Stop Victim-Blaming Erdogan for ISIS
Turkey deserves the world’s sympathy, not scorn, for becoming the Islamic State’s next big target.
“Which one is it this time?” That is the question Turks have been asking after each of the terrorist attacks that are now a frequent reality in our lives. Is the culprit the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Marxist Kurdish militia that both Turkey and the United States consider a terrorist organization? Or is it the Islamic State, the jihadi group whose worldview couldn’t be any more different from the PKK’s?
We were forced to ask this question again during the very first hour of 2017, when a lone gunman walked into Reina, an upscale Istanbul nightclub, and massacred 39 people. After a few minutes of bloodbath, he calmly changed his clothes, walked out, took a taxi, and vanished into the darkness, leaving hardly any trace. Turks were left with their standard rubric for guessing the identity of the perpetrator: Since the attack targeted ordinary people who the Islamic State would consider “infidels,” Turks largely blamed the jihadi group for the attack — when the attacks target Turkish policemen or soldiers, on the other hand, it is assumed to be the work of the PKK.
The logic held true in the case of the Reina attack. Some 36 hours after the carnage, the Islamic State released a statement claiming responsibility for the attack, which it said “took revenge … on Turkey, the servant of the Crusaders.” The statement also underlined that the target was a nightclub where the “Christian polytheist feast” — New Year’s Eve, in Islamic State parlance — was celebrated.
The Islamic State’s decision to claim credit for this latest attack marks a watershed in its relationship with Turkey. The group organized several major terrorist attacks in Turkish territories since the summer of 2015 but had remained silent in their aftermath. But now it has made its position toward Turkey very clear: “The blood of Muslims spilled by the warplanes and canons of the apostate Turkish government,” its statement read, “will burn a fire in its own homeland.”
In fact, the Islamic State had made that message clear a week before the Reina attack as well, by releasing a video showing two Turkish soldiers being burned alive. The soldiers were probably captured during the bloody battles in recent weeks between the Islamic State and the Turkish military around the Syrian town of Bab.
The horrific execution should have sent shockwaves throughout Turkey. But thanks to the government’s impressive censorship skills — which included gag orders on the media and total blockage on social media — Turkey avoided discussion of this shocking news. The Reina attack, however, could not be avoided.
These audacious attacks are taking place because the Turkish government joined the anti-Islamic State coalition in September 2014 and began fighting against the group directly in August 2016, when Ankara launched “Operation Euphrates Shield.” The Turkish military and allied Syrian rebel groups carry out this operation in northern Syria, which is aimed at minimizing Kurdish gains and pushing the Islamic State away from the Turkish border. In fact, the Turkish government is so proud of its advances against the Islamic State that it now blames the United States for giving “insufficient support” to its bold campaign.
But isn’t Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government the chief enabler of the Islamic State? Didn’t Turkey create this monster with its own hands by supporting jihadis against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime? Those are the explanations given by critics of Turkey’s policy in Syria. The reality is more complicated.
At the beginning of the Arab Spring in 2011, the reputation of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was at its global and national zenith, and it sought to match the nascent revolutions to its own saga. The AKP envisioned the region’s secular authoritarian regimes being replaced by democratically elected Islamists — with the AKP, as the flagship movement of democratic Islamists, playing a key role in guiding these transformations. Accordingly, it threw its lot in with the opposition in Syria, in tandem with not just fellow Sunni powers such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia but also Western powers such as the United States and France.
By early 2012, the presence of foreign fighters in Syria raised eyebrows in the West, but Ankara was still solely focused on deposing the Assad regime — as it would be for the next two years. Francis Ricciardone, the former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, described the situation well in 2014: “The Turkish authorities thought they could work with extremist Islamist groups in the Syrian civil war and at the same time push them to become more moderate.”
However, Ankara’s plan would fail. One of those “extremist Islamist groups” would soon evolve into the Islamic State, which would go on to terrorize Syria, poison the Syrian revolution, and ultimately wreak havoc in Turkey itself.
Did Turkey ever support the Islamic State? No. There is certainly evidence that Turkish intelligence shipped arms and ammunition into Syria, but no reason to think this was anything other than the support Ankara is known to have given to less extreme Islamist rebel groups such as Ahrar al-Sham. (Turkish opposition voices, who have their own ax to grind, often blur this nuance by saying Ankara supported “the jihadis,” while jihadis themselves fall into a big spectrum.)
Yet the Islamic State did benefit, at least in its early phase, from Turkey’s complicity in allowing a porous Syrian border. For a long time, Ankara was obsessed only with toppling the Assad regime, and foreign fighters who came to Syria to fight the regime were all seen as good guys. At some point, partly thanks to Western complaints, Turkey ceased offering this blank check to jihadis, but it was too late — the Islamic State had already flourished in Syria and Iraq and even established networks within Turkey.
It was not a grand Islamist conspiracy that led Turkey to avoid confronting extremist groups early on but Islamist naiveté. Just like the European socialists who did not see the horrors of Joseph Stalin coming, Turkish Islamists who dominate the AKP did not see the horrors of the Islamic State coming. Assad was a secular tyrant who oppressed the pious Sunni masses — blaming him for all the evils in Syria was a black-and-white narrative that fit nicely into the AKP’s own historical memory. Moreover, when the Islamic State emerged as a counterweight in northern Syria against Kurds — the secular, left-wing pro-PKK Kurds — it won some quiet sympathy among AKP ranks.
That is why Ankara tried to avoid a clash with the Islamic State as long as it could, putting all its effort into toppling the Assad regime and minimizing Kurdish gains. In June 2014, the jihadi group made the first move against Turkey by capturing the Turkish consulate in Mosul, Iraq, and kidnapping 46 Turks, releasing them three months later after striking a swap deal with Ankara. In February 2015, after the Islamic State threatened to destroy the tomb of the grandfather of the Ottoman Empire’s founder, Ankara quietly sent soldiers into Syria to relocate it.
The Islamic State’s wrath began turning toward Turkey due to its war in northern Syria with Kurdish fighters. Ankara initially took a hands-off approach to this conflict, angering both sides. Erdogan’s inaction in the face of the siege of the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani in the summer of 2015 angered both Syrian and Turkish Kurds, a major factor in the collapse of Erdogan’s “peace process” with the PKK in July 2015.
From the perspective of pro-PKK Kurds, Erdogan had chosen the jihadis over them. But judging from the Islamic State’s Turkish-language communications on the internet, however, the policy did not lesson the jihadis’ hostility toward Ankara. The group’s supporters considered Erdogan “the big devil” and the PKK an “Erdogan-fed atheist gang.”
No wonder the initial Islamic State attacks in Turkey — in Diyarbakir, Suruc, and Ankara — were directed at left-wing, pro-Kurdish targets. But as Turkey responded to these attacks with mass arrests at home and military responses in Syria, the Islamic State increased the ferocity of its response. The subsequent attacks likely committed by the Islamic State have killed more than 100 people in Istanbul alone.
These Islamic State and PKK attacks, along with the bloody coup attempt last summer and the iron-fisted post-coup crackdown, have traumatized Turks. Nobody knows when the next terrorist attack will take place or whether Turkey will ever be able to win its two-front “war on terror” against both the Islamic State and the PKK.
This insecurity also feeds the nation’s extreme polarization: While the opposition blames the Erdogan government for bringing Turkey to this point, supporters of the government, which make up roughly half the electorate, see it as a reason to support Erdogan even more firmly.
Turkey, in other words, is living through one of the worst crises of insecurity and polarization in its history. As it is faced with a very real security threat, the government deserves international empathy and support. But the same government is harming its own legitimacy by cracking down upon dissent and exploiting the security crisis to build an unabashedly authoritarian regime. Instead of coming to grips with the complex troubles it is facing and its own failures, it explains its problems away as the product of a Western conspiracy against Erdogan’s glory. It is repeating the same ideological blindness, in other words, that tainted its adventure in Syria.
Photo credit: OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images
Mustafa Akyol is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, focusing on Islam and modernity, and the author of the forthcoming Reopening Muslim Minds: A Return to Reason, Freedom, and Tolerance. Twitter: @AkyolinEnglish