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Turkey and the ‘Jihadist Highway’

Ankara’s track record of controlling the flow of fighters and cracking down on ISIS activity in its border towns is not one that inspires confidence

Sami Zahed

Published: Updated:

Can you hear that creaking sound under the Bosphorus Bridge? Perhaps someone should alert President Barack Obama as he strides across it to build his coalition to confront the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The bridge, traditionally seen as the link between West and East, the Christian and Muslim worlds, NATO and the Arab states, may now be one that Washington should be treading on more cautiously.

Those on both sides are waiting impatiently for Obama to comprehensively outline his strategy for dealing with ISIS on Wednesday. He declared on Sunday that Sunni states, including NATO member Turkey, will need to “step up” and play an enhanced role in this conflict. But in order for Ankara to be part of the solution to the tornado that is ISIS, the Obama administration would be wise to make clear that it was Turkey’s pro-Islamist policies in Syria (and Egypt) that paved the way for this catastrophe.

Ankara’s track record of controlling the flow of fighters and cracking down on ISIS activity in its border towns is not one that inspires confidence

Sami Zahed

Ankara’s track record of controlling the flow of fighters and cracking down on ISIS activity in its border towns is not one that inspires confidence. The most common accusation is that Turkey turns a “blind eye” to the group’s activities along the “Jihadist Highway” that feeds the pool of extremism in Syria. Whether this was part of a planned strategy to support ISIS, or an inadvertent consequence of supporting rebels in general, is a matter of speculation. As the Washington Post suggests, an explanation may be that indirect support came as a result of an inability to differentiate between the various opposition groups on the ground, despite official rhetoric only claiming support for moderate factions.

But others, such as Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, believe that ISIS’ ability to run riot along the Turkish border may not have been so uncontrollable for Turkey. Alterman said in June that some regional governments are taking the view that “it’s not that we’re really supporting them, we’re just turning the other way while other people support them… we’re not as aggressive going after financing as we need to be.” He went on to advocate that the U.S. should diplomatically push back against the idea that “a little bit of terrorism helps their strategic interests.”

Extremism-friendly policy

Such an extremism-friendly policy is likely to have factored into Turkey’s calculations, given its dedication to the removal of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. In this scenario ISIS could be seen less as an uncontainable force, but as potential lever to loosen the regime’s grip on Syria that, perhaps, could always be reined in later once Damascus falls.

Despite the growing international criticism, “Turkey will be and today is an asset,” according to James Jeffrey, former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey and Iraq. He did, however, state in an interview that Turkey will need to rise to the occasion and take steps to choke off the radicals, including “closing its borders to ISIS personnel and facilitating air operations from the U.S. and its allies.” Jeffrey even goes so far as to say that Turkey should take its own direct action, but acknowledges that the fate of the hostages from its captured Mosul consulate could severely limit its options towards a vicious foe.

It remains to be seen how Turkey’s policies will alter the Obama administration’s relationship with Ankara, but the president’s choice of language in recent months has been increasingly accusatory and underlies the West’s sense of frustration. In his August 28 speech, Obama said: “The truth is that we’ve had state actors who at times have thought that the way to advance their interests is, ‘Well, financing some of these groups as proxies is not such a bad strategy.’”

Rather tellingly, the use of the term “state actors” is not limited to American officials. United Nations Security Council Resolution 2170 “reiterates further the obligation of Member States to prevent the movement of terrorists or terrorist groups,” referring to foreign fighters crossing borders to join ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and other al-Qaeda-affiliated groups. This language indicates that the international community is in agreement that ISIS has probably benefited from the policies of implied state actors, or at least their wealthy citizens.

The rising pressure on state-facilitators is a welcome development because, in the long term, it is essential to stemming the tide of extremist Islamist groups. In this case such pressure should be brought to bear on the ruling Turkish Justice and Development Party (AKP) to abandon its policy of expanding its influence in the Arab world through supporting Islamist proxies. According to Soner Cagaptay in the Wall Street Journal, this policy has been so disastrous that “Turkey has lost all access to the Middle East.” Perhaps most significantly, Ankara’s strong opposition to the new Egyptian government following last year’s ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood-oriented presidency of Mohammad Mursi has caused even more damage to its regional standing. With very few friends left in the Middle East following these diplomatic disasters, Turkey may now be in retreat.

That is why the moment is now for Obama to lay down the law with his NATO ally and insist that Ankara amend its expansionist foreign policy and steer away from what seems to be attempts to exert its influence by using extreme Islamist proxies. Two years ago, such demands would have been unworkable given Turkey’s diplomatic gains, but since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s rise in Egypt, Turkey has lost favor with Saudi Arabia, UAE, Iraq and is now incurring the dismay of the West. Given their regional isolation, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu may now be more receptive to adapting their Middle East strategy.

On Wednesday, those on both sides of this divide must see whether Obama’s comprehensive strategy will involve crossing the bridge in its current, questionable state, or whether efforts will be made behind the scenes to strengthen the Bosphorus’ moorings before utilizing its familiar path once again.

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Sami Zahed is a foreign policy analyst specializing in the Middle East. He has experience of working in Washington, D.C. with the American Taskforce on Palestine. Sami is a British citizen who studies at Royal Holloway, University of London and is the President of the college’s Middle East Society. He tweets at: @samizahed29

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