The Obama Administration has often emphasised the critical importance of Turkey's role and participation in the anti-Islamic State coalition. A special presidential envoy for the coalition said that the US cannot succeed against the Daesh/Islamic State without Turkey. Is the Obama Administration naive? Or does it wilfully ignore Turkey's IS links?
Nearly a fortnight prior to the Paris attacks, the Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the downing of a Russian commercial plane carrying tourists from the Egyptian sea side resort of Shram-al Shaikh to St. Petersburg while it was flying over the Sinai. Russia had vowed to bring to justice the perpetrators responsible for the terrorist act. The November 13 Paris attacks not only brought about a unity amongst the members of the European Union but Russia too expressed solidarity with France in its fight against the IS. While Russian solidarity was welcome, its participation militarily was worrisome for some of the coalition members, essentially because it has been its stated objective to prop up the regime of Bashar al-Assad. (Russian intervention had begun in September 2015 in response to a request by the Syrian regime).
On 17 November 2015, in the wake of the attack on the Russian commercial jet over the Sinai and the Paris attacks, according to the Russian defence minister′s public report to the president of Russia Vladimir Putin, Russia employed TU-160, TU-95 MSM and TU-22M3 long range strategic bombers to hit what he claimed were the IS targets in Raqqa, Deir ez-Zor as well as targets in the provinces of Aleppo and Idlib.
Downing the SU-24 and its Consequences
In the course of its anti-IS operations, a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 bomber was shot down by F-16 fighters belonging to the Turkish Air Force on 24 November 2015. According to Turkey’s claims presented to the UN Security council, two planes, whose nationalities were unknown to them at the time, violated Turkish airspace over the Yayladaği province up to 1.36 miles for 17 seconds. The planes were given 10 warnings within the span of 5 minutes to change their course. According to Turkey, the planes disregarded the warnings and were subsequently fired upon by Turkish F-16s patrolling the area. After the Turkish fire, one of the planes left Turkish airspace and the other crashed into Syrian territory. The Russian Ministry of Defense denied that any of their planes had violated Turkey's airspace, claiming they had been flying south of the Yayladaği province.
This incident led to escalation of tensions between the Russians and Turkey and the North Atlantic Alliance of which Turkey is a member. According to Group Captain (Retd) PI Muralidharan the interception by the F-16s were pre-meditated. He explains: "From the track chart that has been shared with the media by Turkish Foreign Ministry it is clear that the engagement by the F-16 was premeditated. The Russian SU-24 hardly transgressed about 10 kilometres of Turkish airspace in a linear fashion. At the combat speeds that fighters fly, this would have given at the most 20-25 seconds (at 6 kilometres, which is the reported altitude of the SU-24). This would be far too short a time for the entire intercept drill to be executed. Furthermore, if missile flight time is included, this timeframe would shrink further to just approximately 15 seconds. Can an ideal air defence intercept take place in this compressed timeframe? No, it cannot. Even if the entire identification process preceded the missile launch, clearly the Turkish F-16 pilot must have been pre-positioned by his controlling radar or Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) in a vantageous position relative to the SU-24, shooting it as soon as it crossed the border, theoretically that is."
What caused particular chagrin in Moscow was Ankara’s determination to say from the outset that it deliberately shot down the plane instead of going for a face-saving explanation. Since then, Ankara has taken a largely defiant posture towards Russia. That Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan boasted he himself gave the order to fire only made things worse. While subsequently President Erdoğan has expressed regret and said that he was “truly saddened” by the downing, he refused to issue an apology as demanded of him by Moscow. On the contrary, he has said that those who violate Turkish airspace should be the ones to apologise.
The Russian military, in response to the downing of their aircraft deployed its advanced S-400 air defense missile system to the Syrian airbase of Hmeimim (Latakia province), only 18 miles from the Turkish border. This is a military game changer, with a senior Israeli officer describing its deployment as his country’s “worst nightmare.” With a radius of 250 miles and the ability to target up to 36 aircraft or cruise missiles simultaneously, Russia now possesses the capability to take down a Turkish plane any time it wishes. It also eliminates the possibility that the West could establish a no-fly zone over northern Syria — a step long demanded by Ankara. Putin also ordered Russian air-to-air fighter jets to accompany its bombers on all flights over Syrian airspace thereby enabling Russia to shoot down a Turkish jet on the Turkish-Syrian border, and then assert, after the fact, that it was close to attacking a Russian plane.
At the heart of this incident lies the fundamental difference between Russia and Turkey over Assad. Russia supports Assad’s regime while Turkey is one of Assad’s staunchest opponents. The downing of the SU-24 was nothing less than the ongoing proxy war between Russia and Turkey for a moment becoming a hot one. Beyond the emotions, it serves Kremlin’s strategic objectives in Syria to take an unforgiving line against Turkey as it puts pressure on Turkey to step back from supporting anti-Assad rebels.
Turkey's flawed foreign policy
The neo-Ottoman aspirations of incumbent Turkish President Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), given its recent improved showing in the presidential polls, have been the guiding force in Ankara’s foreign policy. Its Syrian policy has been tumultuous ranging from cultivating Assad in the mid-2000s to seeking his removal in 2011 when the Syrian uprising began. Turkey had appealed to the US to intervene in Syria and to oust Assad. However, Obama, who had no intention of deploying forces in the Middle East, dithered. With Ankara's Syria policy in disarray, it decided to turn a blind eye to the increasing number of radicalised young men who used Turkish territory to wage a holy war against Assad.
American and European officials first raised concerns in 2012 that jihadists were using Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul to make their way to the Turkish city of Gaziantep before heading into Syrian territory to join the IS in its fight against the Syrian regime. But the Turks dragged their feet on imposing border controls, and instead charged that Europe was not providing them timely intelligence about the IS sympathisers from Belgium, Germany and France entering Turkey.
Over time, extremism became a veritable instrument of Turkish statecraft—and also, not surprisingly, a threat within Turkey’s borders. Turkey, along with another problematic American ally, Saudi Arabia, provided support to Ahrar al-Sham, which in turn allegedly provided assistance to Jabhat al Nusra, both Syrian rebel groups that are linked to Al Qaeda. And while Ankara might think it can rein in these groups, it clearly cannot: Within Turkey’s borders, extremists have built up their own infrastructure, including communications networks, safe houses, medical facilities and illicit commerce that exist to support the fight in Syria. It would be naive to think that this could not be used in a fight against Turkey. The scenario that is emerging is similar to that of Pakistan which was propped up as a front line state in the West’s war against the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and years later to combat the terrorist belonging to the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Pakistan itself was caught up in the vortex of violence and continues to be embroiled in the Afghan quagmire.
But critics have alleged that Erdoğan’s government has been unwilling to shut down supply lines from Turkey to territory controlled by IS. Certainly, questions about Turkey’s conduct toward the group remain unanswered. For instance, given all the violence that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s followers have perpetrated, why were 46 Turks that IS took hostage in Mosul released unharmed? Turkish and Western observers speculated that the Turks provided cash or guns or both to secure the release of these diplomats and their families, but neither Erdoğan nor any other Turkish official provided a clear explanation.
Erdoğan’s links to the Islamic State
A US-led raid on the compound housing the Islamic State's ‘chief financial officer’ Abu Sayyaf produced evidence that Turkish officials directly dealt with senior IS members, according to Martin Chulov of the Guardian.
Islamic State official Abu Sayyaf was responsible for directing the terror group’s oil and gas operations in Syria. The Islamic State earns about $ 10 million per month selling oil on black markets.
Documents and flash drives seized during the Sayyaf raid reportedly revealed links “so clear” and “undeniable” between Turkey and IS “that they could end up having profound policy implications for the relationship between us and Ankara,” a senior western official familiar with the captured intelligence told the Guardian.
Erdoğan, being an Islamist himself and leader of a radical political party, the AKP has had no compunction in colluding with the Islamic State. There are several strategic and economic reasons for his proximity to the terrorist group: firstly, it is simply to avoid IS carrying out terror attacks inside Turkey; secondly, having embarked on a program of Islamisation of Turkey, Erdoğan does not see anything wrong in the IS ideology; thirdly, he has been using the elements of the IS to fight against his arch enemies, viz., the Kurds and Syrian President Assad; fourthly, and most importantly, Erdoğan’s family members and high ranking Turkish officials have been actively involved and are beneficiaries of the cross border smuggling of oil from Syria.
Erdoğan who always sheds crocodile tears for the plight of Syrians trapped between the hammer of hunger and the anvil of IS extremism, conceals the fact that his own son, Bilal Erdoğan, is involved in lucrative business of smuggling the Iraqi and Syrian plundered oil. Bilal Erdoğan who owns several maritime companies, had allegedly signed contracts with European operating companies to carry Iraqi stolen oil to different Asian countries.
A London-educated scion of wealthy family and the eldest daughter of totalitarian President Erdoğan, Sümeyye Erdoğan, more than once announced her intention to be dispatched to Mousl, Iraq’s once second-biggest city and IS’ stronghold to do relief works as a volunteer which drew public ire and vast condemnation from Turkey’s opposition parties. Moreover, the Turkish opposition parties accused the administration of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of seeking diligently to hide the truth concerning numerous financial malfeasances Erdoğan’s son, Bilal Erdoğan, was involved.
It is not just Russia that has been raising these questions about Turkish involvement in the oil smuggling racket. International media, including the Financial Times, have been running stories tracing just how IS refines oil then sells it to freelance traders, some of whom smuggle it into Turkey for resale on the black market.
Similar reports record how IS and other armed units smuggle in weapons and fighters across the same border areas.
In the light of these accusations, it can be inferred that the downing of the SU-24 was a pre-meditated act intended to send a message to the Russians to stay away from the Turkey-Syrian border.
Turkey a frontline state against IS terror?
What is Turkey’s importance in the war against IS? Given Turkey’s proximity to the IS, Turkey’s value is limited to real estate. The existence of Incirlik Air Base along with the fact that Turkey shares a 500-mile border with Syria is Erdoğan’s trump card. At least for the moment. Erdoğan’s raving and ranting and sabre-rattling may last till Obama’s tenure in the White House. In fact there are very few even in the Obama Administration who believe that Turkey can be part of the solution to the Syrian problem. As of today, Washington appears content to be able to access Incirlik.
As long as Washington refrains from pulling up Ankara for its closeness with the IS, Turkey and Erdoğan will continue to play a double game in the so-called war against the IS, akin to Pakistan’s policy of “running with the hares and hunting with the hounds.”