Vicken Cheterian

Ankara’s Dangerous Flirtation with Jihadists

In fact, Turkey is not the first country that flirts with jihadis. In the 1980’s three states - Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and USA - invested money, arms, and provided logistics to the first generation of salafi-jihadis, known as Arab Afghans, to use them against the Soviet army occupying Afghanistan.

The letter that the US President Donald Trump had sent on October 9 of this year to the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was shocking. It revealed the pitiful state of international relations in our times. The American president while writing to his Turkish counterpart in an attempt to avoid war in Syria between the Turkish Army and Kurdish autonomy, a conflict that resulted largely from his own capricious decision – lacks basics of diplomacy and common sense. Yet, this letter also reveals an important element: Kurdish military leader “General Mazloum is willing to negotiate”.  

What is there between Ankara and the Kurdish armed forces in Syria that cannot be discussed? What is the problem between Turkish leaders and Kurds in Turkey that cannot be solved through negotiations? The military solution, high on the agenda 33 years, did not produce much result. In the past, it was said that the conflict was the result of nationalism, and that it could find a peaceful solution within the unifying vision of Islam – the common religion of Turks and Kurds. Will a new war against Kurds in Syria produce any “solution” other than more identity conflicts, and a feeling among Kurds – including among the millions of Kurds in Turkey – of being victims of the Turkish state and its policies?

The “Operation Peace Spring” has a new dimension: to push back the 3 million or so Syrian refugees now in Turkey back to Syria to drown the Kurdish areas with Arab refugees. Those Syrian refugees are already victims of the barrel-bombs of their own government. Those poor refugees will be serving as “border guards” for Turkey, and will be prisoners of cross-fire of the unresolved Turkey-Kurdish relations. Yet, placing 3 million refugees in Kurdish inhabitant regions will not provide any solution. The Baathist regimes in Syria and Iraq tried it in the past, but the Kurdish question did not end; on the contrary. 

Turkish-Kurdish relations could have developed very differently. Who remembers today that in January 2013 a cease-fire was declared between Ankara and Kurdish guerillas? This provided a real opportunity, with Turkish armies withdrawing from village centers and decreasing their check-points, opening up real possibility for negotiations. Yet, at the end of the year, relations deteriorated: Ankara preferred to bet on radical Islamic groups in Syria and beyond, and dropped talks with the Kurds. 

Now, 5 years later what did Ankara gain from it? Turkish authorities invested important resources to shore-up an acceptable version of salafi-jihadism, a group called “Ahrar al-Sham”, the type that could both talk “liberal” to the West, and “jihadi” to its own constituency. The only problem is that Ahrar al-Sham was decimated not so much as a result of the attacks by Damascus loyalists, nor by the US drones: its leadership and its rank-and-file were massacred by real jihadists, by al-Nusra and by Daesh. 

In fact, Turkey is not the first country that flirts with jihadis. In the 1980’s three states - Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and USA - invested money, arms, and provided logistics to the first generation of salafi-jihadis, known as Arab Afghans, to use them against the Soviet army occupying Afghanistan. Few years later, once political conditions changed and the Soviets were out of the picture, jihadi groups attacked all three of them – including the mass killings of September 11, 2001 on US soil, but also with multiple less-dramatic attacks inside Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. A decade later, when the US army invaded and occupied Iraq in 2003, Middle Eastern countries – such as Baathist Syria, played a similar game: to facilitate the passage of jihadi volunteers through its soil to go to Iraq, where they mostly joined Abu Musib Zarqawi’s network – the ancestor of the notorious Daesh. Yet, few years later when the Syrian rebellion started, radical Islamist groups transformed Syria into their land of jihad.

Do strategic planners in Ankara think that they can manage salafi-jihadi groups where Pakistan, USA, Saudi Arabia, Syria and many others failed? Ankara seems to think that jihadis belong to the large family of political Islam; they might be a bit hyperactive, but they belong to the family, and could be managed. Yet, there are two arguments that contradict this assumption. The first is ideological: salafi-jihadis could easily accuse Ankara of collaborating with the kuffar, with the hated CIA and the Russians, of permitting US military bases on its territory – the argument that led to antagonism between Osama bin Laden and Saudi leadership. They could also accuse the Turkish leadership of being secularist murtaddun: don’t they organize elections instead of imposing sharia laws? And if you follow jihadi discourses they already say all that on their social networks. Second, salafi-jihadi movement was never a unified group, with structures and leadership. It is a fluid network with different charismatic leaders that compete for the attention of the community. This is both the strength and weakness of jihadis: if repression destroys one knot of the network, others will replace it. Their permanent competition has created a spiral of radicalization and violence that makes the entire movement look like an unstable explosive. If Ankara made an agreement with one or two or ten jihadi groups, there will always be one ready to attract attention by posing as the real jihadi and calling all others as kuffar. This is in contrast with the Kurdish guerilla, which, in spite of all its failures, is structured and disciplined. If negotiations lead to compromised agreement with Kurdish guerillas, there is high chance that it will be respected. 

The war in north-east Syria is a disaster for the population of the region, be it Kurdish, Arab or Assyrian. It will also be a disaster for the Syrian refugees that might be sent to live in the zone occupied by Turkish army and its proxies. But the war will also reinforce salafi-jihadi groups, including their presence over Turkish soil, from the suburbs of Istanbul to Adiyaman. What will happen when the time comes and this tactical alliance between Ankara and jihadis reach its end?

If Baghdadi is the caliph of the believers, would he ever accept to be under orders of a president elected under secular laws?