Ties with ISIS? Apocalyptic but Plausible for Erdogan’s Turkey
It is commonly believed by most intelligence analysts in the West and the Middle East that Recep Tayyip Erdogan aspires at the end of the day to establish an Islamic Sunni republic in Turkey, not unlike the Iranian Shiite quasi-democracy, with himself crowned as supreme leader whose decisions are irrefutable and authority paramount.
Erdogan would dearly love the virtually infallible, lifelong leadership role enjoyed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
However, some circles suspect that even this grim prediction does not go far enough.
Certain European and Middle Eastern intelligence analysts, including Israelis, consulted by DEBKA Weekly, for their close familiarity with the Turkish ruler’s patterns of behavior, estimate that a far more dangerous transformation may be in the making in Ankara, comparable in its tectonic impact to the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, the Arab Spring of 2010-2011, and the rise of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the vicious “caliph” of the bloodthirsty Islamic State, which devoured large tracts of Syria and Iraq in June 2014.
In any case, Turkey is short of two essential ingredients for building a Khomeinist-style Sunni Islamic republic:
1. A sophisticated religious clerical class and infrastructure like Iran’s, which Saudi Arabia alone of any Sunni Muslim nation comes close to: The entrenched Wahhabi clergy anchors the throne in Riyadh and legitimizes the Saudi king as Custodian of the Holy Places of Islam.
Turkey has no renowned center of religious learning analogous to the sacred city of Qom, from which the grand ayatollahs pull the strings of government in Tehran and where the medressas – seminaries – take thousands of new students every year. The turbaned graduates take their seats in the Majlis, the Iranian Parliament, occupy high office in government and stack the armed forces’ high command and the all-powerful Revolutionary Guards Corps.
2. Neither Erdogan nor Turkey can hold a candle to Iran’s religious prestige and authority as pre-eminent Shiite Muslim power, despite its dependence on the external shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala of Iraq. Ankara could not hope to command an iota of respect for its religious pretensions in the Sunni world, least of all in Riyadh or Cairo.
To get around these shortcomings, some of our knowledgeable intelligence sources predict that the Turkish ruler, having wiped out his secularist opposition, may opt for a simple short cut to his ambition, such as proclaiming himself Emir or Sultan of a roughly purged and Islamized country. This extreme step would place Tayyip Erdogan level with two rival radical Islamic leaders, the Ayatollah of Tehran and the Caliph of Raqqa and Mosul.
This potential scenario sends shivers down spines in Washington, Riyadh and Cairo.
The United States reckons that if Turkey pulls out of the war on ISIS, American forces in the country will have to be evacuated within months, if not weeks. US-Turkey ties will quickly go from bad to worse and Erdogan will revert to his 2015 policy of granting ISIS a free pass through Turkey for continue to swell jihadist ranks in Syria.
Even now, Turkey, while still a member of NATO and putative partner in the war on the Islamic State, still allows ISIS recruits to cross through to Syria, at the rate of 100 fighters per week.
Some US circles don’t rule out Erdogan going all the way to an eventual deepening of ties with Al-Baghdadi. Even if those ties are limited, Washington would be forced into a top-to-bottom re-examination of how to proceed with the war against ISIS.
The new winds blowing through Ankara since the abortive coup have meanwhile flung aside the projected bloc for joining Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel, as a silent partner, in a concerted effort to combat Islamic terror and Iranian expansion.