by Christopher Zhang
“They just let them pass” commented local Kurds on the Syrian border with Turkeys, witnessing the migration of dozens of ISIS militants, clad in black, over the Turkish-Syrian border to join the fight against Kurdish forces, which so far has claimed the lives of 100,000 Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish militants. “But they don’t let the Kurds cross.”
These observations, along with others presented in several local and international newspapers, highlight tensions over growing accusations that Turkish border guards are turning a blind eye to the flow of ISIS militants into Syria and Iraq, and reflect international suspicious about Turkey’s intentions.
Early this year, a parliamentarian from the Republican Party (CHP), a major opposition party to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), accused the AKP of allowing President Erdogan’s son Bilal to traffic Islamic State oil. Claiming he had proof to back up his accusations, he has since been called a traitor by Prime Minister Davutoglu of the AKP.
The accusations, should they be true, raise serious questions. How could a NATO ally be supporting ISIS? The answer: Turkey is using ISIS as a tool, and it is not alone. Throughout the Middle East, support for ISIS among governments such as Saudi Arabia has been an ad hoc policy of pragmatism to achieve their short-term aims. Turkey does not necessarily agree with ISIS, but sees ISIS as a useful but immoral instrument for its own ambitions.
To fully understand Turkey’s alleged support for ISIS, one must understand not only the country’s historic relationships with the rest of the world and various internal ethnic groups, but Erdogans’ individual visions, aims, and his progress at achieving those aims so far. Erdogan is the key personality in all the major crises in the Middle East, from the Israel-Palestine conflict to the civil war in Syria to the refugee crisis . This is because he is the most successful politician to have risen out of Turkey since the age of Ataturk, and has turned, during his 14 year rule, the nation from a backwater into the area’s leading economic power. Turkey’s GDP is greater than that of the Middle East and North Africa from Morocco to Iraq combined.
Turkey has always been the key player in Balkan and Central Asian affairs since the rise of the Byzantine Empire in 330 AD. A variety of civilizations, including Greeks, Turks, Altaics, and Mongols, have ruled the Anatolian plateau during that time and found the geography to be favorable for their ambitions. The “crossroads of Europe and Asia,” Istanbul, Turkey’s most populous city, has for centuries been the center of the world’s spice trade. Today, it is a critical port that commands Russian access to the Mediterranean, the flow of Middle Eastern gas to the EU, and the flow of Syrian refugees to the rest of the world.
This favorable strategic position is one of the main reasons that strategic think tank Stratfor asserts Europe is unwilling to punish Turkey for its transgressions. Turkey, is too vital a junction. Over the course of the past decade, Turkey has also made such a punishment impossible. After AKP negotiators backpedalled on Turkey’s accession bid into the EU, the nation has taken an independent foreign policy course. Today, it is one of the world’s leading banking centers, and the country commands the most prosperous financial sector in the Mediterranean. Furthermore it is self-sufficient in agriculture, technology, and manufacturing. Most importantly, today, Turkey produces over 70% of its own military equipment; it was at 17% when Erdogan took power. This makes it incredibly challenging, if not impossible, for the West to punish Turkey. In supporting radicals, Turkey has nothing to lose.
However, Turkey is still dependent on others for one major resource: oil. Turkey imports about 66% of its energy needs. Despite exploiting massive shale oil reserves and starting the construction of over 23 nuclear power plants, Turkey is nowhere near energy efficient. This has led to controversial foreign policy moves such as Turkey’s close relationship with Iran, and Turkey’s participation in the smuggling of Iranian oil during the US sanctions. Further complicating relations with Western countries is that one of Turkey’s main sources of oil, Russia, is growing more and more distant with NATO.
However, when Turkey shot down the Russian jet on the Syrian border months ago, it signaled a shift from where Turkey imported its energy. Now, Turkey has turned to trafficking oil from ISIS. To keep Turkey’s vibrant economy going, the country needs a reliable source, and neither Russia nor Iran can provide it. The sources they have looked to are two conflicting and paradoxical factions: ISIS, and the Kurds. Ironically, a main reason Turkey supports ISIS is that such a move actually not only allows them to purchase the group’s oil, but makes it easier for them to get oil from the Iraqi Kurds. To import directly from the Kurds is difficult, as a one unified Kurdistan does not exist. In fact, the Kurdish people themselves are sharply divided into four main factions.
One such faction is the Kurdish Regional Government, the entity in Northern Iraq that most in the West refer to as “Kurdistan” is ruled by the shrewd President Barzani, who maintains close ties with Turkey. The Turkish government, apparent experts in smuggling oil, have allowed him to illegally transport Kurdish oil through their borders, avoiding fees that the Kurds are obliged to pay in theory to the Iraqi government. The oil rich lands of Iraqi Kurdistan have been a priority for Turkey to control through a puppet government. Today, the Barzani government of Kurdistan is almost totally dependent on Turkey. Equally importantly, it is widely suspected that Barzani and his family receive sizable bribes from the Turks.
The second Kurdish faction is Barzani’s opposition, which is now scattered and was largely backed by Iran. The conflict between the two highlights extent of Kurdish polarization. In 2007, the two major factions fought a civil war for control over Kurdistan. Turkey, with more military and economic resources than Iran, was able to fund their faction to victory. As a result, the power of President Barzani’s opponents has been greatly reduced, but many speculate that Iran’s factions are planning a comeback, through democratic elections or through force of arms.
The third and most powerful faction of Kurds is also the most hostile to Turkey: the Kurdish Workers’ Party, or the PKK. Listed as a terrorist group in the EU and the US, the PKK has nevertheless built a massive base of support among the Kurdish diaspora, and fights the hardest and most grueling fight that the Kurds face: the one against the Turkish army. While the Kurds have other enemies: Bashar Al-Assad, the FSA, ISIS, and Iran, Turkey is by far the hardest to combat. With the second largest army in NATO, just behind the United States, the well-equipped and elite Turkish forces have launched repeated offensives against the PKK the past several years. To survive in such a climate, the PKK had to be resilient. It is estimated the force has over 7,000 fighters today, and they are among the most veteran, crack troops of the Kurds.
The fourth and final faction is the YPJ-Rojava; it is made up of two Syrian Kurdish forces that have united to carve out a nation state in Syria. Both are hostile to Turkey and the Turkish-backed FSA, and are very close to the PKK. Aiming to establish a Kurdish state in Syria to counteract the Turkish-aligned Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq, they are also a direct threat to Barzani’s authority, leading the KRG to shut the border with the Syrian Kurds. This has left the YPJ and Rojava in a desperate situation, always on the brink of disaster. To make matters worse, Turkey continually bombs them, despite the support they receive from America.
Divided Kurdish politics are key to Turkey’s attitude towards ISIS. However, it is important to emphasize that ISIS is a tool for Turkey, not an ally. After all, ISIS has bombed Turkey on multiple occasions. While Turkey openly has its army, Special Forces, and planes assist President Barzani’s fight against ISIS, it has dispatched planes to bomb YPJ and Rojava forces fighting ISIS. Meanwhile, Turkey has broken its ceasefire since 2013 with the PKK, launching an all-out attack with its army against PKK forces in Southeastern Turkey and Northern Iraq, violating Iraqi sovereignty.
It is clear from these moves what Turkey’s objective is. Erdogan aims to kill two birds with one stone and solve two major Turkish problems: the oil problem and the Kurdish problem. His end goal is for the Syrian Kurds and the PKK to die out, and for Barzani to rule over the KRG in Northern Iraq, concentrating the entire Kurdish movement in the hands of his close ally. This would result in the atrophy and death of the Kurdish cause: the PKK attracts so many followers because its cause is appealing to overseas Kurds. It is a principled, vigorous movement fighting on behalf of the single biggest Kurdish population: the Kurds in Turkey. The YPJ and Rojava have large amounts of international sympathy as well, fighting daily for their survival. If those two factions are defeated, either by the Turkish army, or by ISIS, then that would leave only Barzani and his Iranian-backed opposition, both of whom are seen by many Kurds as collaborators with foreign powers. International sympathy for Kurdish nationalism, including American support, would end.
This would leave the remnants of Iraqi Kurdistan as a natural resources colony of Turkey. Erdogan is well aware that Turkey cannot rule Kurdistan directly; the antipathy of the Kurdish people towards the Turks is too great. However, insofar as Barzani develops the economy of the region and receives Turkish military backing, he will stay in power. It is clear the Barzani understands the role he must play in Erdogan’s game, and has focused almost all Kurdistan’s development budget on the construction of refinery after refinery. By 2017, Iraqi Kurdistan will have five refineries, a gigantic investment. For comparison, its large neighbor Iran has zero. Turkey’s aim, which appears to be coming into fruition, is to turn the Kurds into an oil protectorate, solving its energy problems.
The past several months have seen Erdogan removing the obstacles in his path. Last year, many predicted Erdogan was finished, because he did not gain a majority in the early 2014 legislative election, despite commanding the largest single party. Since his party had only 40% of the seats, his enemies could have unseated his Prime Minister, Davutoglu, from power, if they could form a coalition. Shrewd as always, Erdogan drove a wedge between them, and came up with a strategy that solved his legislative problem. He knew his defeat was due to the rise of the new Kurdish Peace and Democracy (HDP) party. Accordingly, Erdogan invaded Turkish Kurdistan, launching brutal and devastating offensives against PKK strongholds such as Hakkari and Cizre. This not only prevented a coalition between the Kurdish HDP and the Nationalist party, as the latter cheered Erdogan on to the Kurds’ disgust, but it raised Erdogan’s popularity amongst nationalists, causing him to gain some of the Nationalist vote. Furthermore, it prevented Kurds from voting in the next election, since the Southeast had become a dangerous warzone. Calling snap elections, Erdogan decisively won a second election that happened the same year.
Other obstacles existed to Erdogan’s plot as well. For one, international pressure had built on him after ISIS attacked Paris. International outcry against ISIS had provoked support for the Kurds, and the international refugee crisis has caused the European union to call for more transparency in Turkish policy. With American weapons, Syrian Kurds were making a comeback, throwing back ISIS. Worse yet for Erdogan, they had made an alliance with Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad, and helped him cut off the Free Syrian Army’s supply line from Turkey to Aleppo.
Erdogan’s true allies in Syria were his pet faction: the Free Syrian Army, which was described by international press as his “brainchild.” For months, they had gone through a stretch of bad luck. Assad’s offensives, backed by Russian air cover, had dealt serious casualties. With Turkish aid, they reformed their disorganized force, which just a year earlier the Russian Foreign Minister said was a “ghost organization” into a trained, professional army. Had it not been for Erdogan’s counter-move, the effort to reform would have come too late. Assad recently surrounded the city of Aleppo, cutting off FSA supply lines. The FSA was in a massive predicament.
The FSA was already troubled. One of its most powerful secularist arms, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, was under attack from non-Turkish aligned forces from as early as 2013. The Army of Conquest, an Islamist front led by the Al-Qaeda branch in Syria called Jabhat Al Nusra, had launched an offensive to drive the SRF out of Idlib, in Northern Syria. Virtually the entirety of the SRF was destroyed.
To solve both of these problems for the FSA, Erdogan again used ISIS on two separate occasions. Regarding Jabhat Al-Nusra, the solution was simple. In 2014 ISIS, after Al-Nusra had attacked Idlib, charged into Jabhat Al-Nusra’s territory and virtually exterminated the force. Around 80% of Jabhat Al-Nusra defected to ISIS, removing a main rival of the Free Syrian Army. Since 2014, Al-Nusra has been a compliant sidekick to the FSA, a minor force that has backed the main, Turkish-supplied secular army.
On the second occasion, regarding the ongoing siege of Aleppo, Erdogan’s moves also involved clandestine methods. Securing Russian approval to create a “security corridor” in Northern Syria, Turkey moved hundreds of troops into ISIS-controlled territory in Syria, claiming to be ‘militants.’ Turkey was able to get Russia to agree by convincing Saudi Arabia to release a joint statement saying that if Russia did not make concessions, the two nations would invade Syria, likely removing Assad. For a while, it seemed as if Erdogan’s security corridor occupation was a genuine invasion of ISIS. However, the situation on the ground proved otherwise. ISIS had given up the cities Turkey seized without a fight. Those cities also happened to be places where the Kurds were advancing through to attack the FSA. Soon, Turkish forces started shelling not only the Kurds, but the Syrian government troops outside Aleppo. In a rare and ironic moment, Putin had been duped. The Turkish deployment was meant to be an attack on ISIS. In reality, it turned out to be a way of stopping the Kurds from cutting off FSA supply lines, and a way to attack Assad’s forces in Aleppo.
In this way, ISIS has become a tool of Turkish foreign policy. Erdogan does not support ISIS because he agrees with them, but because they serve his short-term interests. Curiously, Turkey smuggles only about half of ISIS’s oil. The other half is trafficked by Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad. The West should be watchful of Turkey and put serious pressure on the country to reverse its course of action. Erdogan has proved a shrewd but cynical politician whose vision of an FSA-ruled Syria and a subordinate, Barzani-controlled Kurdish movement comes ever closer to fruition. His central tool in the pursuit of both of these tools is the Islamic State.