TURKEY AND THE ISIS ‘OPPORTUNITY’
By Ronald Sandee
When Turkey first returned fire to ISIS in the area of Çobanbey/al-Ra’i on January 28, 2014 it was reported that the Turks were responding to breaches of Turkish territory by ISIS. It was reported that ISIS had fired a mortar grenade that landed on Turkish territory. It was also reported ISIS fighters had fired on Turkish positions near the border. In the Turkish press it was reported that the Turkish artillery and tanks had fired on an ISIS convoy and had destroyed three vehicles. What was not reported was that the incident was likely a Turkish response to advancements of ISIS fighters on the border town al-Ra’i.
A different perspective on what occurred than is found in many press reports was provided by a British ISIS fighter who died a few days later. This unique account of what happened on January 28 in Çobanbey/al-Ra’i was published online by Abu Layth al-Khorasani, a jihadi from the Midlands in the United Kingdom who was killed in Syria.
This is his story that was published on his Twitter account:
(…) “the Turkish army has dipped its hands in the war in Shaam! Yesterday whilst we were whacking some FSA in al Ra’i next to the borders they sent a small kind of remote controlled plane over our heads, minutes later we were bombarded with explosives from Allah knows. What kind of weaponry. The explosions were bigger than jet fighters, similar to that from the huge barrel bombs helicopters occasionally drop. We had to retreat from the so far successful attack and took place behind some rocks for like an hour, night had come and no one could see much but if anyone moved an inch, it would be greeted with some 10-15 bullets flying inches above our heads lol we were literally lying on our backs watching them fly in front of our faces, it was like a scene from Star Wars with all the ‘zing’ noises and red lights, then the thunderclap noise of the bombs would come again, they would send 2 at a time wallahi it was like a storm, the flash from the Turkey side. Then the whistling noise through the air and all we could do is lie flat waiting to see if it lands on our heads or not. Alhamdulillah Allah took us out safely in the end, casualties due to the Turks, one of our buses was torn apart by a bomb + one of our emirs Abu Ja’fr Dagestani was martyred, he was attacking the FSA from behind a cover as we all were and the border was to our side, we weren’t covered from there since we didn’t expect to be attacked by tanks and night vision snipers by the neighboring country but I guess this further reinforces the fact that the Kufar are not to be trusted. Anyway the brothers that were attacking from the side away from the Turkish borders are still holding up the spot may Allah protect them, that’s all I can reveal in terms of what’s going on since the battle is not over, more info after it’s all over insha Allah.”
This account indicates the Turkish military response was well prepared and more extensive than reported in the press.
The area of Çobanbey on the border is known to be an area with many Syrian Turkmen villages. Syrian Turkmens are widely known to have originally fought alongside the Free Syrian Army (FSA). However, they eventually switched their alliance to Jabhat al-Nursah, ISIS and other moderate to extreme Sunni militias.
Since the outbreak of the conflict in Syria, the Syrian Turkmens have been preoccupied with the threat of Kurdish dominance in Northern Syria. Kurds are the largest ethnic minority with a population of 2-2.5 million; Syrian Turkmens account for roughly a tenth of the number of Kurds in the area (close to 200,000). Syrian Turkmens have constantly asked the Turkish Government for protection and support, and at the Çobanbey refugee camp many Turkmens found shelter. As the Syrian Turkmens are Turkey’s natural allies against the Kurds in Syria, the Turkish intelligence service (MIT) is actively recruiting in the Çobanbey area.
An excerpt from the leaked tape of the recent crisis management meeting held between top Turkish officials also highlights what happened at Çobanbey; the following are transcript excerpts:
(Deputy Chief of the General Staff General) Yaşar Güler: (…) “Because, sir, the main need there is guns and ammo. Not even guns, mainly ammo. We’ve just talked about this, sir. Let’s say we’re building an army down there, 1000 strong. If we get them into that war without previously storing a minimum of 6-months’ worth of ammo, these men will return to us after two months.”
(Foreign Minister) Ahmet Davutoğlu: “They’re back already.”
Yaşar Güler: “They’ll return to us, sir.”
Ahmet Davutoğlu: “They’ve came back from… What was it? Çobanbey”
Yaşar Güler: “Yes, indeed, sir. This matter can’t be just a burden on Mr. Fidan’s shoulders as it is now. It’s unacceptable. I mean, we can’t understand this. Why?”
This part of the conversation indicates that Turkey is actively helping certain groups to advance its goals in neighboring Syria.
Abu Layth’s last tweet before he was killed on January 30, 2014 states, “Turkey are now actively aiding FSA on the borders of Al Ra’i, there are two Turkish tanks guarding a checkpoint close to the town.” The ISIS fighter identified the Turkey-supported group as FSA, but it actually might have been another group, such as a newly-formed Syrian Turkmen militia.
That Turkey is actively recruiting in refugee camps and inside Syria was reported last year when a questionnaire distributed probably by MIT officers to recruit and enlist Syrians into a Turkey-controlled armed element inside Syria was discovered.
According to the person who released the document, Turkey “relies on these forms to specify the individuals that it could take to military training camps in Turkey, as well as those who could form military and security cells inside Syria.” His reporting continued: “[A]ll the supervisors of this center are from the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and they personally lead al-Nusrah Front.” Accordingly, “[O]ne person could fill more than one form, as he could fill forms for people he knows, or he could work on finding people that would fill their personal forms. Moreover, Turkey presents for each individual, who could find 60 people to fill forms in Syria, a large sum of money.”
An interesting side note is that the Syrian who made this document public “said that this form was put [out] by the Turks and they are the ones who supervise the training program, while Qatar and Saudi Arabia fund the civil society center, in addition to cash money that come from France, America, and Germany.”
The following is a breakdown of the questions:
Contents of the leaked recordings of the emergency security meeting held between top Turkish officials suggest Turkish Intelligence (MIT) has indeed developed strong influence capabilities inside Syria. At a certain point in the discussion, MIT director Hakan Fidan makes it clear that he can pull off a false flag attack that can be used by Turkey to order a retaliatory incursion into Syria. No one in the meeting expressed concerns that international problems would arise for Turkey if it were to respond by striking ISIS. As Undersecretary of the Foreign Ministry Feridun Sinirlioğlu put it, “An operation on ISIL has solid ground on international law. We’re going to portray this is al-Qa’ida, there’s no distress there if it’s a matter regarding al-Qa’ida. And if it comes to defending Suleiman Shah Tomb, that’s a matter of protecting our land.” General Yaşar Güler replied, “We don’t have any problems with that.”
Yet repercussions for strikes on ISIS are expected by these officials. Intelligence chief Fidan offered the following assessment of what might follow an incursion into Syria: “Second after it happens, it’ll cause a great internal commotion (several bombing events is bound to happen within). The border is not under control.” Sinirlioğlu expressed agreement with this assessment: “I mean, yes, the bombings are of course going to happen.” General Güler expressed interest in creating a buffer inside Syria that will make it more difficult for ISIS to strike inside Turkey and keep them busy inside Syria, adding that “Mr. Fidan should urgently receive back-up and we need to help him supply guns and ammo to rebels.”
But is ISIS really planning to attack Turkey?
Interestingly, Abu Layth advised his followers on Twitter that ISIS, pursuant to the orders of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Shaykh Adnaan, has ”no intention to attack Turkey in any way, shape or form.”
He Tweeted the following messages regarding this matter:
Based on the hadith of the prophet peace be upon him where he ordered us to leave the Turks and the rest …
if there’s any message I want to get across [it] is no bullet from a soldier in The Islamic State will be aimed at the Turks.
Let it be known here first that I say this and may Allah paralyse my tongue if I’m lying, we saw their plane over us. We saw the bombs come from their side, the bullets over our heads and they caused us to pull back from what would have been an easy victory by the permission of Allah.
It seems that the leaders of ISIS even invoked the Hadith (book 38 verse 4288) to explain why the Turks should be left alone, “as they leave you alone.”
Based upon the leaked tape of the meeting held by top Turkish officials, it would seem that Turkey is still trying to get a better grip on the situation in Syria, and Turkish officials aren’t confident they can keep ISIS under control. Although ISIS leaders have ostensibly advised their fighters not to attack the Turks, Turkey’s political leadership might see things differently and operate in line with the instructions of Prime Minister Erdogan, who, according to Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, stated, “this attack (on Suleiman Shah Tomb) must be seen as an opportunity for us.”
According to Davutoğlu, Prime Minister Erdogan sees a limited military operation into Syria as a political opportunity. But there is a catch: As MIT chief Fidan noted, an incursion by the Turkish Army could endanger the Turkish people as jihadis are likely to respond by conducting attacks inside Turkey. Indeed, as Turkish intelligence understands, the problem with singling out one jihadi group is that you never know how other groups will respond. Moreover, attacking ISIS might make Turkey the next jihadi center of gravity.
The bottom line: If Turkey cannot control its borders, its leaders will put many Turkish citizens at risk by launching an overt adventure inside Syria.