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How Turkey Plays the War on Terror

The United States’s engagement in the Middle East since 2001 would be a comedy of errors but for the fact that it is not funny. It all began with the exploitation of a befuddled President George W. Bush by a group of neoconservative advisers who had long planned to invade Iraq and oust its President Saddam Hussein using phony arguments about Baghdad being a nest of terrorists and a repository of weapons of mass destruction. The bungled occupation was followed by a prolonged case of democracy building that essentially destroyed Iraq as a nation and eventually led to a sectarian government closely tied to neighboring Iran that had the temerity to ask U.S. forces to leave at the end of 2011.

Overall, George Bush’s adventure has rightly been described as the worst foreign policy disaster in the history of the United States, killing approximately 4,500 Americans and some hundreds of thousands of Iraqis while costing the U.S. taxpayer at least $5 trillion. And that judgment does not even consider how the U.S. intervention led to the entry of al-Qaeda into the country as a result of the power vacuum created. Al-Qaeda was followed by the birth of ISIS in neighboring Syria, a development that soon metastasized and expanded back into Iraq. Neither Iraq nor Syria harbored any terrorists before 2001, but they certainly have plenty of them right now, and quite a few of them are using American-made weapons captured without a fight from the U.S.-trained Iraqi Army.

The United States has also given open and covert support to rebel groups operating in Syria in the insane belief that overthrowing President Bashar al-Assad would lead to the creation of a new democracy. Just like in Libya, apparently. Even though almost everyone agrees that the “moderate rebel” is difficult to define in practice and has been sighted less frequently than the unicorn, Washington went ahead with a $500 million dollar program [1] for the CIA and Pentagon to train a strike force of such creatures to turn loose in Syria. The hugely expensive effort trained a paltry 60 rebels, who returned home only to be quickly defeated [2] by their more militant peers. Some were killed and others captured, so they were unceremoniously disbanded. Back to square one.

All of this seems to have benefited ISIS, which has an excellent grasp of social networking as well as a propaganda arm able to depict the group as the Islamic bulwark against the West and its values while also opposing the corrupt Muslim regimes that have betrayed both Allah and the faithful.

From the start, Turkey, which nominally opposes radical rebel groups like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, has been curiously absent from the fray, instead arguing that the major effort should be focused on defeating al-Assad. Indeed, when I was in Istanbul last July bearded rebels were observed in the more fundamentalist neighborhoods collecting money for ISIS without any interference from the numerous and highly visible Turkish police and intelligence services. Turkey has also been surreptitiously buying [3] as much as $3 million worth of smuggled oil from ISIS every day, virtually funding the group’s activities. Ankara has allowed ISIS militants to freely cross over [4] the Syrian border into Turkey for what might be described as R&R (rest and recreation) as well as medical care and training. Weapons have been flowing in the opposite direction, cash and carry, some provided by the Turkish intelligence service MIT.

Given the plate of pottage that now exists in the Arab Middle East, Washington was understandably delighted when Turkey on July 23rd announced that bygones should be bygones and that henceforth it would play a more active role [5] against ISIS. Or at least that’s what Ankara seemed to be saying. U.S. warplanes would be able to use the NATO air base at Inçirlik to bomb ISIS positions, a much shorter flight than from the facilities hitherto used in the Persian Gulf, though the move did not solve the real problem, which is that there are no forward observers on the ground to direct the bombs and missiles, which has meant that many planes return with their bomb loads intact.

But the euphoria in Washington must have been short lived as Turkey quickly demonstrated that its use of the United States as a partner in an offensive against terrorists could be considered window dressing or possibly even cover for quite different activity, as ISIS was not the enemy that Ankara had in mind.

Some understanding of what was going on in Turkish politics leading up to the shift to an ostensibly more aggressive role is essential. Turkey had held a parliamentary election on June 5th in which the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) failed to obtain a majority. Worse still, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which is largely Kurdish, broke through the 10 percent barrier required to obtain parliamentary seats with more than 13 percent of the vote, much of it consisting of former AKP seats, making it a potential swing party in forming a new government.


President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose autocratic and increasingly Islamist style was the likely cause for the electoral shift, has been de facto running Turkey while Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has been attempting unsuccessfully to find a coalition partner for a new government. Erdogan has been openly maneuvering for new elections by refusing to make any concessions to potential coalition partners and has attempted to create a political situation perceived to be favorable to the AKP, a tactic that has been described [6] by an opposition leader as a “civilian coup.” November 1st has been proposed as a possible date, but it must be confirmed by the Elections Board. Erdogan had a personal stake in again going to the polls as he has been seeking to have his position as president upgraded with significant new powers, something that will require a substantial majority in parliament to amend the constitution.

The Turkish government of Erdogan has over the past several years been preoccupied with finding both internal and external enemies to justify its increasingly megalomaniacal heavy hand. This effort has largely been focused on the near-mythical foe Fethullah Gülen, who resides in Pennsylvania and who allegedly heads a somewhat cult-like organization called Hizmet (the Service). Gulen, who is a religious conservative, once was a political ally of Erdogan but the two eventually became bitter enemies. Erdogan while Prime Minister accused Gulen of setting up a secret government that was “terroristic” in nature and proceeded to initiate a number of purges of the military, police, judiciary, universities, and the media to destroy it. Nevertheless, the most recent election demonstrated that AKP for all its fear mongering was beginning to lose control and something had to be done to create a more compelling threat narrative. Enter the Kurds.

For three decades Turkey has been at war on-and-off with the Kurds, some of whom seek more autonomy within Turkey, while others favor the creation of an independent Kurdish state incorporating parts of Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey. By some estimates [7] 18 percent of the population of Turkey is of Kurdish origin, concentrated in the rural southeast, making it the country’s largest minority. Kurdish identity has itself been suppressed through the Turkish assertion that Kurds are actually “mountain Turks.” Kurdish language and cultural manifestations have long been illegal in Turkey, though there has been some temporary loosening of those strictures in recent years under pressure from the European Union.

For many Turks Kurds are the existential enemy. A Kurdish state would lead to the dismemberment of the Turkish state and Syria has become the object of Turkish wrath in part due to concerns that al-Assad would unleash Kurdish terrorism along his 600 mile long and largely indefensible border with Turkey. Even though Turkey has had a mainly effective cease fire with the most powerful Kurdish armed dissident group the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) since 2013, Erdogan evidently decided that it was good politics to break the agreement and declare war against the ancient enemy. And he chose to do it under the aegis of the U.S. led war on terror to increase its legitimacy in the media and in front of the international audience, hence the decision to support the Americans against ISIS.

The Turkish turnabout took place four days after a suicide bombing inside Turkey killed thirty-two civilians in Suruç in the Kurdish region. The bombing was attributed to ISIS [8] not completely convincingly, but it nevertheless led to the round up and imprisonment of mostly Kurdish and leftist militants throughout Turkey plus a much smaller number of ISIS supporters. A major air assault on the PKK and other Kurdish targets in northern Syria followed with no warning to American and other allied soldiers and intelligence officers present in the area, a move that reportedly “outraged” [9] U.S. military leaders. Ankara was clearly responding forcefully to fears of some kind of Kurdish state developing in northern Syria, a concern that had been growing after Kurdish militiamen liberated the border town of Tel Abyad from ISIS in June, provoking a pro-government newspaper to describe [10] the Kurds as “more dangerous than ISIS.”

Since the wave of arrests and the initial air attacks, Kurdish reprisals against the Turks have killed more than 50 policemen and soldiers, while there are reports of an estimated 400 Kurdish militants dead [11] at the hands of the Turks. It all guarantees that the tit-for-tat cycle of violence will continue.

As of last week, the Turkish Air Force had conducted [12] more than 300 strikes against Kurdish targets versus only three against ISIS. Turkey’s war against ISIS was quickly and by design directed against the Kurds, including the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units YPG militia which, together with the Iraqi Kurds, is supported by the United States and has been the most effective force in opposing ISIS. So Turkey, pretending to oppose ISIS, is actually attacking ISIS’s enemies and even placing in danger the American advisers known to be working with the Kurds.

All of which means that the United States is again looking on in astonishment over having been bamboozled, recalling Rudyard Kipling’s famous epitaph “A Fool lies here who tried to hustle the East.” One angry American general calls [13] the development a “bait and switch,” while another commented [13] that Erdogan “needed a hook” to go after the Kurds and lied to Washington to accomplish that. I might even suggest that the original suicide bombing that sparked the whole chain of events, which was carried out by a 20-year-old ethnic Kurd, might itself have been a false flag operation by MIT, designed to ease Turkish entry into a hot war ostensibly against ISIS but which would really be directed at the Kurds.

It remains to be seen if Erdogan will actually benefit electorally [14] from the new war, as most Turks continue to be wary about military involvement in Syria and the instability has sent the Turkish lira plummeting on currency markets. He has already explicitly linked the opposition HDP to Kurdish terrorism in an attempt to discredit it and remove it from parliament, also calling for its 80 legislators to be stripped of their immunity so they can be prosecuted. And Erdogan certainly has plenty of precedents in mind when it comes to fabricating a powerful new external threat to revive one’s political fortunes.

Lost in the shuffle are Washington’s hapless diplomats and soldiers, trying to make sense of the long-abandoned U.S. interests, but that does not mean that Americans will be immune from blowback as the situation continues to deteriorate. The United States Consulate General in Istanbul, where I once-upon-a-time worked, came under gunfire [15] two weeks ago, while Kurdish militants have already begun a new terror campaign directed against foreign tourist targets [16] in Istanbul and along Turkey’s Aegean and south coast.

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.

14 Comments (Open | Close)

14 Comments To "How Turkey Plays the War on Terror"

#1 Comment By Fran Macadam On August 25, 2015 @ 1:50 am

I guess it’s good for business. Isn’t it? It may finally be, that when things just can’t go on, they won’t.

#2 Comment By Kyriacos Stavrinides On August 25, 2015 @ 6:59 am

Erdogan is the definition of a psychopath.

#3 Comment By Kurt Gayle On August 25, 2015 @ 8:02 am

Do you have any way of knowing, Philip – this is a serious question, not a rhetorical one — if the people in Washington (White House, State Department, and Pentagon) read what you write – like your essay today?

I ask that because, quite obviously, if the Washington policy makers DID read today’s “How Turkey Plays the War on Terror — America’s reluctant ally finally offers token assistance against ISIS only as cover for a campaign against the Kurds,” then any reasonable person would expect that a series of discussions and meetings would HAVE to take place to deal with the implications of your essay.

I fully deserve that you’re smiling and muttering “You poor naive fellow,” but please do find a minute to give even a quick answer to my question. Because if anyone in their right mind read something as insightful as this morning’s essay from someone with your extensive professional background and contacts in the region – something that called into question important US foreign policy issues of such magnitude — then certainly they would have to order a “TUESDAY A.M. FULL STOP. LET’S TALK ABOUT THIS.”

Wouldn’t they?

#4 Comment By Philip Giraldi On August 25, 2015 @ 8:33 am

Kurt – I would think that it is a given that at least some policymakers do indeed read Daniel Larison, Scott McConnell and me on this site but have no way to determine who that might be and to what effect. And you have to distinguish between what policymakers know to be true and how they act. In this case I am sure the Pentagon, CIA and White House all know that they have been snookered but have decided that it is advisable not to make waves as they are convinced that Turkey must somehow become engaged in a serious way against ISIS.

FYI I do know that my pieces on Turkey do get considerable replay in Turkey!

#5 Comment By Johann On August 25, 2015 @ 12:32 pm

I think the disgusting Islamist Erdogan would rather have Al Nusra and/or ISIS in charge of Syria instead of Assad. Then again, it seems our ideologically driven leaders, whether they be the R2P crowd or their close cousins the neoconservatives, either won’t face reality, or can’t see reality and arrive at the same conclusion. It seems to me that the handwriting is now on the wall that the Assad government will not survive. When it falls, there will probably true genocide.

#6 Comment By Mr. Libertarian On August 25, 2015 @ 1:50 pm

Here’s my proposal vis a vis Turkey. The United States should tell Turkey that is must send its army in Syria and clean out ISIL and the other radical Sunni militias and terrorists and get Syria under control, and they can take out the Assad regime as well. But they must get it done, or else we’re recognizing an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq. That’ll get Erdogan’s attention.

#7 Comment By Gus On August 25, 2015 @ 3:26 pm

I find it hard to believe that Washington has been hustled. This is so transparent that I, hardly an expert on the region, could see through it. The first time I heard on NPR that Turkey had bombed ISIS and (mentioned without comment) the PKK, it was obvious what their game was.

#8 Comment By Swine Flew On August 25, 2015 @ 8:24 pm

If we had done the smart, hard-headed thing, which was to not invade Iraq and pull up stakes as soon as we were done with Bin Laden, then ISIS wouldn’t be where and what it is today. We can thank the neocons for that disaster.

As far as Turkey is concerned, it’s seeking its own interest, which is still defined by Erdogan. It would be better for all of us if the Turks finished the job of dumping Erdogan, but at least in letting us once again use Turkish airbases he’s still more in line with US interests than somebody like Netanyahu, who is not only worthless as an ally, but actively interferes in our domestic politics by using pro-Israel surrogates to buy American politicians.

We can complain about the inadequacies and delinquencies of other “allies” all we like, but as long as we say nothing while Israel openly abuses, manipulates, spies on, and in other ways exploits us, no one will take the criticism seriously. In fact, our silence in the face of the crap we take from Israel probably contributes to the growing arrogance of jerks like Erdogan.

#9 Comment By ElteCommInc. On August 25, 2015 @ 9:28 pm

I wish I could feel some great pangs of sympathy for the Kurds.

But a look at history demonstrates that their history of being honest brokers is fairly thread bare. They have had several opportunities to create their own state with the full support of the UN and they repeatedly failed to come to an agreement amongst themselves.

That we are placed in a position to support them when neither the Shia not the Sunni are likely to tolerate a state being carved out Iraq proper is most likely going to defeat the purpose of exiting Iraq in the first place.

I know I was opposed to have beaten and lied into submission on these issues. But my resolve has been the opposite. Bad call to invade Iraq, unnecessary to invade Afghanistan. And I would subject my self to the same nonsense as 2003 on those questions as well as the utter inanity of destabilizing the region further as engaged by the current admin. and Sec. Clinton.

#10 Comment By Cui Bono On August 25, 2015 @ 11:50 pm

Saudi Arabia plays the War on Terror to get us to help out with Yemen. Israel plays the War on Terror to keep the billions coming and get us to attack various regional enemies that have nothing to do with actual terror threats against the US. Egypt’s Sisi also plays the War on Terror to keep US aid going and consolidate his own death-grip on Egyptian politics. Our own domestic Fear Industy plays the War on Terror to keep the taxpayer gravy train rolling along.

The only ones not benefiting from some Terror-related play are us suckers – and the miserable “collateral damage” in the countries we’ve destroyed.

#11 Comment By Kurt Gayle On August 26, 2015 @ 6:28 am

BBC News posted this item last night:

“The US and Turkey have reached an agreement which will see Turkish jets join the air campaign against Islamic State (IS) militants. American officials hailed the agreement as ‘a significant step forward’ in the fight against IS.

“Turkey is already allowing US planes to operate from two Turkish airbases. Turkey has already conducted a handful of strikes against IS, but it will now be fully integrated into the strategy of the wider anti-IS coalition.

“Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said it would probably take ‘a few days’’ to put the agreement into practice. He added that ‘co-operation with the Turks and the expansion of that co-operation remains a work in progress’ and that talks were continuing with Turkey ‘with regard to border issues’.

“Last month Turkey launched its first strikes on IS militants since the group began its advance through Iraq and Syria in 2013. It had previously been reluctant to take military action, but that position changed after a number of attacks within Turkey that were blamed on IS.

“However, Turkey has been targeting militants from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq as well as Islamic State militants. Observers say PKK fighters have been on the receiving end of far more attacks than IS. Turkish officials deny that the campaign against the Islamic State group is a cover to prevent Kurdish gains.

“The government has previously faced criticism at home and abroad for not doing enough against IS, despite being part of the international coalition fighting it.


#12 Comment By Dave Lucas On August 26, 2015 @ 3:33 pm

Oded Yinon’s divide and conquer theory of planned chaos in the middle ease is being performed beautifully.

Unfortunately, this symphony is simply phony and has crashing cymbals of worldwide destruction as a climax.

#13 Comment By Keith Kelly On August 27, 2015 @ 1:15 pm

How about sending the post to all the declared presidential candidates asking them for a point by point in depth analysis.

#14 Comment By James On September 3, 2015 @ 3:23 pm

(1) The US and Turkish government’s are using each other. While Erdogan is using the “aegis of the U.S. led war on terror” to gain some “legitimacy in the media and in front of the international audience” for his war against Syria and the Kurds, the US government is using Erdogan as cover for their policy to split Syria into autonomous statelets to undermine Assad’s ability to govern the country. If you’ve read the “Clean Break” report from the 90’s, Hersh’s article, “The Redirection”, from 2007 and the recent Brooking’s paper, “Deconstructing Syria”, the US government’s actions not only make sense, they’re predictable.

(2) How come you mentioned the Pentagon’s $500 million dollar program to train 60 rebels but you did not mention [18]? This is a pretty big omission.