Washington Casts Blame for Expansion of Al-Qaeda on Turkey

by | Oct 21, 2013

Erdogan Obama

It is no longer possible to conceal the obvious. The West, in its attempts to remove Bashar al-Asad from power during the years of the war in Syria, has nurtured a force so sinister that its tentacles are now reaching to the Western capitals themselves. Al-Qaeda is at the peak of its influence in the Middle East. In Somalia, the group al-Shabaab has announced its complete merger with this organization.

In Libya its members unceremoniously arrested the prime minister, and then let him go. In Yemen al-Qaeda essentially rules entire provinces. In Syria itself, no other serious forces remain which are fighting against the regime… At any moment the question ought to arise as to how all this could happen. It’s the perfect time to look for someone to blame. And Washington has begun doing just that.   

In this respect it is worth noting an article published recently in The Wall Street Journal, where Turkey, of which the “naive Americans” were too trusting, and more specifically the head of the Turkish intelligence agency (MIT) Hakan Fidan, who is called the main acting force in organizing the rebellion against the Syrian regime, were “appointed” as the main culprits in the renaissance of al-Qaeda.

Fidan is only 45 years old, and he is not inclined to publicity. He became the head of the national intelligence in 2010, and since then he has turned it into an obedient tool of Erdogan’s policy, and he himself has become the key implementer of Erdogan’s decisions. In 2012 he was given control of military intelligence as well; many of its leaders were sent to prison on suspicion of a conspiracy against the government. They call him “the No. 2 man in Turkey”, and place him even higher than President Gul. Former U.S. ambassador to Turkey James Jeffrey calls Hakan Fidan “the face of the new Middle East”.

In Washington, where they are long accustomed to controlling Turkish security officials, Fidan is respected for his ability, but regarded with suspicion. In particular, he is accused of having passed several pieces of sensitive intelligence information Turkey had received from the Americans to Iran in the interests of even exchange. In Israel they think that Fidan is “too conciliatory” toward Iran and thus should not be trusted. The removal of pro-Western generals from power did not gain him any affection from the West either. The article makes it clear that Washington considers Fidan the author of Turkey’s national security policy, and is not pleased that it is “sometimes counter to [the interests] of the U.S.” The aim of America’s criticism of Turkey at the present time is apparently twofold: to absolve the White House of responsibility and at the same time to discredit the inconvenient Fidan.

The Americans say that under Fidan’s leadership the MIT acted like a “traffic cop” that let weapons and reinforcements through border checkpoints to the Syrian rebels. But the moderate opposition claims that from the first the main shipments went not to them, but to the Islamists. It was stated that in May during Erdogan’s visit to Washington, at a meeting at which Fidan was also present, B. Obama criticized the Turks for sending arms “to the wrong rebels, including anti-Western jihadists”. 

Turkish analysts believe that the article in the WSJ is aimed not only against Hakan Fidan, but indirectly against Erdogan himself; both are presented as the main culprits in the rise of al-Qaeda. However, until recently the Americans themselves turned a blind eye to the activities of al-Qaeda in Syria, deliberately understating its scale. Washington’s position is hypocritical in that it continues to supply arms to groups which recently announced their merger with Jabhat al-Nusra in a united “Islamic coalition”. In reality American intelligence knew all along about the Turks’ contacts with al-Qaeda as a real fighting force against Bashar al-Asad.

Having sown the wind, the Turkish leadership is now reaping the whirlwind, although not alone, but together with the Americans. The Turkish opposition media is eagerly seizing on this topic. They write, for example, that the creation of an Islamic emirate by the al-Qaeda-affiliated group “The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham” (ISIS) on the border with Turkey is a direct consequence of Ankara’s policy. “If you make providing support to an ‘armed Islamic force’ an invisible principle and objective of your Syria policy, just to prevent the possibility of an ‘autonomous Kurdish region,’ you will be inevitably laying the foundation of being neighbors with al-Qaeda“.

As Turkish publicist Cengiz Candar notes, no one believes any longer the government’s denials that it is providing assistance to pro-al-Qaeda groups in Syria and on its own territory. It is well known, for example, that Jabhat al-Nusra, which later declared its pro-al-Qaeda orientation, was founded with the support of Turkish intelligence. Ankara even called the U.S. State Department’s decision to declare it a terrorist organization in December 2012 unwarranted and “premature”. Thus all of Erdogan’s current attempts to declare he is uninvolved with Jabhat al-Nusra are untenable. Over half of the members of the most radical al-Qaeda group at the moment, ISIS, came from other countries. Without Turkey’s assistance this would not have been possible.

A recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report showed convincingly that behind all the radical Islamist organizations in Syria stands extensive support from Turkey. In the opinion of Cengiz Candar, such a position can be explained largely by a desire to weaken the Syrian Kurds, but as a result the Turkish government is making them its enemies. Suffice it to say that several days ago al-Qaeda fighters killed Shervan Muslim, the son of the Syrian Kurdish leader Saleh Muslim, near the Turkish border. The latter also accused Ankara of providing military assistance to Jabhat al-Nusra in their fight against the Kurds, including shooting at their positions.

 Ankara’s statements that it supports the moderate opposition in Syria, or at the most the Muslim Brotherhood, have long been unfounded. Umit Ozdat, the head of the 21st Century Turkey Institute, believes that these groups do not have a strong base in Syria. The war is being fought only by al-Qaeda affiliates, “and it’s impossible to expect them to cooperate and surrender their will to the Western-backed Syrian opposition.” He accuses the country’s leaders of having drawn Turkey into the “Syrian quagmire”. 

Well-known Middle East expert Robert Fisk writes in an article in The Independent that Turkey has turned into an arms funnel and rest-and-recreation center for Syrian jihadists, just as Pakistan is for the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Does a fate as difficult as Pakistan’s await Turkey in this case?

The policy Ankara has conducted in recent years with regard to Syria has not only failed utterly, but also has become a threat to Turkey itself. For example, the al-Qaeda-affiliated group “The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant”, which operates in Syria, has threatened Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan with a series of terrorist attacks in Istanbul and Ankara if the Turkish government does not open border crossing checkpoints on the Turkish-Syrian border which were closed after the Islamists took control of the Syrian border city Azaz. The rebels seized the city by pushing a division of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) out of it. Fierce battles in the vicinity of the city continue to this day. The Azaz checkpoint is one of the largest transfer points for material and technical assistance to the rebels. From the moment the radicals took Azaz, supplying the FSA with weapons and humanitarian aid has become much more complicated. 

Turkey has no immunity from the spread of radicalism. According to some estimates, there are already over 500 young Turks fighting in Syria. Al-Qaeda cells on Turkish territory are actively recruiting young members. For them Ankara is but a temporary ally; Erdogan’s regime is “too moderate” for them to acknowledge as legitimate. Eventually his turn will come. The chemical weapons to which the Syrian opposition has resorted have already come up in several instances in Turkey. It cannot be ruled out that in the case of attempts to stop the activities of al-Qaeda cells they could use chemical weapons against the Turkish authorities as well

The course the Turkish government is taking in Syria will in the end lead to a backward wave of the chaos they have sown there washing over Turkey as well. Thus Hakan Fidan’s strategy cannot be called successful.

Incidentally, this could be an edifying lesson with regard to Turkey’s relations with its strategic partners in NATO. When you play someone else’s game, it is easy to end up taking the blame for all the blunders of the real instigator of the game, the United States, which has accumulated an enormous amount of experience in discarding unwanted cards in time.

Reprinted with permission from the Strategic Culture Foundation.