Daesh forced out of Dabiq, where they expected apocalyptic confrontation

Sunday, 16 October 2016 is proving to be a watershed day in the developing history of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Today, Syrian rebel forces (the FSA) clashed with and drove ISIS out of Dabiq in northern Syria. The Turkish military played a role, carrying out airstrikes on Daesh and helping the fighters on the ground to take the villages of Ghaitun and Irshaf.

The video above shows fighters announcing the liberation of Dabiq and that hopefully soon they will take Raqqa as well. The village, in its location to the north of Aleppo, rests just between the Turkish border and the town that has become the center of the Syrian War. For Daesh, its location was an important part of taking advantage of the porous border between Syria and Turkey to smuggle fighters, goods, and weapons into Syria. Similarly, Daesh fighters leaving to go carry out attacks in Turkey and Europe potentially moved through here.Daesh had situated some 1,200 fighters there. In practical terms, today’s military victory by Syrian rebels will help shut off this flow of goods and fighters, but the victory has a large symbolic importance as well.


The Symbolic Importance of Dabiq

In addition to its brutal violence, seizing of territory, and taking sexual slaves from populations of minority groups like Yezidis, Daesh leaders have emphasized the importance of the town of Dabiq, where they believed an apocalyptic confrontation would take place. The prophecy comes from a Hadith of Abu Hurayrah, which describes a battle between Muslim forces and a large group of non-Muslims.  This hadith was reproduced on the back page of ISIS propaganda as written about by another blogger I am otherwise unfamiliar with, Zen Pundit. As the prophecy was well known to Daesh fighters and supporters, the organization scrambled to address the fact that its prophecy seemed to have fallen flat:


This screenshot was shared by a social media user, I am looking for a legit link for this and will upload it if I find it. It may be satire, which would be quite fitting.

As one might expect, there was a lot of celebration among US leaders, represented here by Brett McGurk:

Others had more sarcastic takes on the defeat:

I expect Daesh to make attempts to reconquer this space, so I will update this as necessary.


What’s Behind the Recent Wave of Attacks by Daesh?

With the latest attacks in Baghdad, the most recent bombing spree by Daesh/ISIS reached a level few others have. Bombings and attacks tore through Istanbul, Dhaka, Baghdad, with several more in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia as well that aren’t clearly the work of Daesh yet. This dubious record, bringing multiple mass-casualty terror attacks in a string, has shocked the world and placed many on edge. If the attacks Qatif and Medina prove indeed to be the work of ISIS, I can only say it will be a turning point. Juan Cole already wrote a great piece on why Daesh would want to target Saudi Arabia, so readers should check that out.


Enter a caption

photo courtesy of Hayder al-Shakeri.

Here’s some of the basics we know that have received a lot of attention on social media:

• Many have pointed out this intense wave of attacks takes place during Ramadan, calling into question just how holy those carrying out the attacks really see the month to be.

• These attacks didn’t just happen during Ramadan- they come during a period where ISIS is losing territory and has been largely forced out of Fallujah in western Iraq for the first time since they seized control of it in January 2014.

• A sad pattern has emerged whereby victims in places like the USA, Belgium, and France receive far more attention and solidarity than those in Turkey, Bangladesh or Baghdad. It must be paired with the truth many in the USA and Europe don’t want to acknowledge- that the vast majority of victims of terror are Muslims.

• In Iraq, Baghdad residents pelted the PM Haider Abadi’s car and motorcade in anger over their perception that he was failing to secure the city.

• In Turkey, we know the Turkish state has at least indirectly fueled these attacks through its passive policies towards ISIS over the last two years. It moved on from the attacks in shockingly quick fashion, bypassing calls for a thorough investigation.

• In Dhaka, details emerge about the attackers that are not what most expected: the attackers were elite young men who came from wealthy families and had attended elite schools.

Through these points, we can now go beyond merely repeating them and dig into the details underlying them. The spate of attacks in Ramadan seems to me a continuation of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s tactics- where anything goes. Zarqawi had no issues about targeting Shiites and Sunnis who refused to take part in jihad rather than focusing solely on attacking the USA and the West more broadly. He was more extreme than Bin Laden or Zawahiri and stopped listening to them. Both OBL and Zawahiri told Zarqawi that his tactics were out of control and causing more harm than good, but he continued, and his influence sadly lives on (If you’re curious to read more about this I’d suggest this by Fawaz Gerges, I’ve been reading it lately and I’m thoroughly impressed). These attacks are the beginning of death throes of Daesh as an organization that controls territory. With each loss where Daesh is forced to flee, it needs to show strength somewhere else. I’ve written in this blog about the beginnings of transitional justice in areas Daesh was forced to leave. Now, these attacks likely have been in the planning stages for some time, so their confluence may not have been planned exactly as it is happening.

Iraq and Turkey both showcase an element of these attacks that has received a lot of academic attention and has also been the source of countless conspiracy theories. It has received comparably little attention from popular media more broadly, but states are sadly complicit in much of what happens with ISIS in various parts of the world. The Iraqi state, for example, has proven painfully inept, corrupt, and unwilling to put the interest of Iraqi citizens first. This isn’t lost on those who threw rocks at their PM’s motorcade. Huge protests targeted corruption in Baghdad last summer when residents had to deal with heat waves while there were major, and inexcusable power cuts. Barely six weeks ago massive protests happened again, targeting the Green Zone in Baghdad. Despite those large, non-sectarian protests, the problems remain largely unsolved.

Turkey on the other hand has spiraled downward over the last several years. This is predominantly because the AKP and President (formerly PM) Recep Tayyip Erdogan have been consolidating their power, pushing Turkey closer to autocracy every step in the process. The war next door in Syria also played a large role in these ongoing issues in Turkey. To solidify his rule, Erdogan reignited a long-dormant war between the state and the PKK, a militant Kurdish organization, and in the process has done next to nothing to stop Daesh-neither those entering Turkey to travel to join Daesh in Syria nor their supply of arms. Other highly contested reports had the Turkish intelligence services sending weapons to ISIS. In an example of how Turkey is becoming more authoritarian, the journalists who exposed this were put on trial. Yet it’s not just Turkey that has questionable relationships to jihadists; Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, Qatar and the CIA have all been tied to funding Sunni jihadists in the region, as have private donors in Saudi and Kuwait.

The empathy deficit in regards to the victims of terrorism has become clearer and clearer in the last couple of months. It is not new, however. It is the latest manifestation of global trends that have consistently placed no value on the lives of those who live in the Global South, their lives merely statistics to all too many. Even with powerful voices trying to draw attention to the victims in different places like Ivory Coast, Bangladesh, Kenya, Somalia and others, their deaths still evoke comparably little reaction in the Global North. It’s important to emphasize that this sentiment is part of what drives radicalization- it’s not just a superficial thing. It’s tied to deep feelings of being dominated, humiliated, and having no value given to one’s life. The way the USA, Israel, and most recently, Assad, Russia, Turkey and Daesh can all kill large numbers of Muslim civilians with seemingly no major repercussions all strike a raw nerve with Muslims around the world. The abuses of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib both added to this feeling that those who speak of human rights clearly don’t think of Muslims when they push those platitudes. Perhaps no other place has experienced this glaring contradiction in western values and actions more than Iraq.

Dhaka sadly shows a different facet of the Daesh phenomenon, one that shows us that Daesh appeals to many different people for many different reasons. I’ve already written about these questions of radicalization elsewhere. There seem to be several very different archetypes of men who join Daesh, not to speak of the reasons women join. First, there are people who seem to have no economic issues whatsoever. I think most of these people are pushed by phenomena like those described above- and it’s likely the culmination of many of these events rather than a reaction to any single one that eventually radicalizes them. Second, there are reports from both Syria and Iraq about the men who join to get a salary, not necessarily for ideological reasons. Given the larger collapse of the economy and state institutions, many struggle to get by and will join eventually. The third group seems to be those who had lives as criminals of various kinds. These people often, though not exclusively, find Islam in prison. It seems, and to be clear, I am venturing a guess here, that these people find repentance from the wrong ways of their past in conversion but also a means to continue them in what they now see as a righteous cause. It’s hard to otherwise explain both conversion and radicalization. I think this phenomenon, rather than people instrumentally claiming to be Muslims only as a front, explains their “un-Islamic” behavior. They’re new to the religion, they don’t have a lifetime of experience with Islamic holidays or practices, and thus might have no compunctions about carrying out attacks during Ramadan, or, it may turn out, carrying out an attack in Medina.

May the victims rest in peace and may their families and friends find solace.


Borders, Passports, and Daesh

How do foreign fighters reach Syria and Iraq to join Daesh? Second, how do global structures of power shape the way people move around the world? Finally, how do these realities help shape Daesh on one hand and the refugee crisis on the other? Check out the piece I published over at medium.com where I explore these questions in depth.

View story at Medium.com

The Rise of ISIS has Complex Roots Inside and Outside the Middle East

This in the English original of an editorial about the geopolitics of ISIS I wrote for a Swedish newspaper, Sydsvenskan. The Swedish piece can be found here.

The seizure of Mosul by ISIS in June 2014 truly announced their presence to the world. The root causes of ISIS’ emergence were multifaceted and complex. Many of these causal factors were less than 10 years old, coming out of the prolonged power vacuum created by the failed US invasion of Iraq. Others have much older roots in phenomena present in various Middle Eastern societies over the last 40 years. These include the defeat of Arab Nationalism and the rise of political Islam. Not all of these roots of ISIS stretch back into the Middle East, however. The bloody conflict in Chechnya certainly plays a role, as does the structural and societal racism in various European countries that made it so hard for many immigrants from Arab and Muslim societies to integrate. These geographically disparate regions have all contributed to the flow of jihadis fighting for the Islamic State.

The geopolitics prolonging the conflict with ISIS likewise have deep roots. The current reality is best described as a world in the twilight of a failed American attempt at being the world sovereign, at least in terms of international relations. The USA initiated the War on Terror in a flawed response to the events of 9/11. The most proximate cause for ISIS’ emergence comes from the American decision to carry out de-Baathification and disband the Iraqi army. This led to a period of prolonged instability and put many individuals from the former regime out of work, without which we would not have the Islamic State as it exists now. Iran has been very active on a regional level since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and took the opportunity to become much more influential in Iraq after the US overthrew Saddam. Many of the dynamics that follow are known: Iran supports Assad’s regime while Saudi Arabia and other Sunni monarchies support rebel groups trying to overthrow him. These Sunni monarchies and regimes, like Saudi, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt, etc. have staunch US backing. This represents the USA’s long-term bet on Sunni monarchies as a control against Iranian expansion post 1979, as well as being allies of oil-producing nations.

Other geopolitical realities helped ISIS grow. Iran’s support of Maliki’s government in Iraq and its sectarian excesses has been pushing various Sunni groups to find a response. Turkey has proven itself willing to host the rebel groups fighting Bashar al-Assad as well as allowing them to move fighters and materiel through the border between Turkey and Syria. While Turkey could certainly take steps to exert more control over what passes through its borders into the war zone, especially fighters traveling to join the Islamic State, it can’t completely control such a long and geographically complex border. The porosity of this border has fueled not only the war in Syria, the fighters joining ISIS, but also the Islamic State’s ability to export oil for profit.

More broadly, the nature of the global system of movement is important. In its present state, the global system does everything it can to allow goods and capital to move freely but to control the movement of people. One need only look at the recent TPP and TTIP to see how powerful countries want goods and capital to move as freely as possible, while the refugee crisis in Europe and Turkey has highlighted just how much many countries want to stem the movements of people. This is embodied in the system known as ‘Fortress Europe’. It focuses on keeping people from reaching Europe, but it is very permissive in allowing anyone with a EU or US passport to move as they please away from the protected core. This has allowed many individuals already known to intelligence agencies in the USA and EU to leave to join the Islamic State. If the global system were not as such, these Western nationals would have a much harder time traveling to fight with ISIS.

The potential endgame remains complex and without clear solutions. If Assad is defeated before ISIS, there exists a strong possibility that ISIS will be able to expand into areas vacated by the regime, as they’re trying to do in Hama right now. That collapse of Assad’s government would likely produce an exodus of civilians living in regime-controlled areas. Or, if ISIS is defeated and Assad remains, the toxic legacy of the war will ruin his ability to govern his country or let Syria return to normal in any short to medium term. If the rebel groups combined with Western forces to defeat both Assad and ISIS, it would open a massive power vacuum that would be as difficult to stabilize as Iraq and Libya have already proven to be, a mistake Western forces cannot make again. Russia’s willingness to enter the fight is not as complex- yes they risk making a complex war worse, but they are also not pushing the regime towards collapse. They’re explicitly trying to stabilize the criminal regime of Bashar al-Assad, and have no means of dealing with the toxic legacy the Syrian people will live with if it survives and stabilizes.

Book Review: From Deep State to Islamic State by Jean-Pierre Filiu

It should be said at the outset that very little of the book is actually about the Islamic State. Filiu covers some of the very recent developments of the Islamic State in chapter 8, “The Evil Twins in Yemen and Syria”. For those who want to read about the actual members and development of the state-for example the Al-Qaeda networks and details of the chaos in Iraq post-2003- the work by Hassan and Weiss I reviewed here is a much better choice.  However, for those with some knowledge of the region, this work is a worthy read that should not be ignored. The author, Jean Pierre Filiu, makes a nuanced and original reading of 20th century Middle Eastern history. This will certainly have its critics and detractors.

Traditionally, the historiography saw a series of dictators, some ruling through monarchies and others through republics. A different categorization groups these regimes into those which have and haven’t normalized relations with the West and/or Israel. These regimes also cooperated with the West to try to fight various terror groups and shared intelligence with the West- Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, all of the Gulf countries, Yemen, Oman, and finally Algeria renewed relations with the USA just before 9/11. Libya, Syria, Iraq (pre-Saddam) were those still in their own category, largely hostile to the West. More recently, a phrase coined by King Abdullah of Jordan stuck, labeling the Shiite Crescent as Iran, the Maliki regime in Iraq, Syria, and Hizbullah in Lebanon, clearly contrasted with the rest of the countries which are overwhelmingly but not exclusively Sunni Muslim.  Filiu doesn’t use any of these traditional categorizations and adds a different reading. He argues for a different categorization of regimes he calls “the Mamluks”, including Yemen, Algeria, Syria and Egypt. This term comes from Middle Eastern history itself and refers to a military caste of people, many of whom were slaves, who ascended in power across a wide swath of land and remained influential in the medieval and early modern periods. Filiu refers specifically to:

“…the original Mamluks who ruled Egypt from 1250-1517 along with Syria from 1260-1516. I draw a parallel between the legitimacy derived by those founding Mamluks from the vulnerable ‘Caliph’ under their control and the one derived by the modern Mamluks from the popular ‘votes’ held under martial law.”

Filiu then connects this categorization of the Mamluks to the concept of the deep state from contemporary Turkish history. When Filiu says deep state, he is referring to a series of secretive and opaque institutions and actors who guide important policy decisions out of public view. His example from Turkey is a shocking story from 1997 when a car accident in the city of Susurluk exposed a previously secret reality for Turks. A local police chief, a gangster with right-wing nationalist connections, his girlfriend, and an MP aligned with the Kurdish PKK were all in the car together when it crashed, killing the first three I described. These men who were supposed to be on opposite ends of everything ideological were secretly working together. Filiu proceeds to describe the next 18 years of Turkish politics and the rise of the AKP, the party represented by current President, and former Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He characterizes the Ergenekon trial and a later trial known as “Sledgehammer” as examples of the AKP using the police and the courts to go after the deep state. He emphasizes that these were very divisive tactics which arguably broke the deep state but had a lot of collateral damage in Turkish politics, especially in polarizing the various parties.

Filiu uses the vast majority of the book to set this argument up and trace it through the specific countries he argues to be “neo-Mamluks” which are Egypt, Syria, Algeria and Yemen. Each of these includes a detailed reading of the history to set the reader up to understand how these “Mamluks” came to power in each one. Filiu argues that “(T)here lies a clear distinction between, on the one side, the Arab Mamluks, and, on the other side, police states like Tunisia (under Bourguiba or Ben Ali) or would-be totalitarian regimes like Qaddhafi’s Jamahiriyya or Saddam’s Iraq. Monarchies who had survived the turmoils of the early 70’s (Black September in Jordan and the two failed military coups in Morocco) were also spared the Mamluk curse.” (p. xi). Filiu does not argue that the regimes have secretly colluded along these lines or publicly identified as such, but rather argues we should classify and understand them as the Mamluk regimes.

Once Filiu has developed this idea, he turns to the most recent events from the American invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring until the present. He looks at Egypt and Yemen in chapter 7, “The tale of Two Squares” which refers to Tahrir Square where the first mobilizations of January 25 took place in Cairo, and Rabiya al ‘Adwiya, where a large group of Muslim Brotherhood supporters gathered post-June 30 Coup and some 1,000 plus were massacred by the Egyptian state. It is here we find the most explicit new formulations of argument and ultimately the connection to the Islamic State. Filiu argues that these Mamluk regimes all played with Jihadi fire in their counterrevolutionary actions to deal with the Arab Spring (some before as well) and in doing so, fed the beast that grew into the Islamic State. All of these regimes, in their own unique ways, saw these groups emergent and quietly supported or tolerated them because they met various needs- most centrally the justification of security rents that Filiu focuses on in Yemen and Egypt. When Filiu refers to security rents, he means money supplied to the government from outside donors to preserve security there. I’ve read this idea of a state nurturing a jihadi presence to justify security rents from the West before in The Warrior State, an interesting book about Pakistan.

To this reviewer’s mind, his answer to how Tunisia came out so differently from Egypt (an already fraught topic) gets some parts right and others wrong. Filiu is correct to point to the use of the justice system in Tunisia to deal with post-revolutionary terror as a more effective means than the brute state violence used by the Mamluk regime in Egypt. For Filiu, Tunisia represents a successful path out of the problems. Despite (or because of?) Tunisia’s transition and new constitution, it has been one of the largest sources of jihadis going to join the Islamic State. He emphasizes the power of the established trade unions in Tunisia as something that helped the revolution succeed, but I was left scratching my head because Egypt indeed has a complex and strong tradition of trade unions. It has been studied in depth by Beinin and Goldberg among others, so readers can go to them and judge whether Filiu is wrong to write off Egyptian trade unions as he does. Another headscratcher for me came when Filiu seems to argue to let NATO off the hook for the chaos in Libya by instead arguing the problems there came from the failed implementation of plebiscites and compares these to more successful ones in Tunisia.

Ultimately, I see Filiu’s argument here to be less than stellar. He describes in the beginning of the book how he invests heavily in a new conception of the “Mamluk” regime, spends the better part of 200 pages developing it, and then argues it to be the strongest causal factor leading to the rise of the Islamic State. This reviewer indeed agrees that authoritarian regimes and their willingness to tolerate and even foster jihadi groups is indeed real, and it is indeed part of what brought about the Islamic State. Is it, however, the largest factor? Does it justify the book-length development of the argument? This reviewer finds it highly questionable at best. I would have preferred to see more here about the prosecution of the war on terror, especially by the USA, and how this has certainly exacerbated the problem of global terrorism rather than smothering it. Filiu should get credit here for addressing this in regard to the Mamluk regimes, but he does not address it more broadly. I would likewise emphasize to a much stronger degree how the outbreak of the Syrian uprising that turns into a civil war ripped open whatever fragile gains had been made in Iraq after the combination of the Sahwa and the US surge. What of the roles of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia? They are not present. Finally, given that we now know that many ex-Ba’thists are involved in the Islamic State, these dynamics of the failed invasion of Iraq and the changes in Saddam’s regime post-1991 need a more thorough examination here. If I had to rank the factors in strength, I would put the failed invasion of Iraq and the consequent issues there above the consistent support of jihadis by authoritarian regimes in the region, regardless of whether the categorization of “neo-Mamluk” can hold water. I see no real opening for ISIS to control territory or create chaos on the level they have absent the power vacuum created by the wrong-headed overthrow of Saddam Hussein. It is indeed counterfactual, for we can’t know how Iraq would have changed or how its own people and regime would have reacted to the Arab Spring playing itself out there. Given the events of 1991 in Iraq, it is not unreasonable to assume that Saddam would have responded with brute force as he did before. What that would have become is something we can only imagine.

Finally, in praise of Filiu, his use of the ‘deep state’ concept that he takes from Turkey in the 1990s is quite stimulating. This places the AKP in a unique position as the one example here that succeeded in breaking the deep state, and begs the question, on a new level, of whether or not we can then think of Turkey as some kind of model for other states in the region, or at least the other Mamluks as Filiu classifies them. This would clearly be different than the way many have talked about Turkey as a model for a so-called “Muslim Democracy.” One cannot help but notice that Turkey’s reaction to the Gezi Protests and the way it has carried itself until today bears striking resemblance to the patterns Filiu outlines in Yemen and Syria where the regimes deliberately provoked wars with the jihadis and presented themselves as the saviors to protect people from terror, much as Erdoğan’s AKP now does with regard to the PKK. Clearly, the PKK is not the same as Al-Qaeda. Neither is the democracy in Turkey, however weak, comparable to the regimes in Yemen and Syria. It does, however, then beg the question of what this will lead to in Turkey and whether or not Filiu should be thinking of the AKP as similar to the Mamluks. Should Filiu then be willing to say authoritarianism is a part of the the condition to be a Mamluk, if supposedly democratic Turkey is acting in a similar manner to the Mamluks? That Erdogan is also willing to start a war with the PKK to stay in power? History will have to play itself out before that question can be answered.

Let me reiterate again that whatever criticisms I have here are my attempt to hold a strong historian accountable for his arguments and to evaluate them in a reasoned, scholarly manner. The book is worth reading for anyone ready to get into the deeper dynamics of 20th century history that led to the emergence of the Islamic State.

Here is a great documentary that goes into more depth about the Yemeni state supporting Al-Qaeda there as Filiu talks about:

If you’d like to purchase a copy of the book, you can go here. Thanks to Hurst Publishers for providing me a review copy:)

Syria, ISIS and the Kurds: Turkey’s Changing Positions in a Region of Uncertainties

By Esra Bakkalbaşıoğlu and Michael Degerald PhD Candidates
Interdisciplinary Near and Middle Eastern Studies University of Washington

Turkey-ISIS relations changed drastically in the last six days. On July 20th, a devastating bombing in Suruç brought the attention of the world to southern Turkey, where 30+ people were killed by a suicide bomber, with ISIS believed to be behind the attack (1). The target of the suicide bomber was members of youth wing of Social Party of the Oppressed (ESP) and Socialist Youth Associations Federation (SGDF) that were giving a press statement before crossing the Suruç-Kobane border for a three-day rebuilding project in Kobane. The Turkish government condemned the attack and on the 23rd of July carried out airstrikes across the border in Syria against ISIS targets for the first time  (2). Turkey also responded with attempts to tighten security at the border (3), which succeeded in catching ISIS fighters trying to sneak across the border into Turkey (4). On the 25th of July, Turkish jets started to hit Kurdish militants in Iraq and ISIS targets in Syria simultaneously. These targets weren’t attacked evenly, and apparently Kurds were targeted for more than ISIS. Indeed, a popular hashtag used in response to these events was #TurkeyAttackKurdsNotISIS. This bold step raises questions about how things arrived at this point- who’s aligned with whom? On what basis? We’ll dig back in time to look at how Turkey’s position on the Syrian conflict kept the country on the edge of simultaneous armed conflict with both ISIS and Kurdish groups (the PKK and YPG).

The war in Syria between those seeking to overthrow Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian state he controls has stretched into its fourth year, and neighboring states like Lebanon (5), Jordan (6), Turkey (7) and Iraq (8) have already been dealing with the waves of refugees. These same states have been making decisions about if, and when to engage militarily. The porous border between Lebanon and Syria has allowed a large number of militias and fighters to enter and exit almost at will. There have been clashes between the Lebanese Army and various militias, especially in Tripoli and Qalamoun but the Lebanese Army has not been heavily involved in Syria. Primarily, the Lebanese Army is struggling with the fact that Hizbullah has proven to be far more effective at keeping control of Lebanese territory than the army is (9). Jordan, to the south, has received more than a million refugees and did join the alliance to attack ISIS, sending fighter pilots to bomb ISIS positions. Iraq had reached some level of stability years after the wrongheaded  overthrow of Saddam Hussein by the USA, but the growing presence of Sunni jihadis like ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and others knocked Iraq out of this fragile stability and it plunged back into chaos. It is Turkey, however, that provides the most complex relationship with ISIS of the four. While little if anything can be said that Jordan or Lebanon tacitly or openly support ISIS, Turkey’s stand in the Syrian case is more complicated and hard to understand due to different reasons combining domestic politics with international relations. One can state three different phases of Turkey’s Syria policy since the beginning of the war. The changing relations between Ankara and Damascus governments have a determining role on Turkey-ISIS-Kurdish relation as well.

Assad or ISIS

In March 2011, mass protests erupted in different cities of Syria against the Assad regime. The protests turned bloody when security forces opened fire on protesting crowd in Dera’a. Whereas various groups were steadfast in their support of Assad despite intensifying violence, Turkey abandoned Assad fairly quickly. In the first half of 2011, Turkey tried to be a negotiator between Western powers and Assad, as well as between Assad and the Syrian public. The Turkish government proposed political support during the elections and be a political buffer zone between Syria and Western powers if Assad government accept to start a reformation process (10). This was the same period of time during which Hillary Clinton was calling Assad a reformer who would respond appropriately to the demands of his people (11). The last negotiations between the Turkish government and the Assad regime took place on 9th of August, 2011 in Damascus. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu later explained that the Assad government agreed on a 14-point reform list, but did not implement it. On the 18th of the same month, President Obama said that Assad should step down (12). This marked the end of Turkey-Assad negotiations. One month after the last meeting between the Ankara and Damascus governments, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a speech in Cairo University before his meeting with the Muslim Brotherhood leaders. During his speech he followed Obama’s lines and described the Assad government as one which kills its own citizens, attacking cities and slaughtering civilians that no one can be friends with (13).

After the sudden break of relations with the Assad regime, Turkey tried to have a role in shaping Syria’s future by supporting various opposition forces. This period has been marked by Turkey’s allowing opposition fighters to pass through its borders even then in the first year of the war, before the opposition became dominated by Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS (14). The rise of ISIS meant the rise of an extremist but also Sunni Islamist political movement against the Alawite-dominated government of Syria. For Turkey, it symbolized a dangerous but new ally force in the changing political ground of the region as Turkey could play a role maybe not in the whole Middle East, but at least in the Sunni part of the region. Turkey took the risk. The dangerous partnership made Turkey the de facto entrance point to Syrian war for foreign ISIS sympathizers plus off-country training and preparation base of the movement.

As early as May 2012, the MIT ( Turkey’s intelligence service equivalent to the CIA) had already started to train members of the Syrian rebels (15). The MIT was apparently shipping weapons across the border as well (16).  Questions swirled in 2013 about the use of chemical weapons in the war, with accusations flying in all directions that either rebels or regime soldiers had used chemical weapons in Ghouta against civilians, among other places. Veteran journalist Seymour Hersh penned a controversial piece claiming that Turkish intelligence had armed Jabhat al-Nusra with Sarin, citing a combination of news reports of Syrians detained in Turkey near the border with Sarin and anonymous government and intelligence officials (17). Hersh also claims that the US made a “rat line” to move weapons seized in Libya through southern Turkey to Syrian rebels fighting against Assad. Hersh claims that Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan wanted some kind of event in the Syrian War to cross the “red line” that would prompt the USA to intervene militarily. These claims have never been proven true largely due to being based in the statements of intelligence officials who remain anonymous. That said, a strong case was presented against Hersh’s account, insisting that it was the Assad Regime and not Jabhat al-Nusra, backed by Turkey, that produced and used the Sarin in question (18). Whether or not Turkey’s role is as Hersh describes it, there is other evidence that an agent from Turkey’s MIT was caught in Mosul, supposedly embedded with ISIS forces there (19). Most recently, a raid by US forces that killed an ISIS leader apparently netted a lot of evidence that he had extensive contacts with Turkish officials (20). In May 2015, Cumhuriyet newspaper published videos showing ammunition carried in MIT trucks in January 2014 that the state claimed to be humanitarian aid (21). It must also be mentioned that ISIS has been very successful smuggling oil through Turkey, something that opposition MP Ali Ediboğlu insists the Turkish state must know about (22). This ironically parallels the silent cooperation of the Assad Regime, which also is knowingly part of a chain where it receives oil from ISIS through a middleman named George Haswani (23). ISIS also profits handsomely from smuggling of looted antiquities through Turkey (24), and the total trade between Turkey and ISIS-controlled areas has gone up while Turkey’s total trade with Syria has been badly hit by the war (25). It is thus clear that ISIS’ finances could not be what they are without this quiet cooperation by both Turkey and Syria. Whatever hostilities exist on the surface between Turkey, the Assad regime and ISIS should not distract us from the more complex reality that reveals itself if we look closer.

The rapprochement between Turkish government and the ISIS caused deep discontent on the Assad side. In June 2012, Assad gave an interview to a Turkish journalist and accused Erdogan of interfering Syria’s internal affairs (26). In May 2013, there was a bloody terror attack in a Turkish border town, Reyhanlı. The bombing killed 51, and is thought to have been carried out by Turks contracted by Assad government. The Turkish government announced the arrest of 9 men responsible for planning the bombing (27). The ongoing dispute between Assad and Erdogan continued and in 2015, Assad openly blamed Erdogan for being personally responsible for the Syrian chaos and rise of the ISIS in the region (28). More important than that, the Assad regime made a strategic move against Turkey by supporting Kurdish movements in the North of the country, close to the Turkish border. Syrian Kurds started to establish their own semi-independent cantons that became a serious domestic as well as international challenge for Turkey.

Turkey, Kurds and the ISIS

On the 16th of July 2013, members of Al-Nusra front attacked a patrol of Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) that had control of Ras Al-Ayn. This was the starting point of the YPG-ISIS clashes that are still ongoing. The conflict between Kurds and ISIS is clearly a domestic issue for Turkey as much as an international one. Under the new circumstances, openly supporting ISIS would mean an anti-Kurdish stand that would strengthen and legitimize the Kurdish opposition in Turkey. On the other hand, a Kurdish victory, in the region would increase demands or even encourage Kurds in Turkey to follow the same footsteps. This is exactly how the Turkish government reacted to the three Kurdish cantons declaring autonomy between December 2013 and January 2014. If they win their fight against the ISIS, Kurds could be widely accepted as independence fighters, undermining the Turkish government position that Kurds are separatists and terrorists not to be trusted. This was the reason why one of the main conditions of Turkey during its negotiation with the US for a possible coalition against ISIS (29) was the creation of a buffer zone that will allow the Turkish government to control or if seen necessary strike the Kurdish cantons. Before the recent changes, a possible scenario was that the Turkish government will support the ISIS to win the war against Kurds in the northern Syria. An ISIS victory in northern Syria would a) weaken the YPG and Kurdish cantons and reduce a risk of Kurds in Turkey to speak up in the future and b) strengthen the Turkish position within the Western coalition against the ISIS and will make it easier to find support for the creation of a buffer zone between Turkey and Syria/ISIS. This buffer zone would weaken the power and independence of the Kurdish cantons as well as Kurdish armed groups (30).

Thus, ISIS was not winning the war against the YPG and a possible YPG victory was a nightmare for Turkey as it would strengthen Kurds and create new cross-border coalitions between Kurdish groups. The general election of June 2015 was a surprise and total disappointment for the AKP (Justice and Development Party) that had been governing the country since 2002. The AKP lost 69 seats and the Kurdish party called People’s Democratic Party (HDP) won 53 new seats. The new distribution of seats in the Parliament made it impossible for the AKP to govern alone and necessitated a coalition government. The AKP needs to increase its vote moving forward before a possible early election that might be held in November 2015. The ISIS attack against socialists going to Kobane in the Kurdish border town Suruç  gave the government the perfect opportunity. President Erdoğan condemned the attack as a terrorist attack against Turkey even though these groups have been considered as pro-Kurdish by the government. By politically hijacking the attacks, the AKP government moved toward its goal that the YPG-ISIS war could not achieve by itself. They sought to get rid of a possible cross-border Kurdish alliance and ISIS simultaneously, killing two birds with one stone. They planned to do this by getting the support of the Western allies, especially the US. Three days after the Suruç attack, Turkey agreed to grant US access to Incirlik air base located in southern Turkey in exchange for the US tacit agreement on a buffer zone and no-fly zone, a crucial change on the level of international relations. Five days after the attack, Turkey started to conduct air strikes targeting both ISIS and the PKK, with some pointing out that the majority of the attacks have actually been against the Kurds, not ISIS (31). Patrick Cockburn even went so far to claim that this may be the largest mistake the USA has made in its policy toward the Middle East since the 2003 invasion of Iraq (32).

In conclusion, the Turkish state, especially the AK Party who holds so much influence inside it, has played a risky game for some time. Various journalists and commentators have all discussed Turkey’s apparent willingness to tolerate the presence of ISIS/IS/ داعش as long as they were suppressing the presence of the Kurds in Syria. After the June 2015 election, President Erdoğan stated that Turkey would never allow the creation of an independent state on its southern border (33). He also accused Kurdish forces of ethnic cleansing in Syria (34). Today, Turkey is continuing to play a very dangerous game. After opening borders to the ISIS members and letting them to recruit and gain sympathy of religious extremist groups in Turkey, it will be very difficult for Turkey to ensure stability and peace back within its own territories let alone in the cross-border region. Plus, by attacking Kurds, the government risks plunging Turkey back to the 1990s when the PKK-Turkish were at war and the number of terror attacks and civilian casualties reached its peak. It should not be lost on anyone that these bold attacks are being carried out by a temporary government who suffered a setback in the polls not long before. Finally, given that the YPG forces have been one of the most resilient and effective fighting forces against ISIS, the Turkish state is weakening one of ISIS’ main enemies.


1) ABC News. 2015. ‘Turkish Officials Identify Suspect In Deadly Suruc Suicide Blast’. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-07-22/turkish-officials-identify-suspect-in-deadly-suruc-suicide-blast/6638256

2) Hurriyetdailynews.com, 2015. ‘INTERNATIONAL – As It Happened: Turkish Army Engages In First Gunfight With ISIL After Soldier Killed On Border’. http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/as-it-happened-turkish-army-engages-in-first-gunfight-with-isil-after-soldier-killed-on-border.aspx?PageID=238&NID=85843&NewsCatID=359

3) Uras, Umut. 2015. ‘Turkey To Boost Border Security After ‘ISIL’ Attack’. Aljazeera.Com. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/07/turkey-bolster-border-security-suruc-attack-150721000033031.html

4) Hurriyetdailynews.com,. 2015. ‘INTERNATIONAL – As It Happened: Turkish Army Engages In First Gunfight With ISIL After Soldier Killed On Border’. http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/as-it-happened-turkish-army-engages-in-first-gunfight-with-isil-after-soldier-killed-on-border.aspx?PageID=238&NID=85843&NewsCatID=359

5) Syrianrefugees.eu,. 2015. ‘Lebanon | Syrian Refugees’. http://syrianrefugees.eu/?page_id=72

6) Syrianrefugees.eu,. 2015. ‘Jordan | Syrian Refugees’. http://syrianrefugees.eu/?page_id=87

7) Ferris, Elizabeth. 2015. ‘What Turkey’S Open-Door Policy Means For Syrian Refugees’. The Brookings Institution. http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/order-from-chaos/posts/2015/07/08-turkey-syrian-refugees-kirisci-ferris

8) Syrianrefugees.eu,. 2015. ‘Iraq | Syrian Refugees’. http://syrianrefugees.eu/?page_id=83

9) Bacchi, Umberto. 2015. ‘Isis In Lebanon: Hezbollah And Lebanese Army Pincer Islamic State Jihadists In Qalamoun Mountains’. International Business Times UK. http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/isis-lebanon-hezbollah-lebanese-army-pincer-islamic-state-jihadists-qalamoun-mountains-1505210

10) “Esad’a Dedik Ki,” HÜRRİYET – TÜRKİYE’NİN AÇILIŞ SAYFASI, accessed July 13, 2015, http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/planet/23369504.asp

11) Goodenough, Patrick. 2011. ‘Syrian President Assad Regarded As a ‘Reformer,’ Clinton Says’. http://cnsnews.com/news/article/syrian-president-assad-regarded-reformer-clinton-says

12) Hersh, Jashua. 2011. Obama: Syrian President Assad Must Step Down’. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/18/obama-assad_n_930229.html

13) “BBC Turkce – Haberler – Erdoğan: Esad’a halkı da inanmıyor, biz de,” accessed July 13, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/turkce/haberler/2011/09/110914_erdogan_syria.shtml

14) Weiss, Michael. ‘Syrian Rebels Say Turkey Is Arming And Training Them – Telegraph Blogs’. News – Telegraph Blogs. http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/michaelweiss/100159613/syrian-rebels-say-turkey-is-arming-and-training-them/

15) Ibid.

16) Pamuk, Humeyra, and Nick Tattersall. 2015. ‘Exclusive: Turkish Intelligence Helped Ship Arms To Syrian Islamist Rebel Areas’. Reuters. http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/05/21/us-mideast-crisis-turkey-arms-idUSKBN0O61L220150521

17) Hersh, Seymour. 2015. ‘LRB · Seymour M. Hersh · The Red Line And The Rat Line: Erdoğan And The Syrian Rebels’. London Review Of Books. http://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n08/seymour-m-hersh/the-red-line-and-the-rat-line

18) Higgins, Eliot, and Dan Kaszeta. 2014. ‘It’s Clear That Turkey Was Not Involved In The Chemical Attack On Syria | Eliot Higgins And Dan Kaszeta’. The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/apr/22/allegation-false-turkey-chemical-attack-syria

19) Anfenglish.com,. 2015. ‘ANF | Ajansa Nûçeyan A Firatê’. http://anfenglish.com/kurdistan/turkish-mit-agent-within-isis-captured-in-mosul

20) Chulov, Martin. 2015. ‘Turkey Sends In Jets As Syria’S Agony Spills Over Every Border’. The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/26/isis-syria-turkey-us?CMP=share_btn_tw

21) Pamuk, Humeyra and Nick Tattersall. 2015. ‘Exclusive: Turkish intelligence helped ship arms to Syrian Islamist Rebel Areas’. Reuters. http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/05/21/us-mideast-crisis-turkey-arms-idUSKBN0O61L220150521 22)

Vilmaz, Guler. 2014. ‘Opposition MP Says ISIS Is Selling Oil In Turkey – Al-Monitor: The Pulse Of The Middle East’. Al-Monitor. http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/tr/business/2014/06/turkey-syria-isis-selling-smuggled-oil.html

23) Business Insider. 2015. ‘REVEALED: The Oil Middleman Between The Syrian Regime And ISIS’. http://www.businessinsider.com/revealed-the-oil-middleman-between-the-syrian-regime-and-isis-2015-3?IR=T

24) Erciyes, Cem. 2014. ‘Islamic State Makes Millions From Stolen Antiquities – Al-Monitor: The Pulse Of The Middle East’. Al-Monitor. http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/tr/security/2014/09/turkey-syria-iraq-isis-artifacts-smuggling.html 25) Erkus, Golkhan. 2014. ‘Turkish Border Smuggling Thrives Under IS – Al-Monitor: The Pulse Of The Middle East’. Al-Monitor. http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/business/2014/08/turkey-syria-iraq-isis-export-increase.html

26) Cakirozer, Utku. 2012. ‘Esad: Erdogan’a Vahiy mi Indi?’ http://www.cumhuriyet.com.tr/koseyazisi/354604/Esad__Erdogan_a_vahiy_mi_indi_.html

27) Fraser, Susan. 2015. ‘9 Detained In Car Bombings In Turkish Border Town’. The Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/12/turkey-car-bombings-9-detained-turkish-border-town_n_3262727.html

28) Rudaw.com. 2015. ‘Assad: Erdogan Is ‘personally Responsible’ for Syrian Chaos’ Rudawhttp://rudaw.net/english/middleeast/syria/260120151

29) Soncan, Emre. 2015. ‘Turkey agrees to grant US access to İncirlik Air Base’. Today’s Zaman. http://www.todayszaman.com/diplomacy_turkey-agrees-to-grant-us-access-to-incirlik-air-base_394422.html and Tisdall, Simon. 2015. ‘US Deal With Turkey Over Isis May Go Beyond Simple Use Of An Airbase’. The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/24/us-deal-turkey-isis-incirlik-airbase-erdogan-obama?CMP=share_btn_tw

30) Geerdink, Frederike. 2015. ‘Erdoğan’ın Kirli Planı Bu Mu: IŞİD Kobani’ye, Türk Askeri Suriye’ye.’ Diken, http://www.diken.com.tr/kurtlere-gore-erdoganin-kirli-plani-isid-kobaniye-turk-askeri-suriyeye/

31) Cole, Juan. 2015. ‘Turkey’s New “War On Terror” Mainly Targeting Kurds’. Informed Comment. http://www.juancole.com/2015/07/turkeys-mainly-targeting.html

32) Cockburn, Patrick. 2015. ‘Is This America’s Worst Error In The Middle East Since The Iraq War?’. The Independent. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/turkey-conflict-with-kurds-was-approving-air-strikes-against-the-pkk-americas-worst-error-in-the-middle-east-since-the-iraq-war-10417381.html

33) Yahoo News. 2015. ‘Turkey Will ‘Never Allow’ Kurdish State In Syria Warns Erdogan’. http://news.yahoo.com/turkey-never-allow-kurdish-state-syria-warns-erdogan-133603673.html

34) Pamuk, Humeyra, and Umit Bektas. 2015. ‘Turkey Sees Signs Of ‘Ethnic Cleansing’ By Kurdish Fighters In Syria’. Reuters. http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/06/16/us-mideast-crisis-kurds-turkey-idUSKBN0OW1SA20150616