Don’t Blame Everything on Erdogan
The Turkish government doesn’t have a soft spot for the Islamic State, and Ankara stands to lose more than anyone if the terrorist group makes a comeback.
Washington’s Turkey experts were left working overtime during the holidays when a routine conversation between Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdogan ended with the announcement that the United States would immediately withdraw its troops from Syria and let Turkey take the helm in the fight against the Islamic State. Trump’s maneuver had raised worries that a premature withdrawal risks reversing the gains that have been made against the Islamic State.
Indeed, on Sunday, Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, suggested that U.S. troops would be staying put until the Islamic State was defeated and Washington’s Kurdish allies were protected, prompting a furious response by Erdogan in a speech to the Turkish parliament and a defiant op-ed under his byline in the New York Times vowing to defeat the United States’ Kurdish allies, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey rightly regards as the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a designated terrorist organization. To make his anger clear, Erdogan refused a meeting with Bolton when the U.S. official passed through the country on Tuesday after a trip to Israel.
Despite Bolton’s recent attempt to roll back Trump’s withdrawal plan, it seems likely that the United States will be pulling out some of its troops soon. Pundits and policymakers in Washington are nervous that Turkey cannot (or will not) fill the gap. At the root of these fears is Washington’s firmly held distrust of Erdogan, who has no one but himself to blame for his infamy. While there are legitimate questions to be asked about whether Turkey would do enough to counter Iranian influence or if it could effectively push back against Russia, the most common worry is that Erdogan has sympathies for the jihadis or that he might turn a blind eye to them while cracking down on America’s Kurdish allies, who have helped U.S. forces beat back the Islamic State.
Even in the pages of Foreign Policy, top-notch scholars such as Steven A. Cook have fallen for some of these fantasies. Other contributors, such as Ahmet S. Yayla, who, as a chief of Turkey’s counterterrorism police, had a hand in turning the country into Erdogan’s panopticon and seemed to have no qualms about his policies then, are today alleging that Erdogan can’t be a reliable ally, after having come under fire themselves. But these concerns betray a lack of understanding about Erdogan’s true intentions.
The notion that Erdogan is ideologically sympathetic to the Islamic States reveals an ignorance of Turkey’s domestic politics. Religious orders, also known as tariqas, play a critical role in Erdogan’s governing coalition. Like their counterparts in other faiths, these groups have hundreds of thousands of members, control billions of dollars, and exert immense influence over political life. They enjoy a global presence, with franchises all around the Muslim world, and live by their specific codes, rituals, and prayers. Most tariqas are named after saints—Qadiriyya after Abdul Qadir Gilani, Naqshbandiyya after Baha-ud-din Naqshbandi Bukhari, Khalwatiyya after Omar al-Khalwati—who are believed to be chosen by God, endowed with divine favor, and capable of miracles. The faithful pray to them for intercession, and their tombs and shrines are considered places of worship.
In contrast, Wahhabi Salafism, which inspires the Islamic State, is a puritanical creed, and it considers such rituals idolatrous. Indeed, Islamic State militants have relentlessly targeted the tariqas in the territory they control, executing dozens of sheiks, many of whom were popular in Turkey, and demolishing sites such as the tomb of Jonah in Mosul and the shrine of Uwais al-Qarni in Raqqa, which many tariqas, including those in Turkey, consider sacred.
Consequently, Turkish tariqas are deeply hostile to the Islamic State. The rhetoric of the popular televangelist Ahmet Mahmut Unlu, a Naqshbandi sheik whose viewership is in the millions, is one example. He is no religious moderate, yet he has been unsparing in his stance against the Islamic State, even going as far as issuing a fatwa declaring that “those who kill [the Islamic State militants] and those who are killed by them are martyrs and will be eternally blessed as such.” Indeed, these clerics drew such ire from the Islamic State that the group, through its magazine, Rumiyah, threatened them with murder.
Erdogan’s personal faith has roots in these tariqas, and his political interests depend on their continued support. Hence, he does not have much sympathy for the Islamic State. The militants understand this well and have called for jihad against Erdogan, whom the group considers a “taghut,” or tyrant.
But even if Erdogan has no sympathies for the Islamic State, this is no solace for those who fear that he will turn his attention to the Islamic State only once he disposes of the YPG, a move that critics argue risks paving the way for the terrorists’ comeback through negligence if not malfeasance.
These claims do not pass muster either. Few countries face as potent a threat from the Islamic State as Turkey does. The country suffered some of the group’s deadliest attacks, targeting opposition rallies, as well as Istanbul’s tourist hot spots, its international airport, and one of its most popular nightclubs. These attacks not only hurt the economy—reducing tourism revenues by more than one-third—but they also broke Turkey’s fragile peace, halting the ongoing talks with the PKK and renewing violence in the country’s Kurdish-populated southeast. It makes little sense to argue that Ankara would turn a blind eye to the Islamic State when it stands to lose more than anyone if the terrorist group recovers its former strength.
The skeptics often mistake the Turkish government’s incompetence for malevolence. Consider the case of the “jihadi highway.” Turkey’s border with Syria was always porous, and with the civil war sending millions of refugees fleeing violence across the frontier, it became impossible to fully police it. Before the Islamic State emerged, it was possible to take a cab—or even walk—across the border and not even get stopped for an identification check, as anyone who worked in the region at the time would attest. Since then, Turkey has built on its Syrian border a wall that would make even Trump blush—7-ton concrete blocks topped with razor wire standing 10 feet tall, 6 feet wide, and spanning 475 miles, roughly the distance from Washington, D.C., to Montreal.
The same holds true for skeptics’ assertions about the Islamic State’s widespread presence inside Turkey. Dogu Eroglu, an investigative journalist who is an expert on arms flows from Turkey to the Islamic State, recently published a book that presents a starkly different picture, showing that the Islamic State’s recruitment networks in Turkey were comparably small and that most recruits were homegrown radicals. It is fair to argue that Turkey’s leaders took too long to understand the threat, that its methods were slipshod, and that it did too little too late, but it is a stretch to blame these blunders on a calculated decision to give the Islamic State free rein.
The fears that Ankara, whether out of an Islamist zeal or a deep-seated culture of corruption, would not be beneath doing business with the Islamic State so long as the price was right, are powerful because they confirm our biases—but they are not necessarily correct. Conflict Armament Research’s three-year field study on the group’s arms supply chains, for example, found that 90 percent of the group’s weapons and ammunition were either procured from black markets in China, Russia, and Eastern Europe or diverted from transfers made by the United States and Saudi Arabia to their allies in the country. Accusations about Ankara’s involvement in the oil trade have not been conclusively documented either.
Given these worries, one could nonetheless wonder that it perhaps would have been better had the YPG remained at the helm of the fight, even if Erdogan has no personal sympathies for the Islamic State or does not stand to benefit from seeing it resurrected.
The partnership between the United States and the YPG was always extremely controversial in Turkey. The YPG, which Cook describes as “America’s reliable ground force against the Islamic State,” was seen as a dream ally: loyal, gallant, and resourceful. For Ankara, however, the YPG was a sworn enemy and the U.S. courtship of the group revived on Ankara’s worst fears: Having spent decades to dislodge the PKK from its haven in northern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, Turkey was afraid a similar base was about to emerge in Syria. With the YPG’s steady advances bringing it on the verge of connecting its three cantons—Afrin, Kobani, and Jazira—into a contiguous enclave alongside the Syrian-Turkish border, Ankara was forced to act.
Many analysts, like Cook, reduce Turkey’s worries about the YPG’s ties to the PKK to a mere difference of opinion. In reality, the links between the YPG and the PKK are much more than conjecture. Many official sources, including the U.S. intelligence community’s latest “Worldwide Threat Assessment,” describe the YPG as the “Syrian militia of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party.” Although the YPG maintains that it is inspired, not ordered, by the PKK, as one of its leaders, Aldar Khalil, wrote in FP, such claims are difficult to take at face value.
The group makes no secret of its reverence of Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK’s founder, who is currently serving a life sentence at an island prison in Turkey. After the liberation of Raqqa, for example, units of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the umbrella group led by the YPG, were pictured unfurling a banner of Ocalan. Many of the YPG’s leaders—such as Azad Simi (“Ciya Kobani”), Ahmet Seker (“Fazil Botan”), and Huseyin Kahraman (“Selim Derik”)—are known veterans of the PKK, who were on Turkey’s most wanted list before the YPG was even born. One militant, Ferhad Abdi Sahin (“Sahin Cilo”), who has a $1.1 million Turkish government bounty on his head and is notorious for his role in a 2008 attack on a Turkish border outpost that killed 17 soldiers, even sparked a diplomatic crisis between Washington and Ankara after getting photographed with Brett McGurk, then-U.S. envoy to the coalition against the Islamic State.
The groups also draw from the same ranks. A Kurdish militant interviewed in the Wall Street Journal said it best: “Sometimes I’m a PKK, sometimes I’m a PJAK [the Iranian affiliate], sometimes I’m a YPG. It doesn’t really matter. They are all members of the PKK.” Only in Washington would one believe that two groups fighting for the same cause, inspired by the same leader, led by the same people, and drawing from the same ranks are actually different.
Expecting Turkey to turn a blind eye to America’s courtship of the YPG disregards the deep roots of Turkey’s fight against the PKK, which has killed more Turkish citizens than the number of Westerners killed by al Qaeda and the Islamic State combined. Ankara could have never cast its lot with the YPG, as its Western allies wished it would, and it was beyond the pale for them to do so themselves. When its protests fell on deaf ears, Ankara resolved to fight on its own.
It first isolated Afrin with Operation Euphrates Shield and then drove its wedge further with Operation Olive Branch, which, as the Trump-Erdogan call took place, had reached the outskirts of Manbij, the YPG’s last remaining stronghold. The capture of Manbij would have accomplished Turkey’s self-declared mission of forcing the militants back behind the Euphrates but also complicated U.S. strategy in the country.
It’s clear that Turkey’s exploits in Syria benefit Erdogan by distracting attention from the country’s economic troubles while rallying his nationalist base, a topic I have discussed previously in FP. It is contradictory, however, to both concede that, as Cook does, “[t]he understandably outraged Turks feared that the United States was midwifing a terrorist state on its border” and blame them for acting exactly as they should have to avert those fears and keep their nemesis from setting up a de facto state on their border.
There is no doubt that Turkey is responsible for many of the troubles it has brought upon itself with its errant reading of the conditions in Syria and its self-glorifying fantasies of an Erdogan-inspired Sunni belt in the Eastern Mediterranean. And there is much to criticize about Ankara’s foreign-policy malpractices, its self-inflicted calamities, and its overall mismanagement, including that of its relations with its Kurds. None of this, however, excuses analytical sloppiness. Not all that Turkey does is wrong, and not all that is wrong is its doing.
Mixing up the facts of Erdogan’s villainy with the fantasies of his critics is not merely an indiscretion. It also gets in the way of the sound and sensible policies the United States and Turkey need to cooperate where their interests converge and manage differences where they diverge. While the U.S.-Turkish alliance is not an easy one, both countries would find life much harder without it.