Turkey: an undecided ally?

800px Protect Your Republic Protest 1 (2007 04 14)

Image: Selahattin Sönmez

Bordering both with Syria and Iraq, Turkey is a country immensely influenced by the conflict, witnessing first hand the expansion of the ISIL threat. Considering its geo-political situation therefore, it would be reasonable to assume that Turkey would want to contain the terrorist group, something confirmed by its joining the US-led coalition against ISIL in 2014. However, the country’s intentions have been more than questionable when considering a series of actions that have in fact aided the expansion of the group, rather than its containment. Russian President Vladimir Putin recently called this out, labelling the country an ‘accomplice of terrorists’.

It is indisputable that Turkey has afforded financial assistance to the terrorist group. ISIL is in control of oil-rich areas in both Syria and Iraq, making a profit of several million dollars a week just from oil-smuggling according to the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). It is common knowledge that Turkey not only makes no attempt to terminate these transactions, but is also party to them. According to Ali Ediboglu, an MP of the Turkish opposition, around $800mn worth of oil was sold in Turkey in 2014 alone. When other powers are trying to eliminate ISIL’s oil revenues by conducting airstrikes on its oil fields, Turkey is actually supporting trafficking by purchasing oil in the Black Market.

The aid Turkey provides to ISIL is not only financial. Turkish intelligence (MIT) has been blamed on numerous occasions for helping ISIL recruits, as fighters from all over the world fly to Turkey and then cross the border to Syria and Iraq. According to Ediboglu this is unlikely to be happening with MIT kept in the dark, but the country’s intelligence is not the only one to blame. The Turkish authorities in general have been said to follow a lenient policy towards the group, an accusation verified by a former ISIL member. The member, who managed to escape the group, told Newsweek that when crossing the Turkish border, ISIL leaders told soldiers that “there was full cooperation with the Turks” and there was no need for them to be alarmed.

The former ISIL member also confessed “ISIS saw the Turkish army as its ally especially when it came to attacking Kurds in Syria.” The Kurds, a sizeable minority in Turkey, have proven to be a vital ally of the US-led coalition in the fight against ISIL, for managing to claim several victories against the extremist group. Turkey has time and again proven that it wants to put an end to this Kurdish growth, on the basis that if they keep gaining ISIL’s territory, they might be able to establish their independent country. Turkey has been accused of fighting the Kurds instead of ISIL, a claim that is hard to ignore considering the facts that underlie it. In July, Turkish jets hit 400 Kurdish targets as opposed to 3 ISIL ones, and detained more Kurdish than ISIL militants, with a ratio of 6 to 1. By fighting the Kurds for its personal political interests, Turkey is in essence hampering efforts made by the coalition to defeat the main enemy.

The breaking point was the downing of a Russian warplane, on 24 November. According to Turkish authorities, the Russian aircraft intruded Turkey’s airspace and it was warned multiple times before it was downed. A radar map however clearly depicted that the aircraft only flew over a very small part of Turkey leading to Syria. This gives rise to the assumption that Turkey was only looking for a pretext to shoot down the Russian plane, and there has been much speculation as to whether the real reason behind its actions was the protection of the Islamic State. Turkey’s repeated violations of Greek airspace do not help its case, as Turkish jets have breached Greek airspace 2,244 times in a year according to the University of Thessaly.

Putin has now mentioned that Turkey’s actions were a “stab in the back”, and it is only reasonable to question where Turkey’s loyalty really lies.

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