate would benefit the Kurds as well as the regime of President Bashar al-Assad whose downfall it has sought to bring about.

To that end, it allowed weapons and foreign fighters to cross its border into Syria from 2012 to 2014.

There is also no doubt that Turkey helped less fanatical Islamists in Syria, seeking to take advantage of what was then seen as another “Arab Spring” uprising in the Middle East to reassert its influence.

But Turkey denies it ever abetted the Islamic State directly, a group that now controls swaths of the desert between Aleppo in the northwest of Syria, Mosul in the north of Iraq and Ramadi to the south, near Baghdad.

Britain’s The Guardian doubts this assertion, reporting that Turks bought oil from Islamic State-controlled territory in Syria; sales that “helped to transform an ambitious force with limited means into a juggernaut.”

The newspaper also cites a Western official saying dealings between Turkish officials and Islamic State leaders are “undeniable”.

[T]he links are already so clear that they could end up having profound policy implications for the relationship between us and Ankara.

Sadly, The Guardian could not report exactly what those links are.

Other sources are more specific. Newsweek quotes a former Islamic State member as saying the group believed it enjoyed “full cooperation” with the Turks while a spokesman for the Kurdish militants in Syria said Turkey gave the Islamists weapons and ammunitions and allowed them to cross the border to attack the Kurds.

But the magazine cautions it could not verify the former Islamic State member’s testimony while the PKK-affiliated Kurdish fighters in Syria are hardly an objective source of information.

Did the Turks turn a blind eye to fanatics who have morphed into the most nefarious fighting force the Middle East has seen in decades? Certainly. Did they actively and deliberately enable this killing machine? From what is known publicly, it’s hard to say without doubt they did.

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