Turkey: Sizing Up Ankara's Connection to ISIS
With the power of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS, or, as it now calls itself, the Islamic State) growing and the amount of territory it controls increasing, Ankara is now facing some uncomfortable questions about what role it played in facilitating the organization's rise.
In a Washington Post piece from last week, reporters Anthony Faiola and Souad Mekhennet provide a fascinating insight into this issue, visiting Reyhanli, a Turkish town on the Syrian border where until recently ISIS fighters had the run of the place. From their article:
Before their blitz into Iraq earned them the title of the Middle East’s most feared insurgency, the jihadists of the Islamic State treated this Turkish town near the Syrian border as their own personal shopping mall.
And eager to aid any and all enemies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Turkey rolled out the red carpet.
In dusty market stalls, among the baklava shops and kebab stands, locals talk of Islamist fighters openly stocking up on uniforms and the latest Samsung smartphones. Wounded jihadists from the Islamic State and the al-Nusra Front — an al-Qaeda offshoot also fighting the Syrian government — were treated at Turkish hospitals. Most important, the Turks winked as Reyhanli and other Turkish towns became way stations for moving foreign fighters and arms across the border.
“Turkey welcomed anyone against Assad, and now they are killing, spreading their disease, and we are all paying the price,” said Tamer Apis, a politician in Reyhanli, where two massive car bombs killed 52 people last year. In a nearby city, Turkish authorities seized another car packed with explosives in June, raising fears of an Islamic State-inspired campaign to export sectarian strife to Turkey.
“It was not just us,” Apis said. “But this is a mess of Turkey’s making.”
As the Post article makes clear, Turkey has since made it more difficult for foreign fighters to cross its border on the way to Syria, but the perception still lingers in certain quarters that Ankara remains an ISIS benefactor.
More worrying for Ankara, though, should be what ISIS might be up to inside Turkey. An interesting recent report on the Mashable website, for example, looked at how ISIS is recruiting young Turkish men to go fight for it in Syria and Iraq. And while reports of a "jihadi gift shop" in Istanbul selling ISIS-branded clothing and souvenirs might have drawn some chuckles, a recent Al-Monitor piece by Orhan Kemal Cengiz suggests that the organization may be behind much more troubling things in Turkey than just selling t-shirts.
As Cengiz writes, a "new Salafism" may be taking root in Turkey, a development that could lead Ankara to deeply regret its initial support for ISIS.