The Caliphate Next Door: Turkey Faces Up to its Islamic State Problem
For years, Ankara has been tolerating the rise of the extremist Islamic State. But now that the jihadists are conquering regions just across the border in northern Syria, concern is growing that Islamist terror could threaten Turkey too.
Islim Ali is dragging a torn trash bag behind her, clothes spilling out of the growing holes. Twenty-two years old and in her sixth month of pregnancy, she heaves the sack into her arms and crosses the border, followed by her husband, himself overloaded with possessions, and their two daughters, Esma, 6, and Rodin, 2. A Turkish disaster management agent notes down the Kurdish family's personal details and they then sit down on the ground behind the metal barricade. A gust of wind kicks up a cloud of dust, covering everything with a fine layer. But the Alis don't seem to care. They are in Turkey -- in safety.
The family had spent five days on the Syrian side of the border before crossing into Turkey, having left their hometown of Kobani, called Ain al-Arab in Arabic, once the Islamist fighters from Islamic State went on the attack. The terrorists advanced closer and closer to the city and the Alis could hear the shelling. They quickly packed clothing into sacks and left behind their coffee shop, their apartment and their car -- they could only cross the border on foot.
Islim Ali fans herself with a scrap of paper as her two-year-old, wearing pink plastic sandals, leans up against her. The Alis don't know yet where they will find shelter. Those who don't have family in Turkey are directed by aid workers to the nearby refugee camp.
In normal times, Suruç is a town of 60,000 people, but nobody knows how many are living there now. Refugee families have set up camp wherever they can find a bit of space: in the park in front of the cultural center, hundreds of people are sleeping on blankets. Most of the refugees want to return home as quickly as they can, but it could be a while yet. Some 160,000 Syrians have fled Islamic State fighters across the northern border in recent weeks, with a total of 1.5 million refugees from the war already in Turkey.
The fight for Kobani represents a turning point for Turkey. Islamic State fighters were just 300 meters from the border near Suruç last week. Should the group successfully establish control over the region, the caliphate could become Turkey's new neighbor. It is a horror scenario for Europe, but most of all for Turkey -- and yet the general public there seems largely unaware of it. Newspapers in the country are writing plenty about the humanitarian catastrophe taking place on its southern border and about the US air strikes against Islamic State, but the threat of a possible Islamist attack on Turkey goes largely ignored.
A Key Role to Play
The country has been strangely reserved when it comes to dealing with the Islamic State. It is the neighboring country that is perhaps most threatened by the jihadist fighters, but it has refrained thus far from joining US President Barack Obama's anti-terror coalition, even if Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan strongly hinted over the weekend that it might do so soon. When it comes to combatting the Islamic State and putting an end to the Syrian civil war, Turkey has a key role to play.
The government in Ankara had justified its hesitancy by pointing to the dozens of Turkish diplomats taken hostage by the Islamic State in Mosul. Now that they have been released, however, all eyes are on Turkey to see what responsibilities it might take on. On the way back to Turkey from the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Erdogan told reporters that his country is now prepared to join the coalition. At the World Economic Forum meeting in Istanbul on Sunday he added, in reference to the fight against the Islamic State: "We cannot stay out of this."
From the US perspective, Turkey has often been a difficult partner. Still, after the civil war in Syria began, the two countries expanded cooperation, with American intelligence agencies operating centers in southern Turkey and delivering information about intercepted extremist communications to their Turkish counterparts in near real time.
When US Vice President Joe Biden met with Erdogan in New York last Thursday, he greeted him warmly, saying "congratulations on the election, old friend." The friendliness is carefully calibrated. The US badly needs NATO-member Turkey in its anti-Islamic State coalition and has been doing all it can to get Erdogan to join.
According to a White House press release, Biden and Erdogan spoke about "the urgent need to build a broad-based coalition to defeat (Islamic State) through a variety of means, including military actions, efforts to stop financing (and) countering flows of foreign fighters into the region." The use of the important NATO base in Incirlik in southern Turkey is also an issue under discussion. The fighter jets stationed there have thus far not been allowed to participate in the air strikes against Islamic State.
Single Greatest Threat
Erdogan's comments over the weekend make it look as though the campaign has been successful. Even prior to his pledge to join the coalition soon, a high-ranking diplomat said that discussions were ongoing and focused on equipping and arming fighters to combat Islamic State extremists. Turkish parliament is set to address the issue this week.
Erdogan's shift comes not a moment too soon; the extremists from across the border have become the greatest single threat facing his country. And the president himself is partly to blame. Early on, Ankara hoped it could take advantage of the Islamist extremists, fighting as they were against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and the Kurdish PKK. But then, the Islamic State began its brutal advances across Syria and Iraq.
The example of the Kurdish city of Kobani illustrates the parallel strategies Turkey long pursued. The PYD, the Syrian counterpart to the Kurdish independence group PKK operating in Turkey, took advantage of the chaos in Syria to establish a tiny state there, calling it the Kobani Canton. It had its own prime minister and foreign minister along with ministers for health, defense, justice, women's issues and even for tourism. "We shouldn't be swayed from establishing our own country," Foreign Minister Ibrahim Kurdi told his fellow cabinet members in May. "The retreat of Assad's troops has created a power vacuum. We need to close it before others do."
But the Turks seemed uncomfortable with so much Kurdish independence. Even as Islamic State fighters besieged the city for months, they could still travel freely into Turkey and when the jihadists once again attacked Kobani last week, Turkey was initially reluctant to open its borders to refugees. Turkish Kurds who wanted to help those in Kobani were not allowed through and were dispersed with water cannons.
"For Erdogan, this civil war is a possibility to keep us Kurds down," says Halil Akbas, a local politician from the southern Turkish city of Sanliurfa and a member of the Kurdish Democratic Regions Party, or BDP. "He won't let the opportunity go unused," he says. "We know that he really wants to get rid of us." Akbas helps refugees in Suruç find shelter and distributes food -- fully 8,000 portions on a recent Thursday. He sits in a tea garden, tears running down his face. "Excuse me," he says, wiping them away. "But everything is so awful and our people are really suffering. So many children no longer have a home."
Many Kurds share his belief that Erdogan has made a pact with the Islamic State. "It should also be in Turkey's interest that we are defending the border," says Kurdish journalist Esra Çiftçi. She says that the Turkish president is now acting as though he intends to fight against the terror group. "But in reality, he is supporting them," she says. "None of us has any doubt that Erdogan is playing a double game."
After the Nusra Front and Free Syrian Army units attacked Syrian Kurds in 2012, corroborating witness statements said it took place at the behest of Turkish security officials. Rebels, they say, were promised money and weapons for the attack, though the assurances were allegedly given by the Turkish military, which still sees the Kurds as enemies, rather than by the government in Ankara.
Neither local politician Akbas nor journalist Çiftçi believe in the peace process any more, a sharp reversal from the hope Kurds had long harbored with respect to Erdogan. For years now, his government has been negotiating with the imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan to find a solution to the conflict, which has cost more than 30,000 lives since 1984. Erdogan even initiated several laws legalizing the Kurdish language in exchange for a PKK cease-fire. Many Kurds, however, have remained suspicious, a reflection of the nationalist tones that Erdogan has repeatedly adopted.
Now, many feel their suspicions have been confirmed. "The thing with the peace process was just show," says Çiftçi. PKK leader Murat Karayilan agrees, saying recently that "the peace process is over."
The trigger for Turkey's transformation into an ally of the radicals was the insurgency against Assad in 2011. Then Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who is now the country's prime minister, was one of many who believed at the time that the Assad regime would quickly collapse, a conviction that led Ankara to back the opposition.
"Our goal is the establishment of a Turkey-friendly government in Damascus and an intensification of economic ties," says a parliamentarian from Erdogan's AKP party who asked not to be named. "We made the decision to position ourselves in opposition to Assad and can no longer abandon that position without a loss of face. Doing so would be an admission that our foreign policy has failed."
Assad's fall would immediately increase Turkey's influence as a regional power, one possible explanation for why Ankara didn't look too closely at who exactly it was supporting in Syria. Erdogan and Davutoglu, says Behlül Özkan from the Marmara University in Istanbul, "harbor pan-Islamic imperial fantasies." But by the end of 2013, Turkey's laissez-faire approach had become unviable. Thousands of jihadists from all over the world were flying into Antakya and Gaziantep and crossing unhindered into Syria even as the Syrian rebel groups that Ankara supported complained about the terror being perpetrated by the Islamic State. Even the fact that the Islamic State this year has served to support Assad by fighting other rebel groups has changed nothing.
Rising Social Tensions
Worse yet, Turkey continued standing by as the Islamic State recruited fighters in the country in addition to securing weapons, munitions and supplies. Turkish hospitals along the border repeatedly treated wounded jihadist fighters.
As recently as the beginning of this year, foreign jihadists were repeatedly seen at the "humanitarian crossing" near Kilis -- waiting on the premises of IHH, a Turkish aid organization with close ties to the government. Such border crossings were established to reduce the amount of time it took relief shipments to pass through customs. In June, Western aid workers also spotted jihadists at the "humanitarian crossing" near the Syrian village of Atma. Two Turkish Islamic State fighters even told a soldier that they had just returned from the battle to conquer Mosul and were heading to Istanbul for a bit of relaxation. The fact that they were carrying weapons was apparently not an issue, despite the anomalous nature of their firearms: two Glock pistols of the kind given to the Iraq police by the US, both modified with mounted grenade launchers.
By then, the Turkish government should long since have recognized the true nature of the Islamist group. It may already have been too late, however, with foreign policy tactics beginning to become contaminated with apprehension. Corruption, ineptitude and chaos within Turkey's security apparatus no doubt also played a role, all of which made it more difficult to control the border.
Now, Ankara is facing an extremely difficult situation. Providing care to the masses of refugees costs billions of euros and weighs on the country's already weak economy. Social tensions are on the rise with poor Turks in the region envious of the relatively good care received by the refugees and concerned about increased competition for jobs. Well-off Syrians have also driven up rents in the cities.
The government's biggest fear, though, says political scientist Özkan, is of terror attacks. "Tourism is one of the most important economic sectors," he says. "If a bomb goes off in a hotel and a couple of vacationers die, it's over." The fear is certainly well-founded. Several hundred Islamic State fighters come from Turkey and, in contrast to jihadists from elsewhere, they can move about freely in their home country.
Like Ahmet, a 21-year-old from Istanbul who fights for the Islamic State. "We are everywhere in Turkey, in Istanbul, in Ankara, in Gaziantep," he says. It is impossible to confirm such claims, but Western intelligence agents believe that the Islamic State actively tries to recruit young men in Turkey. One intelligence agent who asked not to be identified says that warnings have been delivered to Turkey for years. "But the government always insists that it has the radicals under control."
Ahmet was recruited two years ago in Istanbul by a precursor group to the Islamic State. Even then, he was full of admiration for the older boys at the Koran school who spoke about their dreams of joining the jihad. He says he has already been in Syria twice and is planning to return soon to fight "to the end." His final battle, he says, is rapidly approaching.
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