It was hard to say what made Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suddenly decide to link up with the United States for the struggle against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, when, for nearly a year, he had maintained clandestine ties with the Islamists.
In September 2014, Erdogan and Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi concluded a tacit truce for the recovery of the 49 Turkish diplomats and spies taken hostage when ISIS seized the Iraqi town of Mosul and with it the Turkish consulate on July 11 of that year.
The consulate was in fact the public façade of Turkey’s military and intelligence headquarters in Iraq, which is why Al Baghdadi, who knew this, went for the compound as a prime target in the northern Iraq city.
The ISIS leader also knew that Erdogan could not afford to sacrifice high-value personnel who had served the country on the Iraqi front line through thick and thin. It would therefore be possible to squeeze him for an exorbitant high ransom to get them out.
He was right. And Ankara paid through the nose, though not directly in cash, with three major concessions:
Turkey’s blind eye for jihads crossing to Syria – explained
1. Turkish security authorities agreed to turn a blind eye to the foreign jihadis arriving from North America, Australia, the UK, Western Europe and Muslim countries as volunteers to fight with ISIS. They were allowed to pass through to Syria unobstructed. Counter-terrorism experts calculate that some 5,000 volunteers used this route.
2. Turkish intelligence agents helped the Islamic State reach the black markets for arms in the Balkan countries of Montenegro, Albania and Kosovo to acquire the weapons systems they were short of, or to sell surplus stocks looted in Iraq and Syria.
3. Turkey brokered sales on the international market of the oil Abu Bakr’s men were plundering from captured Syrian oil fields. For this traffic, a third partner was cut in – none other than Syrian President Bashar Assad. The trio set up a mechanism for the smooth sale of the oil ISIS was pumping from captured Syrian oil fields. The profits were divided up between Raqqa, Damascus and Ankara.
ISIS punishment could ruin Turkey’s $30bn tourist trade
But in the last two weeks, a seismic shift took place in Ankara. It happened after Gen. John Allen, the retired US Marine who is President Barack Obama’s special envoy for the war on the Islamic State, met Turkish leaders in Ankara earlier this month. It was then that the Erdogan government agreed to turn its back on its covert relations with the Islamic State and go on the offensive instead.
At the same time, Ankara also finally acceded to Washington’s longstanding request to use Turkish air fields for flying air missions against ISIS.
It is certain that the jihadists will never let Ankara escape this relationship without harsh punishment for its defection.
The first sign of this intent came on July 20, when 20-year, Seyh Abdurrahman Alagoz, a Turkish Kurd who had joined ISIS in February, blew himself up at a cultural center in Suruc near the Syrian border and killed 32 young Turkish victims.
Turkey’s MIT intelligence service has warned the government in Ankara that worse retribution was yet to come. The jihadist group had planted sleeper cells across Turkey, their members trained for terrorist attacks at tourist resorts, like the shooting attack that killed 39 mostly British holidaymakers at the Tunisian seafront on June 26. Just one attack of this nature would bring ruin to the tourist trade, on whose estimated revenue of more than $30 billion per annum, the Turkish economy is heavily dependent.
Is Turkey aligning with the forces promoting Assad?
Ankara’s amenability to joining the war on ISIS may be partly explained by the free hand Washington granted for its crackdown on the Kurdish PKK movement. But, according to DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence and counter-terror sources, that motive was not powerful enough to swing Turkish leaders right round so far as to lay the country open to the most high-cost peril it has faced since Kemal Ataturk rejected the Ottoman Caliphate legacy a century ago.
They suggest that President Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmed Davutoglu had, for the first time since the 2011 Arab Spring, perceived advantage in jumping aboard the anti-Sunni camp, although the Turkish population is predominantly Sunni.
So is Ankara reverting to its former policy of alignment with the Bashar regime? In July 2011, Davutoglu traveled to Damascus to persuade the Syrian president of the benefits of hitching up with Turkey.
Now too, Turkish leaders may have discovered, as they look around them, that Washington, Moscow and Tehran are all staked in shoring up the future of the Assad regime and decided to join the party.
Whatever their motives and risk, they have placed Turkey at the forefront of the next stage of the struggle against the Islamic State, alongside Syria, Iraq and Egypt.