Well‐​Armed Turkey Aided Rise of Islamic State: Yet NATO Promises to Defend Ankara from Extremists

Turkey and other nations should be held responsible for their past policies.
September 8, 2014 • Commentary
This article appeared in Forbes on September 8, 2014.

Apparently America believes its allies to be wimps and weaklings. Why else would NATO officials promise to defend Turkey from the Islamic State? Surely this well‐​armed U.S. ally can hold off a few thousand Islamic irregulars. Some of whom Ankara allowed to enter Syria, where they were trained and received battlefield experience.

The rise of the Islamic State has led to much nonsense from Washington officials who speak as if several thousand armed Islamists were capable of carrying out the group’s threat to plant its flag on the White House. ISIL is made up of dangerous fanatics, but in the form of the Islamic State they are largely powerless to harm America. Their conventional capabilities are minimal compared to those of the U.S. or its allies, and so long as the Islamists are attempting to conquer territory they cannot afford to launch terrorist attacks on America, which would bring down the full wrath of the U.S. military on the return address they had so thoughtfully provided.

ISIL fighters threaten some Middle Eastern states, but mainly those already weakened by other factors. Syria descended into a bitter, multi‐​sided civil war three years ago. Sectarian governance undermined Iraq’s government and military, and spurred non‐​Islamist Sunni support for ISIL. Jordan has been overrun with refugees and long has enjoyed an uneasy peace between Palestinians and Hashemite monarchy. Get the Islamic State’s targets to work together and the radicals are doomed.

Also targeted by ISIL is Turkey. This led NATO Secretary‐​General Anders Fogh Rasmussen to promise to defend Ankara: “If any of our allies, and in this case of course particularly Turkey, were to be threatened from any source of threat, we won’t hesitate to take all steps necessary to ensure effective defense of Turkey or any other ally.”

As a statement of solidarity Rasmussen’s words might offer comfort. As a guide to Western policy the statement makes no sense.

After all, Ankara is partly to blame for ISIL’s rise. The Erdogan government long ago decided to support the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al‐​Assad. Ankara allowed opposition fighters from all sides easy access to the battlefield. None were too brutal or radical to bar passage. This included ISIL, which gained strength and resources by conquering Syrian territory. Reported the Washington Post: “eager to aid any and all enemies of Syrian President Bashar al‐​Assad, Turkey rolled out the red carpet.” The government simply looked the other way as members of the Islamic State and other Islamist groups traveled to Syria.

Indeed, added the Post, Islamic State fighters treated the border town of Reyhanli, Turkey “as their own personal shopping mall.” Local residents acknowledged jihadis purchasing supplies and wounded fighters being treated in local hospitals. One Islamic State commander told the Post: “We used to have some fighters—even high‐​level members of the Islamic State—getting treated in Turkish hospitals. And also, most of the fighters who joined us in the beginning of the war came via Turkey, and so did our equipment and supplies.” A politician from Reyhanli, Tamer Apis, complained that the government “welcomed anyone against Assad, and now they are killing, spreading their disease, and we are all paying the price.” While there was a lot of blame to go around, “this is a mess of Turkey’s making,” he added.

That Turkey might suffer some unfortunate complications from the bitter civil war next door should not surprise. Blowback is a constant of Middle Eastern policy, irrespective of government. But Ankara knowingly chose to play with fire. The Erdogan government since has changed course, confronting insurgents it once welcomed and attempting to close off what has been called the “jihadist” or “jihadi” highway. But passage for people and materiel through the 565‐​mile border still is available at a price.

Moreover, the worst damage has been done. Reported Bloomberg’s Mehul Srivastava and Selcan Hacaoglu, ISIL “has already established itself firmly in Turkish society.” The group has gained control of Syrian territory and expanded into Iraq, where it grabbed 49 Turkish diplomats and family members. The Islamic State military leader explained: “Now we are getting enough weapons from Iraq, and there is enough to buy even within Syria. There is no real need to get things from outside anymore.”

In all of this Turkey is paying the price of its own folly. There’s no reason to share the burden with 27 other NATO members. Better to hold Ankara accountable for its actions by leaving it responsible for its self‐​inflicted wounds.

Especially since Turkey can well handle the fall‐​out. Assume ISIL is ready to launch a Blitzkrieg against Turkey. Why can’t Ankara defeat the effort?

ISIL’s size, funding, reach, and capacity are hard to judge. Without doubt the group has created an effective fighting force, which has been enriched by its capture of U.S. military equipment along the way. Nevertheless, the number of ISIL fighters has been estimated at around 10,000. Even if you double or triple that number it is inconsequential compared to the armed forces fielded by Turkey.

The latter has an armed forces of more than a half million. The army has some 400,000 personnel in uniform. The air force deploys two tactical air forces, including ten ground attack squadrons. The Institute for Strategic Studies reported: “The army is becoming smaller but more capable … The air force is well‐​equipped and well‐​trained … the military has ambitious procurement plans.”

This force dwarfs anything which the Islamic State possesses, let alone could deploy against Ankara’s military. Why would NATO have to protect Turkey?

Indeed, Ankara should be thinking offense. The Erdogan government is part of NATO’s “core coalition” targeting ISIL. Why are U.S. planes and drones striking Islamic radicals operating next door to Turkey when Ankara’s forces could take the lead? If the Islamic State consolidates its position, Turkey is likely to be a site for the group’s expanded activities. Last year ISIL troops told a captured Turkish photojournalist that Erdogan and other top officials were “infidels” and claimed that “Turkey is next.” One insurgent brigade was made up mostly of Turks.

Political leaders in Washington and Brussels alike seem to confuse defense with welfare. If a U.S.-led NATO still has relevance today, it is to confront major threats which require a collective response. America, since NATO really stands for North America and The Others, should focus on tasks that no one else can perform, such as deterring a (currently nonexistent) hegemon.

ISIL is evil, but that does not make it a serious military threat against America. The Islamic State is a much more significant threat against Middles Eastern states, such as Turkey. These nations also hold the key to its defeat. They have the interest and capability. They also have the credibility, as Islamic nations themselves.

All that’s lacking is the necessity. If Washington or NATO rushes in to relieve them of responsibility, they likely won’t act. For once Turkey and other nations should be held responsible for their past policies.

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