In the wake of the House of Commons voting in favour of carrying out airstrikes in against ISIS in Syria, the issue of a strategy to combat the Islamic State has, once again, come to the fore.
In the whole of the 10+ hour debate on Syrian air strikes there was little to no mention of the people supporting ISIS in the region. Some MPs made small remarks about the Saudis and vaguely criticised groups who supported the Islamic State, but next to none cited Turkey’s role in the conflict. In no part of David Cameron and Philip Hammond’s plan are there steps to tackle the support that ISIS and similar groups enjoy from the Saudis and Turks. Because of this, jihadist recruits and funding will therefore not dry up no matter how many US, French or British bombs are dropped.
The reason Turkey can get away with supporting jihadists is because it’s a member of NATO. The USA and the rest of the West are careful of criticising their most powerful Muslim ally which also has one of the alliance’s largest armies. Similarly they wouldn’t want to lose influence in Turkey as its geographical position gives NATO a prime base in the region for negating the threat of Russia and fighting terrorist groups in the Middle East. Turkey has always been extremely important to the organisation and it is now seemingly untouchable. Their continued involvement with jihadist groups will not be publicly condemned by NATO states as they do not want to lose a key ally in a important staging ground for combat in the Middle East.
This has enabled Turkey to act of its own accord in the war between ISIS, the Syrian rebels and the Assad regime. Its main aim is to remove Assad from power and ISIS are not top of Turkey’s hit list. Even groups of Kurdish fighters (often backed by the US) come before Turkey’s fight against jihadists. They also have links to Al-Qaeda groups, with the most notorious perhaps being the al-Nusra front, which in 2012 rose to power in Syria and have been listed as a terrorist group by the US government. Turkey has constantly been linked with its funding but the most troubling aspect of their relationship is the constant sharing of information between the two parties. According to Syrian Rebels, Turkish intelligence alerted al-Nusra to the presence of US-trained Syrian rebels entering Syria which led to them being kidnapped.
Turkey was afraid that while these Syrians would fight Assad, they would also fight their extremist allies like al-Nusra. From this evidence, it is clear that Turkey’s priority is fighting the Assad regime and they don’t want anybody to jeopardise that.
This has led to accusations in and out of Turkey that they have backed these forces solely to fight Assad but under the guise that they are fighting ISIS, with the country also been accused of buying oil from ISIS. Earlier this year, Ali Ediboglu, a Turkish opposition MP, claimed that Isis was smuggling oil worth $800m a year through his country and more recently the Russian Ministry of Defence estimated that selling their oil countries like Turkey generates $2 billion of revenue annually for the Islamic State. Turkey also knowingly allows thousands of jihadists to gain access to Syria to fight Assad and the borders are not as tightly controlled as they would have the West believe.
The recent Russian political attacks come as a result of Turkey shooting down a Russian plane for allegedly violating its airspace. This incident has made the situation in the region even more complex but to assume Turkey carried out this act solely for this violation is naïve – their role in the conflict has largely been formed by its religious beliefs and its desire to oust Assad from power. There are conflicting reports over if the plane was in Turkish airspace with one of the surviving pilots claiming he didn’t fly into Turkey and did not receive any warning.
The Turks have insisted they warned the craft ten times before shooting it down and its main ally, the USA, have backed up this claim. Yet it is suspicious that Turkey would be so quick to act in this way when it is unimaginable that the UK could have reacted similarly when Russia was close to violating its airspace in September. It seems a fitting coincidence that within a week of Putin condemning members of the G20 for funding ISIS and similar militias that Turkey shot down a Russian plane. To the Turks, the Russians have been their enemies for centuries, whether it be fighting over the Ottoman treatment of Slavic Christians or supporting Communism in the countries that border Turkey. Russian involvement in Syria is just another engagement where they will be fighting their old foe and the Turks see it as such – its eagerness to shoot down a Russian jet shows their priorities are not in the right place and they simply see Russia as an accomplice of Assad despite the recent change in attitude towards them by other NATO countries.
The whole conflict has an underlying religious current, with the Shi’ite government of Syria being backed up by Iran while Sunni rebels have the support of Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Turkey’s overwhelming desire to remove Assad from power, no matter the cost, is troubling but can be explained by seeing the conflict through a religious spectrum. Nevertheless, as a NATO country it should be doing a lot more to combat Islamic State. Their backing of Islamist and Jihadist groups, as well as their links to ISIS, is against the conflict the US and her allies are fighting. It is somewhat ironic that the President and Prime Minister of Turkey sent their condolences for the attacks in Paris but actively ally themselves with similar terrorist groups.
In fairness to Turkey, the recent conflicts in the Middle East are a massive threat to their security and they feel they are doing what they can to protect its borders. Yet, when countries like the US give others like Saudi Arabia and Turkey its unwavering support they will not stop funding Sunni Islamic Jihadist groups. If Turkey is continually allowed to have a free hand in conducting its war against Assad, funds for groups like ISIS will not dry up by simply bombing their oil refineries, and they will survive as long as they enjoy support, openly or secretly, from other Sunni Islamic nations.