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Turkey and the "Islamic State”

Turkey is notably reluctant to join a military campaign against ISIS. In fact, Ankara's ambiguity towards the radical Islamist group has deep political as well as historical roots.

Vicken Cheterian
23 September 2014

A new sight met regular airline passengers between Istanbul and southern Turkey in 2012-13: young, bearded men, often in pairs or groups, who travelled freely and, once out of Hatay or Gaziantep airports, effectively disappeared. They were, evidently, foreign militants coming to join the Syrian war that had started in 2011, and were unhindered by Turkish police as they made their way.  

The media in both Turkey and the United States has begun to reveal that the then government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan (who has since moved from being prime minister to Turkey's president) chose to send humanitarian aid to radical Islamic groups active in Syria, which had an organic relation with the more radical jihadis affiliated with al-Qaida. The Turkish press also reports anecdotal information of regular military aid originating in Turkey being passed to Syrian jihadi groups that are now connected to ISIS, and of humanitarian aid to former allies of al-Qaida and ISIS.

Turkey, by channelling this aid to the salafi-jihadi groups among the Syrian rebels, made a conscious choice to strengthen the most extreme among them, thus contributing to ISIS's full emergence. The release on 20 September of forty-nine Turkish hostages held by ISIS since the group's capture of Mosul in June may reflect this unstated relationship (see Patrick Cockburn, "Turkey accused of colluding with ISIS to oppose Syrian Kurds and Assad...", Independent, 22 September 2014).

There is less attention to how Turkish policies encouraged the rise of the Islamic State (though many analyses focus on the Syrian regime's indirect contribution, by failing to target ISIS until mid-2014). In Turkey's case, the calculations had four aspects. First, by supporting the armed rebellion in Syria (whose most determined and organised element seemed to be the salafi-jihadi currents), Ankara would help overthrow the al-Assad dynasty. Second, Erdogan's administration, itself the fruit of political Islam, looked with a favourable eye towards the jihadi formations. Third, this stance would have a bonus, namely curbing the influence of the militant PKK among Syria’s Kurds. Fourth, Ankara’s alliance with some pro-radical Arab states (mainly Qatar) would be strengthened (see "Murky relations: The Islamic State, Turkey, and Syria's Kurds", Economist, 22 September 2014).

The Afghan precedent

Turkey's political behaviour recalls the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. At that time, the Gulf countries and the US supplied the Afghan mujahedeen with money and weapons which were channelled through Pakistan's Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI, the equivalent of Arab states' mukhabarat). The ISI in turn passed this external aid to seven Afghan Islamist military formations, while excluding Afghan royalist or nationalist groups. This served several interests, not least ensuring that the Afghani mujahedeen remained divided and dependent on Pakistani manipulations.

The competition between the Afghani mujahedeen groups and the various Arab elements in Afghanistan created ideal conditions for the radical ideological mutation which produced al-Qaida. In retrospect, the political choices of Pakistan and the US in Afghanistan in the 1980s are widely seen as a “mistake” with dramatic consequences. In that case, how can Turkish behaviour in 2012-13 - and Washington's silence about it - be explained? Even the Turkish government might be expected to know that the jihadis consider Turkey and its leaders kuffar (heathen) and plan eventually to turn their jihad against them? This is exactly what ISIS spokespersons in Raqqa are saying today.

In June 2014, the jihadi warriors of the “Islamic State” rapidly expanded in Iraq and Syria, occupying major cities like Mosul, something no other jihadi group had managed since the Taliban ruled Kabul. They had already revealed a surprising capacity to launch attacks simultaneously on several fronts: against the Iraqi army, the Kurdish regions of Iraq and Syria, rival Islamist forces in Der Ez-Zor and Aleppo provinces, and Syrian regime forces in Raqqa and Homs. In recent days, ISIS launched a lightning assault to occupy some sixty Kurdish villages, laid siege to a major Kurdish town, Ayn al-Arab (Kobane in Kurdish), with 100,000 inhabitants, and provoked another huge refugee crisis.

Their brutality also shocked. When ISIS fighters seized Der Ez-Zor, they killed 700 members of the al-Sheitaat tribe, with which they had been in struggle for control of two oilfields. The beheading of Syrian army soldiers or rival Islamist fighters, and the use of crucifixition on the public squares of Raqqa, have catalysed fear throughout the region. The ISIS threat has taken genocidal dimensions regarding the Christians of Mosul or the Yezidis of Sinjar: the choice left to these minorities is either to convert or run for their lives, in both cases the destruction of their group identity.

The Ottoman legacy

Where does this violence (“apocalyptic”, says the Pentagon) originate? In fact, the behaviour of ISIS is neither new nor exceptional: the practices of ISIS belong to this land. For the last century, since the first world war broke out in 1914, there have been continuous genocidal projects in the region, and the same mechanisms ISIS employs now were used during 1914-18. The story of the Armenian genocide perpetrated by the Young Turks is largely documented, but less is known about the Ottoman state's destruction of the Assyrians or Yezidi Kurds. In those cases, men were killed, women and children became refugees, or were kidnapped, sold, or forcibly converted to Islam, and property left behind was confiscated. The perpetrators ensured there was popular participation in these crimes, including by inciting the local Muslim population to plunder.

The genocidal policies continued after 1918, and leaders of the region's new states failed to condemn them. At each new crisis, the same old mechanisms were used, for example with the continuous massacres of Assyrians in Iraq in the 1930s. In 1914 the Ottoman empire was over 20% Christian in its composition; before the arrival of ISIS, Christians were  5% of the Middle East's population.

If Christian minorities were almost completely annihilated, the same mechanisms were used against others: in a series of massacres against Kurds in Turkey in the 1920s-30s and in Saddam Hussein's Iraq in the 1980s (including the al-Anfal campaign), which extended to wholesale killings of, for example, Assyrians, Turcomans, and Yezidis.

This continuity between Ottoman policies of the last decades of the empire and those of the successor Middle Eastern states - for instance, the strong similarity between Kemalist Turkey and Ba'athist Iraq or Syria - has been under-studied. Many officers who had served in the Ottoman armies during the first world war were to lead the new states' armies; General Bakr Sidqi, a former Ottoman officer, led the Iraqi army that massacred Assyrians in Simele in 1933. Others, like Husni al-Za'im of Syria, became leading politicians.

Between past and present

Islamic political groups take as their starting-point the abolition of the Ottoman empire in 1922. When the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizb ul-Tahrir, and other salafi-jihadi groups talk about restoring the caliphate, they refer vaguely both to glorious periods of Islamic civilisation and the dark decades of the empire's decline. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s declaration of the caliphate is the latest expression of this longing to reverse the loss of the Ottoman empire.

Neither politicians nor intellectuals in the Middle East were for long interested in the destruction of minorities. In Turkey, a debate has just started about the way the state still celebrates as national heroes those who organised the genocides : Enver, Talat and Jemal Pashas have their statues in public gardens, streets named after them, schools dedicated to them.

In the second world war, Europeans committed genocidal horrors against civilians. Later, however, they reconciled and built a peaceful continent based on rejecting those crimes, their authors and ideologies. The Nuremberg trials discredited the Nazis, and the holocaust was declared a crime punishable by law.

The Middle East, by contrast, allowed the crimes committed to fall into oblivion. Politicians never recognised their predecessors' crimes as crimes; intellectuals did not investigate or research them. For a swathe of public opinion in the region, crimes against humanity are fine as long as the victim is the “other” and not members of “our” group.

The violence exercised by ISIS is shocking, but is not new to the Middle East. ISIS can only be defeated if its actions are identified as crimes, and considered to be unacceptable. Turkey has a moral obligation here: to denounce the massacres, forced conversions, and pillage of Yezidis, Assyrians, Kurds, and all other innocent victims, both past and present.

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