Has Turkey Become The 'Pakistan of the Middle East'?

While Turkey had long played down the threat posed by jihadist groups in Syria, instead focusing its efforts on toppling the Assad regime, Ankara has realized it is time to act against al-Qaeda.

al-monitor A fighter from the Islamist Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra rides a motorcycle along a deserted street in Deir al-Zor, Aug. 17, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi.

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Sep 24, 2013

In an article in The Independent on Sept. 17, 2012, the veteran Middle East expert of the Western media, Robert Fisk, wrote that Turkey was becoming an arms funnel and rest-and-recreation center for Syrian jihadists, just as Pakistan is for the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. “Will Turkey turn out to be the Pakistan of the Middle East?” he asked.

A year later, has Fisk’s prediction materialized? Has Turkey become Syria’s Pakistan?

Pessimists would answer affirmatively to this question. Optimists, for their part, would not be telling the truth if they responded with something other than this: “We are not a Pakistan yet, but we are on the way to becoming one.”

Turkish territory in the border region that arches from Hatay to Gaziantep is on the way to becoming the “Peshawar of the Middle East,” that is, a region where the state has no control over the border and outlawed forces move as they like.

While we are Pakistanizing, our neighbor Syria — torn by a civil war — is in the grips of Lebanonization (ethnic and sectarian polarization), Somalization (collapse of public order and state) and Afghanization (dominance of al-Qaeda and jihadists), with all those processes intertwined and mutually exacerbating each other.

Syria’s Afghanization is seen predominantly in the area that extends from Idlib to Aleppo, meets with the Kurdish Rojava region and then stretches along the Euphrates Valley, via Deir el-Zour, all the way to Iraq’s Sunni region.

Those capable of reading the map of the Syrian civil war would also discern this: If Turkey had not been Pakistanizing, Syria would not have been Afghanizing. It means that the jihadists — mainly the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra — could not have Afghanized Syria’s northern region bordering Turkey without logistical support from quarters in Turkey and easy access to Turkish territory and the Syrian border. Without using the Turkish town of Ceylanpinar as a rear base, Jabhat al-Nusra could not have fought the Kurds for months in Ras al-Ain, right on the other side of the border.

In December, the United States placed Jabhat al-Nusra on its list of terrorist organizations. In April, the group declared loyalty to al-Qaeda and its ideology.

When Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Washington in May, the United States conveyed to the Turkish side its discomfort over the support and mobility Jabhat al-Nusra enjoyed in Turkey. This, however, does not mean that US perception of the threat should be a prerequisite for Turkey to take action against al-Qaeda.

Now we have learned that Turkey, at long last, is also perceiving threats from al-Qaeda. A senior Turkish bureaucrat, who briefed a group of columnists in Istanbul in early September, made the following remark: “Jabhat al-Nusra is a threat for us, too, and the entire political quarter shares this view. It is out of the question for Turkey to support Jabhat al-Nusra in any way.”

“The political quarter” means the AKP [Justice and Development Party] and the government.

Well, if Jabhat al-Nusra is a threat for Turkey, too, then we are looking forward to see what Turkey will do.

Let’s continue. On Sept. 10, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said, “Turkey has no links” with Jabhat al-Nusra, which he described as a “radical group,” and accused those who claim otherwise of “spreading black propaganda.” As you may have noticed, Turkey defines Jabhat al-Nusra not as “terrorist” like the United States does, but rather as “radical” or “extremist.” Even if we assume that Jabhat al-Nusra is not called “terrorist” out of a well-meaning and pragmatic purpose such as maintaining public order, that purpose would have already become meaningless since the group’s declaration of itself as “al-Qaeda.”

The assessment in Ankara [at the beginning of the Syrian crisis] was that “radicals” would grow stronger if the crisis was not resolved in a short time. And that is what happened. The crisis could not be resolved and the “radicals” grew stronger. Jabhat al-Nusra currently has 7,000 to 8,000 militants and one-quarter of them are international jihadists. According to assessments in Ankara, dealing with Jabhat al-Nusra will not be difficult once a legitimate authority is established in Syria.

Certainly, this point of view has some justifiable basis. But only if a legitimate, Sunni-majority administration takes control of Syria as a whole. In that case, Jabhat al-Nusra would be unable to feed on Sunni wrath as it is doing at present.

Yet, the course of developments is not in that direction, and Jabhat al-Nusra is growing stronger by the day.

President Abdullah Gul, while on his way to New York, said, “We will not tolerate an organization that would be a threat to Turkey and the whole region.” Gul was referring to al-Qaeda, and thus he became the first Turkish statesman to go on record as defining the organization as a potential threat.

However, not backing Jabhat al-Nusra is not enough. Doing nothing to obstruct the group would amount to indirect support. Thus, it is high time to take action.     

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