“Turkey: wayward U.S. ally, catalyst of conflict in ISIS and Syria” By: Terence Rosenthal


In recent decades, and throughout the ISIS-Syria conflict, Turkey has been a controversial ally of NATO. The Turks have attempted to engage Russia via the downing of a Russian jet. They have purchased oil from ISIS through the black market. In addition, the Turks have funded radical groups like Hamas, and have turned a blind eye to radical jihadists coming in and out of their country. What drives Turkey, and what can the U.S. do to assure that the Turks promote stability in the region, and become a more reliable ally in terms of the greater interests of the U.S., the west, and NATO?


Turkey and NATO

Recently, Turkey shot down a Russian jet that was apparently trespassing over its sovereign territory. Whether or not the pilot of this jet was violating Turkish territory, NATO is placed in precarious situation with respect to Turkey in this incident and other aspects having to do with the ISIS-Syrian conflict. “Tensions between Russia and Turkey are at all times highs following the downing of a Russian Su-24 bomber by Turkish forces along the Syrian border on November 24. Russian leader Vladimir Putin called the attack “a stab in Russia’s back” and said that there would be severe consequences for Turkish/Russian relations” (VanNess 2015). “Not only is Turkey in a delicate situation, but also as a member of NATO, Turkey’s actions are placing the United States and other western nations in a precarious situation” (VanNess 2015).

Do the Turks have a desire to cajole members of NATO, including the U.S. into a greater war with Russia? Perhaps events in the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine have the Turks worried that they will bear the brunt of similar bullying on the part of Russia next. It is possible that the Turks feel spurned by Russia for backing Iranian proxies like the Assad regime. Perhaps the downing of the Russian jet is a statement from Turkey to the Arab world that Turkey, and pro-Islamist supporters of president Erdogan in particular will lead the charge against an all-powerful Shia crescent in the Middle East. This may be both noble and ambitious on the part of the Turks, however, it is not yet clear who in the Sunni Arab world follow Turkey’s lead.


Is Turkey buying ISIS oil?

American officials in Turkey are revealing that oil from ISIS is being sold to Turkish businessmen. The reason why these businessmen are willing to buy black market oil from ISIS is because it is highly inexpensive, being sold at half of market value. In addition, black market oil is often sold through middlemen who create distance, acting as third parties, between those who purchase ISIS oil. With this in mind, even Bilal Erdogan, the son in law of the Turkish president has been accused of purchasing oil on the black market from ISIS. “Experts and U.S. Treasury officials agree that a significant portion of ISIS’ oil is being sold in Turkey, with the majority sold to middlemen acting on behalf of Turkish businessmen” (Masi 2015).  “The international effort to starve ISIS by denying it access to oil markets has been undermined by the hunger for profit among officials who share proximity to the high-value commerce, and who are aided by ordinary people trying to eke out an existence in a conflict zone” (Masi 2015). “ISIS sells roughly 100,000 barrels of oil a day from its territory in Iraq and Syria for an average cost of $20 a barrel, former CIA Director Mike Morell said last month. The price tends to increase by a few dollars when there is a battle, according to Samuel Laurent’s book “L’Etat Islamique,” but prices remain between 50 and 60 percent lower than market value” (Masi 2015).

It is possible that Turkey views the purchasing of ISIS oil as win-win for Turkish interests. Less revenue lost to the purchase of oil from the world market or Russia translates as greater revenue for the Turkish economy. Greater power given to ISIS for the purchase of their oil translates into greater power and representation of Sunni Islam in Syria and Iraq. Is greater prominence in the Sunni Arab world worth sacrificing regional stability? Is saving a few dollars per barrel on ISIS oil worth it with respect to the prospect of funding Islamic caliphate which desires hegemony over the entire Middle East?  Perhaps the Turks can be convinced that a formal border between itself and Kurdistan will assure stability and an end of age-old conflict between both neighbors. It is possible that Kurdistan will agree to sell oil at a reduced price to Turkey pending the establishment of an independent Kurdistan.


United States Military and Turkey

In recent years, the record of Turkey with respect to its relationship with the U.S. Military has been checkered. Originally Erdogan’s party, the AKP was a proponent of greater personal freedom of expression when it came to prominence in 2002. “…In 2002, the Department of Defense was among Turkey’s best friends inside the U.S. government. The Pentagon considered Turkey a staunch ally, and uniformed U.S. personnel had a deep affection for Turkey going back to U.S.-Turkish cooperation in the Cold War, and then in the Balkans in the 1990s” (Cagaptay 2015). “Following the September 11 attacks, the U.S. government, including the military, became preoccupied with identifying moderate Muslim allies. Turkey benefited from this endeavor, as the ruling pro-Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) won the elections in 2002, taking office on a platform of moderation” (Cagaptay 2015). However, the AKP, in its quest to link with Sunni Arabs of the Middle East has moved in an anti-western direction, rejecting the secular routes of modern Turkey. Many view this as a return to Ottoman sensibilities.

It is possibly Erdogan’s promotion of Sunni Islam which led the Turks not to properly vet its jihadist that went into Syria at the start of the Syrian civil war. As a result, many Turks have been radicalized by groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS. One of Turkey’s main armed proxies, Ahrar al-Sham is almost as radical as Al Qaeda. “When the Arab Spring arrived in Syria, at Turkey’s doorstep in 2011, Ankara jumped into the Syrian uprising ahead of Washington. However, it also turned a blind eye to the jihadists, who were going into Syria to fight the Assad regime” (Cagaptay 2015). “Of course, that has not happened. In the interim, at least some of the bad guys who have crossed into Syria have morphed into the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS)” (Cagaptay 2015).

A true anti-western snub on the part of the Turks was the purchase of a Chinese defense system in 2013. “The U.S. military’s confidence in Turkey was shaken further in 2013 when Turkey decided to buy a Chinese air defense system, raising rare public objections from Washington” (Cagaptay 2015). It is highly beneficial for the U.S. and NATO that the Turks are letting the U.S. use its air bases. However, Turkey has been dragging its feet with respect to closing off a sixty mile hole in its border. This hole has allowed the passage of jihadists and ISIS oil. “In July, Turkey granted the United States access to use its military bases to conduct air operations against the Islamic State (IS) and to station search and rescue teams. This may have insulated it from Western frustration at Turkey’s slow efforts to close off a remaining 98-kilometer (60-mile) stretch of the Turkish-Syrian border that US officials say is being used by foreign fighters to enter Syria and by IS to smuggle oil” (Rozen 2015).

It is not clear if the eradication of ISIS is of the utmost importance with respect to the Turks. “‘Our priorities are very different,’ Barkey, head of Middle East studies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, told Al-Monitor on Dec. 1. ‘For Turkey, the priority is getting rid of [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad first, preventing the Syrian Kurds from consolidating and moving west of the Euphrates. [Combating IS] is No. 3 on their priorities’” (Rozen 2015).

The Turks consider the toppling of Assad as very important. This may be beneficial to U.S. and western interests. However, in terms of western interests, particularly the interests of NATO countries, the Turks are currently placing too much importance on secondary goals like nullifying the Kurds rather than on fighting ISIS. Turkey may end up placing too much preference on Sunni Islamic radicalism if it is not tempered by U.S. and other western voices in NATO. “NATO has thrown its support towards Turkey throughout this incident. However, under the leadership of, Recep Tayyep Erdogan, Turkey has largely undermined the U.S. and NATO, and has not been a strong ally. Despite, on the surface, involvement in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), Erdogan prefers to use this fight against ISIS as a pretext to attack Kurdish militia groups instead” (VanNess 2015).

Turkey may in fact be placing more value on thwarting the Kurds than at stopping ISIS. The Kurds have offered ISIS the most reliable opposition of any group in the region. Many of the “moderates” the Turks fund are offshoots of Al Qaeda. Although the ISIS-Syrian conflict may be too large for the west to rely only on the Kurds as its regional boots on the ground, the west must assure that Turkey give the Kurds some level of diplomatic latitude so that they are not nullified by fighting on two fronts. While some level Sunni Muslim leadership in Syria is inevitable after the ISIS-Syrian conflict is resolved, Kurdish autonomy must be considered if the Turkish-Kurdish rivalry is to come to a close as well.


Russia and Turkey

Like Europe, Turkey depends on Russian oil. Until the incident involving the Russian jet took place, Erdogan was planning on building a pipeline below the Black Sea to Turkey. Now, Russia has decided not to build this pipeline. “Gazprom has been in talks with Turkey to develop the Turkish Stream natural gas pipeline, to ship Russian gas underneath the Black Sea to Turkey. Russia is Turkey’s largest gas supplier and the pipeline was designed to be an alternative route for Russian natural gas heading to Europe that circumvents Ukraine, giving Russia the ability to diminish Ukraine as an important energy transit state. However, Russian Minister of development, Alexi Ulyukayev, announced that Russia is canceling Turkish Stream” (VanNess 2015).

It is possible that further controversial behavior on the part of the Turks will leave Europe in jeopardy with respect to its supply of Russian oil. Unfortunately, European members of NATO have given too much power to Russia with respect to the supply of their oil. It is not guaranteed that members of NATO will back Turkey if its actions reach a certain level of provocation with Russia. Witness the weak European and American reaction with respect to Russian takeover in Crimea. “Russia holds energy hegemony in the region. Russia’s state-owned gas company, Gazprom provides energy to many countries throughout Europe. While Gazprom has numerous deals with various European counterparts, including a recent strategic alliance with Royal Dutch Shell, The Company regularly acts as a weapon in Putin’s arsenal, often forgoing profits in order to help push the Kremlin’s agenda” (VanNess 2015).

The good news is that the Russian economy will crumble if its prime customers from Western Europe were forced to stop purchasing oil from Russia due to a major conflict in the Black Sea. After witnessing Russia’s focused response toward Turkey, and not NATO as a whole, it is apparent that Putin has no willful desires to take on NATO in addition to its intervention in the Syria-ISIS conflict. Turkey must roll back its posturing against Russia and instead, focus on greater relations with states capable of selling the Turks quantities of comparable in price and volume as the Russians. This involves Turkey working with its oil-rich neighbors, the Kurds, the Turkmen, and Azerbaijan. If the Turks noticeably roll back some of its support for Sunni radicalism, it may be possible for them to attain lucrative deals with these countries.


Turkey and the Sunni Arab world

A logical reason for Erdogan supporting radical Sunni groups is that the AKP wishes to solidify support from the Sunni Arab world by assuring the Sunnis that Turkey stands behind their regional initiatives. “Since coming to power in 2002, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, has made a strategic choice to reintegrate Turkey into the regional Arab political system” (Abaza 2009). However, Erdogan has made gross miscalculations in his quest for Sunni Arab support. The Turkish president has managed to turn Russia and Israel, two of its largest trading partners into rivals. In addition, after bearing the brunt of Sunni Islamic radical upheavals in their own countries, many Sunni Arab nations cannot afford to endorse the radical Islamic groups that Turkey has helped prosper.


Turkey and Israel

As the Erdogan administration gives greater political voice to Sunni Islamists in Turkey, he seeks to undo the relations that previous politically secular administrations developed in the past. Even after the Gaza flotilla incident of 2010, Turkey and Israel managed to maintain a profitable trade partnership. However, preceding this incident, Turkey and Israel were also productive political allies. “Previously, Arab states perceived Turkey as an anti-Arab and pro-Israel actor, but this perception is now being reversed” (Abaza 2009). In spite of being a NATO ally of the United States, the Erdogan regime has managed to link with Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, a notorious terror group who seeks the eradication of Israel. “Erdogan has met with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and has expressed public support and financial assistance to the terrorist group Hamas” (VanNess 2015). The close relationship which Obama has with Erdogan has caused many who are against these terror organizations to question the judgement of both of these leaders with respect to stability in the Middle East. Israel has had to attack Hamas installations in the Palestinian territories. With respect to the Obama administration, “They consider the undermining of the Egyptian ceasefire proposals and the turning toward Qatar and Turkey – supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas – as another example of the US betraying its allies and engaging its enemies” (Leibler 2014).


Turkey and the Kurds

Politically, Turkish Kurds who were once divided in their allegiance to the Erdogan administration now stand squarely against him. This may be beneficial with respect Turkish Kurds building Kurdish unity between those in Syria, Iraq, and Iran. “For one thing, Turkey’s Kurdish problem has changed. Until this year, Turkey’s 10 to 12 million-strong Kurdish community, representing about 15 percent of the Turkish population, wasn’t a unified political force; its internal splits followed the fault lines of the country as a whole” (Cagaptay 2015). “…During Turkey’s most recent elections in June 2015…the Kurds – liberal, conservative, and nationalist alike – coalesced around the Kurdish-nationalist Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP)” (Cagaptay 2015).

The benefit of an independent Kurdistan is that the Turks could allocate less time and resources protecting their Kurdish rivals in organizations like the PKK. “…Many Turks still distrust Kurdish nationalism. This attitude is especially prevalent among the military establishment and its extensive civilian support network. Such sentiments make the military unsympathetic to calls for aiding the PKK-aligned Kurdish groups fighting ISIS in northern Syria” (Stafford 2015). Having an independent Kurdistan with clear, protected borders will provide the Turks with the security of knowing they will not be agitated by groups like the PKK. This will also allow the Kurds to focus on defending key resources and territory against ISIS.


Deadlock regarding Assad 

Ambiguity with respect to the U.S.’ main mission in the Syria-ISIS conflict is allowing the Turks to veer away from eradicating ISIS. To reiterate, politically, Turkey views regime change in Syria as more important than getting rid of ISIS. This is why the Turks are reluctant to completely close their Southern border. Many speak of toppling Assad. However, who will replace him? “Further, the Middle East battleground is crowded with competing ethnic, sectarian and tribal interests, most of which harbor jihadist sympathies. So, with which should the U.S. ally itself against ISIS: the al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra? The Turkish-backed Ahrar al-Sham? Are we helping Bashar al-Assad cling to power by fighting side-by-side with Hezbollah and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp?” (Hoekstra and Lopez 2015). Recently in Vienna, it was predictable who wished to see Assad remain, and who desired to see him exit. “At a rare but inconclusive round of talks in Vienna on Friday that brought together many of the main countries involved in Syria, ‘the Russians were in favor (of Assad), the Americans were against, the Turks were against, the Saudis were against, the Iranians were in favor’, Yaalon said” (Reuters 2015). However, all the only thing reiterated from these talks is the apparent Sunni-Shia divide, and the fact that no middle-ground exists.


Full representation at future negotiations?

To restate, one possible reason why Turkey shot down a Russian jet in late November was for Erdogan to show the Sunni Arab world that he is not afraid to lead on their behalf. Currently in the Middle East with respect to ISIS-Syria, it is apparent that two axes will form. There will be a Shiite axis represented by Russia, Iran, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. In contrast, there will be a Sunni axis represented by the U.S., Turkey, Saudi Arabia, members of the GCC, and Jordan. In addition, a neutral axis consisting of France, Israel, and possibly some NATO allies like Great Britain and Germany may arise to tamp down any threat of Russian oil boycotts to Europe, or territorial overflows into Israeli territories. Regarding the Sunni axis, “These states, from Saudi Arabia to Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, will and must have a say in what happens next. They will not allow a nuclear-armed Iranian hegemony to expand unchallenged. They recognize that the U.S. has been an unreliable ally at best, as it facilitated the overthrow of Sunni regimes in Iraq, Egypt, Libya and Yemen and allowed for the advancement of Iran’s nuclear weapons capabilities” (Hoekstra and Lopez 2015). With respect to the Shiite axis, “…Russia and Iran remain Assad allies and will resist having the Syrian president pushed aside–at least pushed aside indiscriminately” (Seib 2015).


Sunni buffer zones and territories

It is understandable why the Erdogan regime has taken provocative action during the course of the Syria-ISIS conflicts. Many territories that will be in dispute as events play out in this conflict. Eventually the Syria-ISIS conflict will spill over into countries that have stayed relatively quiet as events have unfolded. When this happens, Sunni nations that have laid low will have to confront ISIS. There may very well be conferences establishing the future makeup of the region before this happens. Sunni countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia will want a prominent place at the table so they to be on the winning end of future mediation. In the negotiations between the U.S. and Iran, countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel felt betrayed by the U.S. After Russia entered Syria to defend Assad regime, Erdogan felt marginalized by Putin. “Ultimately driving out Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq will require finding fellow Sunni Muslim ground forces to finish the job and then stabilize Syria. Yet for now, other Sunni states also don’t want to get trapped in Syrian internal warfare” (Seib 2015). Inspiring these Sunni states to take on ISIS will require territorial incentive at the negotiation table. For many Sunnis, at least ISIS counters the push for Shia regional dominance. “Whether we like it or not, ISIS currently plays a role in the balancing act between Shia and Sunni in the Middle East. What happens to the equilibrium once it is removed from the equation?” (Hoekstra and Lopez 2015). “Have we considered that the very rise of ISIS, with broad support from local Sunni states, was itself a reaction to the removal of Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi army as the only credible counterweight to the Shiite rulers in Tehran?” (Hoekstra and Lopez 2015).



Based on the Erdogan administration’s recent behavior, it is probable that the Turks are attempting to assert a few key objectives. First, Turkey desires to be a chief representative of the Sunni Arab world at the bargaining table in terms of designing the makeup of territories in Syria and Iraq pending the defeat of ISIS. Second, after siding with the Sunni Arab world, Turkey wishes to assure that it has ample fuel supplies in spite of former business deals it had with Russia regarding the trade of oil. Third, Turkey wishes to nullify the power of the PKK or any Kurdish entity that is a threat to Turkish hegemony in the region.  The one benefit of the downing of the Russian jet is that it has put into perspective whether or not members of NATO are willing to address the Russians head on. Unless NATO allies are willing to live without the purchase of Russian oil, then they must cut a deal with Russia and its allies. This deal must be based on who the prime U.S. allies are in the regions neighboring the ISIS-Syria conflict. With this in mind, Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries must have a place at the negotiating table pending the defeat of ISIS.





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