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Turkey’s ISIS problem

For years, Turkey has tried its hardest to ignore the situation south of its border in Syria and Iraq

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Published: Updated:

For years, Turkey has tried its hardest to ignore the situation south of its border in Syria and Iraq. In this time it has kept its borders with ISIS more or less open, not just to people - many of them recruits coming from the West - but also to goods and resources, enabling ISIS to smuggle and sell the oil they can still produce from the fields they captured in the Levant. These two factors have contributed greatly to ISIS’ past success.

But of course, with friends like ISIS, who needs enemies. ISIS is after all a militarily expansionist millenarian death cult whose endgame is the subjugation of all other nations on earth and the establishment of a global Caliphate. So it was only going to be a matter of time until the conflict between ISIS and the Kurds would spill over into Turkey itself and something like the Suruc terror attack would happen.

Relenting to American pressure

Since that attack in July, the Turkish government has finally relented to American pressure, and is now allowing the U.S. to use its bases to strike against the militants. Indeed, Turkey has itself tried to mount a show of strength against “terrorism,” though so far its numerous air strikes and attacks have focused almost exclusively on separatist Kurdish interests (who so far had been the U.S.’s most reliable allies in the region). Cue the declaration of war by ISIS against Turkey. A newly released video is calling upon Turks to rise up against the ‘Satan’ President Erdogan and to overthrow the secular state, with all the drama typical of ISIS propaganda efforts.

Somehow or other, the ISIS ideology seems to have very little traction in Turkey

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Should Turkey be afraid? So far, there is very little to suggest that it should. This call is not likely to have much traction with Turks at all. Given the fluid situation on the border for so many years, you’d expect that many Turks would have joined ISIS if they had been inclined to do so, and also you’d expect ISIS to have strong connections and operatives networks in Turkey. Neither seems to be the case.

I was in Turkey just a few weeks ago and spoke with some officials from the Foreign Ministry. According to them, only 1,300 or so Turks have joined ISIS since its inception - that’s fewer than the UK’s ISIS recruits for example. And furthermore, the majority of those were not new jihadist recruits. Rather, they were veterans of previous jihadist conflicts in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Bosnia. There have been a handful of individuals that have been demonstrably radicalized by ISIS, by their ideology and their military successes, but that number has been vanishingly small compared to any other Sunni countries in the region and indeed countries with Sunni minorities in Europe.

ISIS ideology

Somehow or other, the ISIS ideology seems to have very little traction in Turkey. This has two consequences that we should consider. The first one is that this so-called declaration of war will probably benefit Turkey in the long-run, if it responds appropriately. Secure the borders properly and block ISIS’s recruitment and trade operations through Turkey, and you severely weaken them. That contains ISIS in the north. The Kurds, Iran and Shi’a Iraqi militias are already doing a good job at containing ISIS in the North-East, East and South-East, and Jordan is making progress checking ISIS ambitions in the South. Meanwhile, to the West there is the Assad forces and the Sea. So provided that Turkey finally closes the borders and Jordan can continue to resist both militarily and ideologically the ISIS threat, ISIS will finally be completely encircled and will soon start to suffocate. And Turkey can do so with minimal fear of internal unrest.

The second consequence might be even more momentous. Once Turkey starts to take its responsibilities seriously in fighting against Islamist extremism, it can start teaching some very valuable lessons to its neighbours about how it has been so resilient against the ideological seductions of ISIS. Some of Turkey’s success will be down to things which cannot be replicated in other countries. Others, such as its wonderful blend of apolitical Sunni Islam, the flourishing of multiple inclusivist Sufi traditions of Islam in the country, and its bedrock of political secularism which happily tolerates many Christian and Jewish communities, is something that can and very much should be exported to other countries in the region.

ISIS’ declaration of war is not in any real sense a problem for Turkey. No more that ISIS has been a problem for Turkey already. Rather it is an opportunity for Turkey to acknowledge that this problem exists, and to raise to the occasion and show the regional leadership to which it aspires. This is the moment when Turkey can earn the regional status it wants to claim for itself, and it should not let paranoid delusions about the PKK get in the way.

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Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College and Lecturer in International Security at the University of Chicago. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim

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