An ISIS coup against Turkey

Turkey's stance against the Syrian regime was normal, until things got more complicated over time

Abdulrahman al-Rashed
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The official Turkish version is reasonable, unlike what skeptics might believe. The Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) is most probably behind the bombing in the Southeastern Suruc town, which left more than thirty victims dead. The organization’s activity is not a surprise. The U.S. president seized the opportunity to call his Turkish counterpart and convince him to stop the flow of fighters across the borders towards Syria.

This urges the review of events and raises the following question: What is it that went wrong?


In fact, Turkey's stance against the Syrian regime was normal, until things got more complicated over time. For the first 18 months, the situation in Syria was a pure uprising; Syrian youth took up arms in response to the regime’s massacres. Ankara's position was in favor of the opposition’s activities, which was formed from several local groups under the umbrella of the coalition and the Free Syrian Army. By the end of the second year, the regime was teetering; it lost many major cities, and the outskirts of the capital Damascus were experiencing nightly battles between the two sides. After the second year, two events happened simultaneously: The first was that Syria started to represent a serious issue in the Muslim world, similar to the tragedy of Bosnia in the 90s because of the killings and vast destruction perpetrated by the regime. It instigated outrage against worldwide unresponsiveness, failure of mediation without sanctions, and the refusal to arm the opposition. The second event was the military interference of Iran and its allies in Syria to support the collapsing regime in Damascus. Jihadist fighters started to flow from both sides.

When Iranian aircrafts were transporting fighters, along with thousands of Iraqi and Lebanese militias crossing the borders, fighters were also crossing from the Turkish front to fight against the regime. Thus, Syria turned into an attractive magnet and a hub for regional and sectarian war. The West saw it as a war within the Muslim camp and felt it had nothing to do with it.

Turkey turned a blind eye on fighters sneaking through its borders to support the Syrian revolution, and then supported the lesser of two evils: the al-Nusra Front, as its criticizers claim. Al-Nusra is just another organization affiliated to al-Qaeda, but without videos showing the slaughter of hostages. Ankara thought that it can only face Iraqi, Lebanese, Afghan and Iranian jihadist militias with similar groups like ISIS and al-Nusra. This erroneous thinking weakened and led to overlooking the opposition: The FSA and similar forces, which did not resort to religious slogans, because they had a national political issue that represented most Syrians.

Playing with fire

Of course, those who know the profile of al-Qaeda will be able to predict the end of ISIS. Similarly to al-Qaeda, ISIS started kidnapping and killing Westerners. It played with fire and rallied enemies that are much stronger than itself. This is what characterizes terrorist organizations: they have neither national nor moral boundaries. They are mere destructive groups that believe to be able to defeat the whole world, paving their way to paradise. Ankara was also involved in the regional conflicts and the chaos of the Arab Spring. Despite all that, Turkey remains the only country capable of bringing changes in Syria. The coup of ISIS and al-Nusra against Turkey is not surprising, because the organization was trapped in the corner when thousands of fighters were prohibited from crossing the Turkish borders, and its online websites were banned.

We should not forget that ISIS, which achieved great victories, has also fulfilled the Syrian and Iranian regimes’ wills; sabotaging the revolution, tarnishing the image of the Syrian national movement, and damaging the camp that stood against the two regimes, such as Turkey and the Gulf states.

Despite all the chaos and pressures, I believe that Ankara, like the rest of the regional governments, is in the midst of a battle of balances. It cannot leave its southern neighbor Syria under the control of Iran, especially after the signing of the nuclear deal that lifted all sanctions on the Iranian regime, because such a deal will increase Iran’s confidence to pursue further expansion in the region. Turkey can re-establish its ties with Syrian national forces because they are fighting for a real and legitimate issue that the world cannot ignore.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on July 24, 2015.

Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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