Turkey wakes up to ISIS encirclement

Ankara’s double game is now over. Turkey is launching air strikes against Islamic State (ISIS) from Incirlik Air Base

Dr. Theodore Karasik
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Ankara’s double game is now over. Turkey is launching air strikes against Islamic State (ISIS) from Incirlik Air Base and other locations as well as inserting special operators in northern Syria and conducting mass roundups of ISIS supporters, numbering well over 500 people, in Istanbul and other major cities. Larger Firefights are breaking out on the Turkish-Syrian border.

Now Turkish Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his allies are recognizing that ISIS is a much bigger threat. A key question is why now go after Islamic State of Iraq and Syria? What is ISIS up to near Turkish borders, both south and to the northwest in the Balkans? The answer may surprise you.


Gone are the heady days of the Turkish government looking the other way on ISIS activities across the Turkish-Syrian border

Dr. Theodore Karasik

Last year, the Turkish-ISIS relationship featured a warped cooperation. A year ago, one needs to recall ISIS’ kidnapping of 24 staff members and their families working at the Turkish consulate in Mosul. Their return, in crisp clean clothes, and the circumstances surrounding the negotiations still feed regional lore of double-cross behavior. Moreover, the negotiations regarding the safety and security of the Suleiman Shah Tomb, relocated twice within Syria, is also a signal of possible Turkish-ISIS coordination. Watching what happens next in this saga may signal a future problem given that ISIS enjoys erasing history: Ottoman features are likely next on ISIS’ destruction of history tour.

Gone are the days

To be sure, gone are the heady days of the Turkish government looking the other way on ISIS activities across the Turkish-Syrian border including the import of ISIS recruits as well as illicit activity such as oil trade exports through Turkish territory to sex slaves to Anatolian land holders. First, the July 20 ISIS attack that killed 32 people and injured 104 others in Turkey’s southeastern Suruc province serves as a major wake-up call to Ankara. In the past year, ISIS targeted several border crossing as a show of strength but also to register displeasure with their so-called Turkish allies.

Second, Turkey, owner of NATO’s second largest army, is now going to fight ISIS while also manipulating the “People’s Protection Units” (YPG), who are the main Kurdish force in Syria and are linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The ebb and flow of battles surrounding Kobane by ISIS and the YPG are exacerbating the festering wounds on the Turkish-Syrian border, especially the PKK. The point is that ISIS is now crossing the rubicon for maximum impact. The terrorist army is now a clear and present danger to the Turkish state.

Third, let us not be surprised that Turkey is now in ISIS’ crosshairs. Last year, ISIS members threatened to “liberate” Istanbul, while accusing Turkey of cutting off the flow of the Euphrates River, drying up northern Syria, including Raqqa, “the capital of the Islamic State.” ISIS promised to seize the Atatürk Dam. One should take such threats seriously, since Islamic State strategists target river systems and dams as a means of controlling water ways for political and economic gain for their fledgling state. Perhaps Ankara is cognizant that ISIS can fill important ungovernable gaps in southeastern Turkey.

Unrecognized by analysts, however, is the ISIS campaign to Turkey’s northwest, primarily in the Balkans. From the Turkish point of view, and based on Ottoman history, the Balkans represent the Turkish backyard. Without going into the long history of the tragedies in the Balkans, it is clear that ISIS supporters are gaining a foothold.

ISIS is roosting

ISIS is now roosting in key areas of the Balkans— Kumanovo, Macedonia; Gornya Maocha in Bosnia; the Serbian region Sandjak bordering Eastern Bosnia; and the Serbian Northern Kosovo border area of Presevo, Bujanovac, Medvedja. There are also reports of ISIS cells operating in Belgrade suburbs. In order to drive the point home, ISIS released a video this month named “Put Hilafa,” which in Bosniak means “Way of caliphate,” that calls for the establishment of a caliphate in the Balkans, especially in Serbia.

But the ISIS campaign to surround Turkey is not limited to the Balkans themselves. ISIS is also building a node from Milan, Italy where its illicit networks are egged on by Albanian criminal networks. The Albanians connected with ISIS are former members of Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). The “back office” if you will, for surrounding Turkey stretches all the way to Austrian cities such as Graz and Vienna.

To be sure, we need to be cognizant that some Balkan analysts see Turkey’s hand behind ISIS in the Balkans. If that is true, it is the same purported model Ankara used in Syria. Consequently, this purported Turkish policy approach will backfire in the future just as it did in the Levant this month.

Overall, Turkey is to be surrounded by the terrorist army which is creating nodes and networks within the country and building transit zones that go up into the Balkans. By surrounding Turkey, and its historical Ottoman core, ISIS plans are becoming clearer. This fact explains why Turkey is acting now to its south. The real question is whether Ankara will do anything about ISIS to the northwest. Or if that view is blinded by policy failure too.


Dr. Theodore Karasik is a Gulf-based analyst of regional geo-political affairs. He received his Ph.D in History from UCLA in Los Angeles, California in four fields: Middle East, Russia, Caucasus, and a specialized sub-field in Cultural Anthropology focusing on tribes and clans.

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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