By Irina Tsukerman
SUMMARY: The paper discusses whether Turkey’s efforts to portray itself as a counterterrorism partner to Israel are legitimate given its history of cozying up to extremists, even jihadists, and its role in assorted self-serving political provocations. It provides close examination of the recently disrupted ISIS plot against Jewish and European targets in the context of the Turkey-Russia-NATO tensions.
While the world’s attention has been squarely on the deadly earthquake which has shaken Turkey and Syria, costing nearly 3500 lives as of the time of this submission, only a few days before this natural disaster, Turkey was on the brink of a different, self-inflicted security fiasco. Turkey uncovered a vast plot by the Islamic state to target European embassies and synagogues allegedly in retaliation for the burning of the Quran in front of the Turkish embassy in Sweden. The embassies targeted belonged to Sweden and Netherlands; at least 15 members were rounded up as they were working on the Istanbul plot. In recent months, Ankara has publicized its counterterrorism operations, where attacks overwhelmingly targeted Jewish and Israeli individuals and sites, as a show of goodwill and positive relationship underscoring its political rapprochement with Jerusalem. However, upon closer examination the situation is far more complex and the optics are far worse for Erdogan’s government. Many of these security failures are directly attributable to Turkey’s own policies.
The Quran burning itself, while morally abhorrent, illustrates the opaque dynamics of Erdogan’s politicking. The operation was allegedly funded by a far-right journalist with Kremlin ties. The significance of this occurrence cannot be underestimated. Turkey’s reaction was swift in announcing that it would hold up Sweden’s and Finland’s candidacy to NATO. In the past, Turkey threatened to veto their membership unless Sweden turned over Kurdish-Swedish activists Erdogan had accused of being members of the PKK, a Kurdish rights party that Turkey considers terrorist. Erdogan also hoped to obtain a number of F-16 jet planes which President Biden had promised, but which were held up in Congress. In the past, Erdogan had used aviation for outright illegal and deadly strikes in Northern Iraq and to threaten Greece and Cyprus; empowered by sophisticated US jet planes he could renew the worst of Turkish operations in Syria, which have had a devastating impact on the Kurdish allies of the US, and to cause additional complications in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The Quran burning, though it had nothing to do with the Swedish governments or NATO-related tensions, served as the provocation Erdogan seemed to be waiting for to renew the assertion of his leverage through pressure at a critical. With the expectation of Russia’s renewed offensive, its growing military cooperation with Iran, and the Kremlin’s various measures to blunt the impact of international sanctions – whether through technological cooperation with China or through sales of its currency at the expense of US dollar – European states were looking to strengthen and increase NATO and the mutual defense expectations that come with it, sooner rather than later. There is not enough information available to project whether Russia made a brilliant calculation in assessing Erdogan’s position and predicting his reaction to such an incident, or whether Moscow and Ankara plotted this operation jointly, and Erdogan’s sound and fury was even more cynical and involved even more grandstanding than the alternative.
However, Turkey’s recent dealings with Russia suggest that their relationship goes far beyond incidental mutual benefit from policies embarrassing or otherwise damaging to NATO. For instance, Turkish banks were some of the leading entities to accept the Russian payment system which relieved the Turkish financial system and markets from some of the burdens of hyperinflation, allowing Moscow to continue reaping profits from oil and other exports despite sanctions. Likewise, it is becoming increasingly obvious that trade with Turkey directly funds Russia’s war in Ukraine; Turkish exports, including generators, rubber, and vehicles are supplementing the shortage of Russian supplies impacted by the sanctions. The warming between Moscow and Ankara is not new; it started with Erdogan’s purchase of S-400, after claiming distrust in the US government over its support of the Kurdish-staffed SDF in Syria and other issues, such as US support for the Turkish opposition leader Fethullah Gulen, and accusations of the alleged US role in the half-hearted 2016 attempted military coup against Erdogan. That cost Turkey its membership in the US-led F-35 program, which in turn was used in part to justify closer relations with Russia.
Despite territorial rivalry in various parts of the world, and various security related incidents that nearly brought the countries to an open confrontation, Russia actively sought out Turkey to weaken NATO and to divide Europe. Indeed, despite the growing European and American displeasure with Erdogan’s role inside NATO, there is no clear mechanism for a permanent expulsion of a member. Furthermore, Turkey has also played an important role in negotiating a major grain export deal between Ukraine and Russia, particularly crucial at a time of food insecurity related to the war, and in blocking Russian vessels en route to Syria. While Russia understands that Turkey will guard its own advantage in the strategically important areas, when it comes to manipulating and diminishing NATO influence, there is no daylight between these two strange bedfellows.
For that reason, the entire premise of the terrorist cell responding to the Quran burning incident with such fervor raises many questions, given that Turkey itself may have been complicit or at least not unwelcoming to the outrage, and given the strange combination of targets. That raises questions whether in fact that terrorist plot was “managed” from the start and disrupted with the sole purpose of scoring Turkey points on the international stage just as everyone is looking for a way to freeze its membership in NATO to prevent further damage.
But the politically expedient counterterrorism actions by the Turkish authorities are only a tip of the iceberg. A reasonable question is why there is such a significant ISIS presence in Turkey to begin with. Earlier last year, a North African-looking woman claiming to be a religious Syrian working with the PKK was accused of detonating a bomb in Istanbul, causing a deadly explosion. The story was filled with plot holes; PKK is atheist and does not employ non-Kurdish religious individuals. Moreover, the modus operandi of the attack was more similar to the Islamic State than to PKK, which particularly in recent years, aims at government targets, not civilians in the marketplace. WHatever the case may be, the roots of ISIS in Turkey goes back to Erdogan’s invasion of SYria, cooptation of local Arab militias, and the influx of ISIS-linked individuals into the country, some, reportedly along with their Yazidi slaves who were later reportedly sold off on Turkish markets.
Years later, there has been no crackdown to clear out the terrorist dens and to deport or imprison the genocide-perpetrating terrorists who were practically invited into Turkey. The terrorists attacks in Turkey attributed to ISIS led to Erdogan’s appeals to international goodwill, but in reality Erdogan himself enabled terror by disrupting SDF’s anti-ISIS operations, opening the doors to assorted jihadist groups, then allowing them to stay inside the country. Similarly, far from being praised for disrupting IRGC operations targeting Israeli diplomats, businessmen and tourists, as well as various Jewish sites in Turkey, Israel and others should ask why IRGC is able to operate with relative freedom in Turkey, even abducting and deporting a number of wanted dissidents and critics of the Iranian regime. Isn’t terrorism bad for Turkey’s growing tourism sector, that is supposed to benefit from low prices, poor economy, and normalized relations with Israel? Whatever Turkey’s political calculus in promoting itself as a counterterrorism partner for Israel, the financial and ideological support for religious extremism and the cultivation of “friendly” terrorists make Turkey more part of a problem than of solution.