Not united against ISIS?
Earlier this month, foreign ministers from Russia, US-led NATO, Iran and Saudi Arabia, among other regional and international powers agreed on a united front against ISIS. However, the events on Tuesday could leave the agreement on tenterhooks. Turkey says it has shot down a Russian warplane that violated its airspace. For the sake of fairness, it must be noted that Russian jets, in the area to bomb neighboring Syria, have violated Turkish airspace in the past. Moscow had in fact issued an apology. Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin acknowledged the shoot-down but says the plane was in Syria, four kilometers from Turkey’s border. He described Turkey as “backstabbing” Russia and accused it of financing ISIS. For the uninitiated, Turkey is a member of NATO, thus making it a military ally of the US. In response, NATO has called an emergency meeting over the incident. The risk of a major escalation between Russia and NATO is very low, but this may nonetheless have serious repercussions on the weak alliance against ISIS. Moscow, meanwhile, has issued a diktat to Russian citizens not to go on holiday in Turkey, besides cutting off all official ties with Ankara. Unsurprisingly, US President Barack Obama and NATO have both backed the Turkey’s version of events. There are two major narratives that come out of this incident. First, despite all official efforts towards arriving at a consensus over Syria, certain irreconcilable strategic interests stand. NATO and Russia continue to differ on the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Besides targeting ISIS, Russia’s military involvement in Syria has also focused on striking NATO-backed anti-Assad rebels. Meanwhile, Russia remains consistent in its stand that all those elements who oppose Assad as terrorists. In fact, one of two Russian pilots, who ejected from the plane that was shot down, was reportedly killed by Syrian Turkmen rebels. The Turkmen rebels, who are linguistically and ethnically Turkish, have been backed by western powers in their bid to dislodge the Assad regime. According to western sympathizers, they have mostly aligned with non-jihadist anti-Assad rebel groups. However, the fact remains that they have also fought alongside militant Salafist rebel groups, including the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra in the Latakia province, close to the Turkish border in the northwest. Suffice to say, it was Washington, which described the al-Nusra as a foreign terrorist organization way back in 2012. Moreover, in a recent interview with Al Jazeera, former director of the US Defense Intelligence Agency Lieutenant General Michael Flynn confirmed that the White House’s sponsoring of radical jihadists (that would emerge as the Islamic State and Al Nusra) against the Assad regime in Syria was “a willful decision” by the Obama administration in 2012.
The second narrative that naturally stems from Washington’s double standards is something Putin had intimated: Turkey’s alleged role in facilitating the growth of ISIS. Turkey’s borders have been the primary thoroughfare for the entry of 15,000-20,000 foreign fighters, who have joined ISIS. Moreover, its military bases have used to distribute weapons and train rebel fighters against Assad, who have either surrendered or joined ISIS. As recent intelligence reports from Washington indicate, the weapons provided to rebel fighters have made their way to ISIS. Suffice to say, Turkey’s commitment to facilitate the flow of militant fighters into Syria had found resonance among its western backers. According to credible reports, Turkish businessmen had even struck lucrative deals with ISIS oil smugglers. These deals reportedly added an estimated $10 million per week to the terror group’s coffers. The links between ISIS and Turkish administration, however, grow further. Until the recent bombing in Ankara, ISIS members have told various media outlets that the Turkish administration had preferred to not engage them directly. Before going any further, a little context needs to be established. The Turkish administration has recently upped the offensive against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a left-wing rebel Kurdish group based in Turkey and Iraq. Since 1984, the PKK has waged an armed struggle against the Turkish state for cultural and political rights and self-determination for the Kurds in Turkey. Though both sides had called for a ceasefire in 2013, it did not last long. The direct result of Ankara’s policy against the Kurds is that Turkish jets have aimed their missiles at PKK targets both within its borders and Syria. What’s more unfortunate is that Turkish jets, under the cover American fighter planes, have in fact targeted the YPG, also known as People’s Defense Units, a military ally of the PKK. Credible reports on the ground have stated that the YPG has been the only effective ground force against ISIS. Finally, further meat to Putin’s claims came in the form of a recent US Special Forces raid in eastern Syria, which was successful in claiming the life of Abu Sayyaf, a ISIS official responsible for the group’s illegal oil business. While going through Sayyaf’s compound, US soldiers found hard drives that established close links between ISIS leaders and certain Turkish officials. According to Martin Chulov, a reputed journalist, who covers the Middle East for British daily The Guardian, “Senior Turkish officials have openly stated that the Kurds – the main US ally in Syria – pose more of a threat than Isis to Turkey’s national interests. Yet, through it all, Turkey, a NATO member, continues to be regarded as an ally by Europe. The US and Britain have become far less enamored, but are unwilling to do much about it.”