Turkey’s (Not So New) Plan to Take on the Islamic State

Over the past couple of weeks, Turkey has announced some seemingly major changes to its approach to the war against the Islamic State. These recent news items include:

  • An agreement with the United States to train and equip Syrian rebels
  • Yalcin Akdogan and Sirri Sureyya Onder read a letter drafted in consultation with Abdullah Ocalan. The letter included an outline for future disarmament talks with the PKK. The letter was presumably altered (as was the venue chosen for its reading), after the PKK’s military leadership in Kandil vetoed the original text.
  • Bulent Arinc told the AKP allied A Haber that Turkey was preparing for a major anti-IS offensive in March
  • Turkey evacuated its personnel from the Suleyman Shah tomb; relocating the Tomb 180 meters inside Syrian territory, opposite the small border town of Esmeler (coordinates:  36°52’45.64″N  38° 6’21.08″E)
  • President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, where he met with the King alone for just 35 minutes, per Asli Aydintasbas in Milliyet today.
  • Ahmet Davutoglu travelled to the United States, where he will talk to a US think tank and UN officials – presumably about Syria.
  • Atheel al Nujaifi, the Turkish allied governor of Iraq’s Nineveh announced that Ankara would have a role in the planned offensive to retake the city from the Islamic State. Yeni Safak followed up with a report that Turkey is considering committing ground forces to support the offensive, before a more sober report indicated that this option was “unlikely.”
  • Ismet Yilmaz, Turkey’s defense minister, is visiting Baghdad, purportedly to gain support for this proposal. Perhaps to grease the wheels, two Turkish transport planes arrived in Baghdad with ammunition and light weapons for the Iraqi Security Forces  sleeping bags, tents, and medicine.
  • Harakat Hazm fell to Jabhat al Nusra in Idlib
  • Reuters reported that Qatar – presumably with Turkish support – is in deep discussion with Jabhat al Nusra to disassociate itself from Al Qaeda.
  • A shia militia led offensive kicked off to retake the town of Tikrit.

Turkey has been busy. But what should one make of all of this? The issues are all linked and therefore should be considered as one broad strand of Turkish policy. Ankara’s handling of the Syrian civil war has been comically bad. To borrow a line from Robert Ford:

International partners, Ford said, have to ditch the current “nonsensical” framework in which regional powerhouses each fund client groups in an uncoordinated tangle that he said would be comical if the results weren’t so tragic.

Turkey has broadly followed an independent policy in Syria. On the one hand, Ankara has worked with Al Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al Nusra. Yet, one the other, it has also worked with the US; supplying weapons (American made TOW missiles, presumably supplied by Saudi Arabia) through a joint operations center to US and Saudi preferred Harakat Hazm and the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF).

The US has, at times, sought to take advantage of Ankara’s relationship with certain Salafi groups. Ankara has – at times –  played ball; going as far as to put pressure on Ahrar al Sham and Nusra to distance itself from certain rebel umbrella groups. To quote Charles Lister:

In May 2014, for example, the Islamic Front released a ‘Revolutionary Covenant’, which served as a ‘common framework’ of principles to which its component groups subscribed. The document did not include a reference to an Islamic State as being the ideal form of governance in a post-Assad Syria. Instead, according to Charles Lister of the Brookings Institution, ‘If rumors are to be believed, the Islamic Front, and particularly Ahrar al-Sham, had recently been forced into a corner by its backer/s … [to] “publicly distance yourself from Al-Qaeda (Jabhat al-Nusra) or lose your plentiful support”’.Moreover, after coming under pressure from Qatar – and presumably Turkey – eighteen rebel factions, including Ahrar Al-Sham joined the Revolutionary Command Council in August As such, the group appeared to be publicly distancing itself from Al-Nusra.

Hazm and Nusra began to clash over the summer. This placed Turkey in the rather odd situation of having given support to two groups battling one another in areas along its border. Now that Nusra has overrun Hazm and taken control of the supplied TOWs, the situation has grown more complicated. As such, it stands to reason that one key area of discussion between Saudi Arabia and Turkey during Erdogan’s recent visit hinged on how to “pick up the pieces” from this failed arming attempt.

Enter the recent news about Qatar. According to Reuters:

Leaders of Syria’s Nusra Front are considering cutting their links with al Qaeda to form a new entity backed by some Gulf states trying to topple President Bashar al-Assad, sources said. Sources within and close to Nusra said that Qatar, which enjoys good relations with the group, is encouraging the group to go ahead with the move, which would give Nusra a boost in funding … intelligence officials from Gulf states including Qatar have met the leader of Nusra, Abu Mohamad al-Golani, several times in the past few months to encourage him to abandon al Qaeda and to discuss what support they could provide, the sources said…One of the goals of the new entity would be to fight Islamic State, Nusra’s main competitor in Syria. IS is led by Iraqi jihadi Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who helped create Nusra before falling out with Golani.

Golani, I presume is in Northern Syria, which means that Turkey must have been consulted about these Qatari-Nusra negotiations. This would suggest the following: There remains some considerable interest in Turkey and Qatar in working with Nusra, owing to the conception that both countries can “moderate” the Al Qaeda affiliate and make it “more Syrian nationalist” than “transnational Jihadi” in outlook. The Turkish-Qatar approach is not all the surprising – and in fact is a continuation of policy – but the wildcard is now Saudi Arabia’s policy. The Kingdom has its own complicated Syria/ Al Qaeda policy. It will be important to watch for any major changes in the next weeks and months with regards to Saudi Arabia’s approach to a group it is deeply uncomfortable with.

The Qatari emphasis on leveraging Nusra to fight IS fits with Ankara’s recent approach to the group. After evacuating the Suleyman Shah Tomb, Turkey has indicated that it is prepared to do more to fight the Islamic State. Ankara has been quietly telling the US government that it is prepared to send troops into Syria, in an operation that I would presume would look a lot like their major offensives in Iraqi Kurdistan during the 1990s. The operation, they say, would penetrate as far as Aleppo. Turkey has conditioned this on the US imposing an “air-exclusion-zone” over the northern part of the country. (For what it is worth, I fail to see how this is a serious policy option before the June 2015 election.)

Flash back to Qatar: One of the state reasons for the Nusra outreach is, according to Reuters:

The Nusra Front is listed as a terrorist group by the United States and has been sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council. But for Qatar at least, rebranding Nusra would remove legal obstacles to supporting it.

The second leg of Turkey’s planned anti-IS offensive hinges on its training of Sunni forces in Nineveh. In the New York Times’ story on the Shia led offensive in Tikrit today, US commanders expressed their frustration at the inability to mobilize Sunni forces to support the anti-IS ground war.

The Americans’ discomfort has grown as Mr. Abadi’s government has been unable to mobilize significant Sunni forces to join the fight, something that American officials consider crucial to breaking the Islamic State’s hold on many heavily Sunni areas.

Turkey has a very close relationship with Atheel Nujaifi and his brother, Osama. Both men are the vanguards of the creation of an autonomous Sunni region in Iraq, similar to that of Iraqi Kurdistan. From Kirk Sowell:

The Nujayfis pushed autonomy during last year’s Sunni Arab protest movement, then again as part of their electoral campaign for the parliamentary elections held on April 30, and are continuing to press it as an immediate solution to the current security crisis — not something to be achieved down the road. During the campaign, their rhetoric and that of their political bloc, called Mutahidun (“Uniters”), has converged with the nationalist wing of the insurgency, describing government policies as “genocide” against Sunni Arabs and all military operations as a war against Sunnis. The Mutahidun-aligned Baghdad television channel has been running pro-insurgency coverage, routinely referring to insurgent fighters as “revolutionaries.” While the Nujayfis have repeatedly declared IS an enemy, they have been explicit that in order to take back Mosul they would have to work with the JRTN and other non-jihadist insurgents, whom they tend to describe as just local people with legitimate grievances.

The JRTN refers to the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order – some of which are fighting with IS. This nuanced approach to the Islamic State is similar to that of the approach taken by Turkey up until very recently. More from Sowell:

Almost as soon as he was forced out of Mosul on June 10, Uthil began talking publicly about armed “popular committees” that would take the city back from IS, then made his first direct appeal for the formation of an armed force under Nujayfi leadership on July 25. On Aug. 2, Osama announced that the Nujayfi family, in the name of the people of Mosul, was backing a group called the “Mosul Battalions,” which he described as local force formed to fight IS. In an Aug. 5 interview with Nineveh Tomorrow, Uthil detailed how the forces would work — there would be a provincial military force like the Peshmerga, more heavily armed than the police but less than the army, under the command of the governor. Another separate wing would be the Mosul Battalions, formed from locals to fight IS.The Nujayfis’ agenda faces two major problems. First, no conceivable government in Baghdad will support this. While some degree of decentralization finds support along the Shiite political spectrum, such a large degree of autonomy will be impossible for any potential Iraqi leader to stomach. Shiite opposition to funding the Kurdish region with its own independence security services has grown strong, and it is even more so for a Sunni region. This opposition, which had already calcified when Sunnis in Salah al-Din and Diyala tried to form autonomous governments in late 2011, is much hardened by the Nujayfis’ close political ties to the nationalist wing of the insurgency.

Arinc’s policy statement, therefore, appears linked to this still-born Nujaifi led initiative to train these “popular committees” to give a “Sunni face” to the coming Mosul operation. Ibrahim Kalin, for example, has supported the repealing of the de-baathifcation law, writing:

The de-Baathification policy was another colossal mistake whereby not only the Sunni members of the Saddam era Iraq were isolated and penalized but also and more importantly the basic structures of the Iraqi state were destroyed.

Ismet Yilmaz appears to have been dispatched to negotiate Turkey’s role for training these tribes. This will be exceedingly difficult, owing to Dawa’s outright rejection of the Nujaifi plan. And here is where Turkey will run into more problems: Mutahidun only controls 27 seats in the parliament, compared to 181 seats for Shia parties. (To be fair, a second Turkish ally, Ayad Allawi controls another 21 seats. Bottom line: Sunnis are weak, compared to Shia Islamist dominance.)

However, there does appear to be some American pressure behind the scenes to put a “Sunni face” on the Mosul op. This leads me to believe that there will indeed be some sort of token agreement, but make no mistake about it: Ankara’s training and arming of what will be Sunni majority tribes will not make the situation better – if it happens at all. In fact, I fail to understand why Turkey would do this: It will only deepen the already palpable notion that Turkey is a sectarian actor, pursuing a MB oriented foreign policy.

All of this is to say that Turkey’s very active last couple of days should not be viewed in isolation, but rather an extension of its efforts in Syria and Iraq over the past couple of years. The situation is incredibly complicated. Turkey has stumbled at numerous instances and has found itself in a rather uncomfortable position on numerous occasions, as evidenced by the Nusra-SRF/Hazm episode. Turkey still, however, remains beholden to the United States to implement its preferred strategy: the no-fly-zone option in Syria. As for Iraq, Ankara shows no signs of decreasing its alliance with the Nujaifis, despite recent efforts to tighten ties with Prime Minister Abadi.

All of this points to tough times ahead for Turkish foreign policy. Moreover, it paints a rather unflattering picture of the planned operation in Iraq. Turkey remains largely relegated to the Sunni movement. This movement remains weak and divided, compared to Iran’ influence, which is palpable and definitelvly anti-Islamic State. Bottom line: Turkey does view itself as being in competition with Iran in Iraq and the region. And it is losing. Thus, to link this back to the Saudi meeting, I do think there is an Iran component to what is going on, although I have to say, I think it is secondary to all that is going on.

Someone should ask Ahmet Davutoglu this week what he thinks about all this.

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About aaronstein1

I am an Istanbul based PhD Candidate a King's College London.
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