After the attack, Turks protested their government.

Photographer: OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images

Turkey Angers the Jihadists It Once Tolerated

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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With Turkish authorities now singling out the Islamic State as the chief suspect in this weekend's terrorist attack in Ankara, many media outlets have turned their anger toward the government. Did Ankara invite this attack with a lax policy toward jihadists in Syria?

For years the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan allowed fighters, money and guns to flow into Syria, to the jihadists fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad. That began to change over the summer. U.S. military officials tell us that the Turks have recently done a better job of patrolling the border. In August, Erdogan also allowed U.S. and NATO aircraft to fly missions against the Islamic State from its military base in Incirlik, after nearly a year of negotiations.

This is in contrast to the Turkish security service, which was willing at times to turn a blind eye to the Islamic State and other jihadists in Syria who saw the Turkish border as a lifeline for cash, guns and fighters.

Last month the Treasury Department designated three facilitators for the Islamic State who operated in or through Turkey to help volunteers join the Islamic State in Syria. In 2014, Erdogan's government negotiated for the release of 47 Turkish diplomats the Islamic State had held hostage.  

Aykan Erdemir, who served in the opposition to Erdogan in Turkey's parliament until June and who is now a nonresident senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told us Erdogan's policy for most of Syria's civil war has been to support what it at first considered to be the moderate Islamist opposition to Assad, but slowly ended up supporting far more radical groups, like al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria known as al-Nusra Front. "Unfortunately Turkey is suffering the blowback from its entanglement with its proxy wars with what it considered moderate Islamists," Erdemir said of the attacks in Ankara.

Eric Edelman, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, told us that if it turns out that the Islamic State planned the attack over the weekend, then the violence flows from Turkey's murky support and tolerance for jihadists fighting Assad. But Edelman also stressed that no group has claimed responsibility for the attack in Ankara, or an earlier suicide bombing in Suruc this summer, which Turkish authorities have compared to the bombing over the weekend.

"Turkey has had a lax policy on its border," Edelman said. "It has given aid and comfort to Jabhat al Nusra. It's only relatively recently that Turkish authorities concluded these were not just misguided pious youth. If it turns out to be them, this is blowback."

One theory of the attack is that the Islamic State has started striking inside of Turkey in response to Erdogan's decision to allow NATO to use the Incirlik base. Michael Smith, the chief operating officer for Kronos Advisory, which tracks jihadist groups on the Internet, told us that Erdogan and Turkey have been featured more prominently in Islamic State propaganda in recent months. For example, the cover of the latest issue of Dabiq, the group's online English-language magazine, shows a photo of Erdogan and President Barack Obama.

"There has been a sizable uptick in pejorative references to Turkey in IS propaganda, Dabiq in particular," Smith told us. "These include reference to Turkey as 'Base #1' for the 'Sahwah,' repeated depictions of Turkey as an ally of al-Qaeda’s Syria branch, as well as a lengthy discussion of Turkey’s increased role in the Coalition to Counter IS in the most recent edition of Dabiq." Al-Qaeda's Syria branch has fought bitterly over territory with the Islamic State, even though the Islamic State was until 2014 formally part of al-Qaeda.

For now the Turkish government has sought to calm tensions, particularly because Turks will vote on Nov. 1 for new members of parliament. That election is important for Erdogan, who is hoping he will win enough of a legislative majority to make changes to the constitution that will strengthen his powers as president.

Erdogan's ally and prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, has said publicly that the bombings over the weekend are not a glimpse of things to come, trying to assure the public that Turkey is not now becoming Syria.

But Edelman said he was not so sure. "It was quite telling that Davutoglu said this does not mean Turkey is becoming Syria. I am very sorry to say this may well be what is happening here," he told us.

Turkish support of the Syrian opposition was always politically complicated, and Erdogan was under pressure to show results. Turkey gambled that Assad would fall fast and that Turkey would be able to influence what came next. But five years into the war, Assad seems more entrenched and the various groups opposing him fight each other as much as they fight the regime.

The U.S. has been pushing Erdogan to commit more resources to the fight against the Islamic State for years. The recent opening up of Incirlik Airbase for airstrikes against the group was a breakthrough. But Turkey's recent cooperation with the U.S.-led coalition has made Turkey a target for the Islamic State. As long as Assad and the Islamic State remain deadlocked in Syria, Turkey's terrorism problem will only get worse.

(Corrects name of group tracking jihadists in eighth paragraph.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the authors of this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net