Iran’s second most influential cleric, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, told Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban that Turkey secretly supports the Islamic State, according to a report by the ISNA news agency. This was said during a visit by Orban to Iran. Iran opposes Turkey in Syria, where Iran is defending the Bashar al-Assad regime that Turkey would like replaced. Rafsanjani aside, two other leaders have recently accused Turkey of helping IS. One was Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose reason for making the accusation following the shoot-down of the Russian aircraft is obvious. But he was joined by another world leader, U.S. President Barack Obama, who claimed that the Turks are aware of IS selling oil through their country. That puts Obama in the same camp as the Russians and Iranians, which is more than a little odd. Certainly, Obama is frustrated by Turkey’s unwillingness to go beyond its borders to engage in Syria. But that can be explained, as we recently did, as a caution built into Turkey’s strategic position.
The three leaders making this charge is really a reflection of a long-standing rumor swirling in the Middle East. From the beginning, rumors from usually completely unreliable sources argued that IS’ well trained and armed forces had been funded and trained by the Turks. The reasoning behind this thinking is that the government of Turkey is not only Islamist but radically Islamist, although very careful not to show it. They dream of a caliphate installed in Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman Empire, and the leaders, particularly Recep Tayyip Erdogan, dream of regaining the lands the Ottomans once ruled. This included southeastern Europe, the Black Sea Littoral, the Mediterranean and much of North Africa, and of course the Middle East. It was an extraordinary empire, it collapsed after World War I, and the founder of the modern Turkish republic Mustafa Kemal Ataturk created a small, impoverished and secular Turkey. Erdogan dreams of resurrecting not only an Islamic State, but the Ottoman Empire in all its glory.
According to this theory, Erdogan knows that the Arab world has bad memories of Ottoman rule, and that a direct Turkish attack would lead to heavy resistance, at a time when Turkey is not yet ready to assert itself. Nevertheless, with the withdrawal of the United States from Iraq, Turkey was facing an increasingly confident Shiite Iran, the enemy of Turkey religiously and strategically, and only a direct intervention in Iraq would block Iran. And that, as we said, was not something Turkey was ready to accept.
The Americans had blocked Iranian ambition during the 2007-08 surge by working with the Iraqi Sunnis. The Turks saw that as a strategic alternative if done on a larger scale. This worked to create a force in Iraq that could not only block Iranian ambitions, but also force the Iranians into a retreat. In addition, such a force could operate in Syria as well, destroying not only the Assad government but other non-Sunni or Sunni but secular forces. This force would also be in a position to threaten the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds, weakening the Kurds that threatened the security of eastern Turkey.
Money alone would not bind this force together. It had to be bound together with a radical Islamist ideology, and a jihadist ethic. Its function would be to terrify the world, display the violence on YouTube, and showcase its ability to take and hold territory and, even more frightening, to administer that territory. The vacuum that the Americans created would be filled by IS, controlled secretly by the Turks.
For this plan to work, of course, they could not be hostile to Turkey. The thinking, if we follow our own logic here, would be to use IS to do the work of destroying the Baghdad and Damascus regimes, without the use of Turkish power. Then allow Turkey the role of senior partner, to dominate the IS, effectively making IS an instrument of Turkish power. The Turks had trained and funded IS and had built close relations with them, so in victory it would not be unreasonable for IS to show their gratitude by becoming, formally or informally, the first brick in the resurrection of the Ottoman Empire.
The logic to this point is defensible, but now we get to a problem. IS having conquered Baghdad and Damascus would be expected by Turkey to turn over the caliphate. There are three problems with this. First, gratitude doesn’t endure as a commodity in geopolitics. Having fought to take Syria and Damascus, there is no reason to believe that the current or future caliph would simply step aside for a Turkish caliphate. Second, given that the Turks are loathe to go to war outside their territory, it is hard to see how the Turks, who haven’t fought a war in decades, would be able to compel the battle hardened IS forces to hand over the prize. Finally, apart from the old distrust of Turks among Arabs, whatever Erdogan may or may not believe, Turkey hardly looks like a country that could house the caliphate in security. There are a huge number of secularists who loathe the Islamists, and the Islamists themselves come in many hues, including Kurds who dislike the Arabs and Turks intensely. Organizing a rising like this is one thing. For it to go the way that conspiracy theorists want Erdogan to take this, he would have to be busy repressing the secularists, crushing the Kurds and building jihadist force inside of Turkey. Otherwise, in victory, the IS would hardly be prepared to do more than maintain cautious relations with Erdogan. And none of those things are happening at an intensity and speed that would be required.
An additional problem of this strategy is that it would have to be done without Turkey enraging everyone around it, and even more, with the viciousness of the IS reflecting on them. Turkey is not a weak country, but simultaneously infuriating Iran and Russia is dangerous, and having the Americans accusing Turkey of supporting IS would be suicidal. And surely Erdogan knew that at some point before the end, these and other powers would realize what he was doing alongside IS being unwilling to play the role they were assigned until the end.
In the end, like all vast but secret maneuvers, the probability of being found out is too great to undertake. Any maneuver that must be carried out in secret derives from weakness, and unless you can survive the revelation, it is best not to to try. So the theory behind this maneuver is sound only in some abstract sense. Even if Erdogan were contemplating such a move, it would become transparently obvious before success.
There is a much more modest version of this. The Turks did not fund IS, but with the Americans gone and Turkey not wanting to be drawn into the job of dealing with Shiites in Iraq and Alawites in Syria, it was necessary to maintain covert relationships with all non-hostile groups. One of these was IS. In this version, IS was not created by the Turks, nor shaped by them. But since Turkey couldn’t destroy them it accommodated them, as it accommodated many other groups. Part of that accommodation consisted of allowing them to carry out their logistical and financial transactions in Turkey, in exchange for no major move north of the border. Even this is tenuous, but it is more in keeping with the non-strategic thinking of Turkey, where short-term solutions form odd alliances.
The Russians and Iranians may have a charge to hurl against the Turks, but the Turks really don’t care. The Americans can talk about the Turks permitting transactions to take place, but the U.S. used to be a major power in the region and is now a combination of air power and speeches. The U.S. wants Turkey to take the risks the U.S. is not willing to and the Turks will not do that.
The point of this is piece is to do a reality check on what is increasingly believed, which is that Turkey is either the creator of IS or an enabler. The reality is that creating IS would backfire on the Turks and they know it. As for the charge of facilitation, there is no nation in the Middle East not involved with friends, enemies, enemies of friends and all other imaginable permutations. Clever and hidden maneuvers allow you to survive in this region. But the full blown conspiracy, from motive to disaster, is impossible to fathom. In the end, Turkey would not trust anyone, let alone IS, to play the role that would be expected of them. The only way Turkey can prove this is by going to general war with IS, and this is something it feels it can’t do, and is probably right.
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