ISIS was so successful in 2014 in part because Turkey’s President Erdoğan is a vocal supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood.
With Turkey’s increasingly divisive and destabilizing influence in the Middle East, the region’s biggest concern for the West yet could be President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s burgeoning Islamist tendencies. In order to understand the Turkish role in the threat of ISIS, borne from the Muslim Brotherhood, it is necessary to rewind six years.
2014 marked the year when ISIS became a very real threat to the Middle East; within one year it had managed to take over a third of Iraq and half of Syria, employing 200,000 fighters in its control. ISIS quickly became successful in producing oil and selling it as an important source of income, not to mention that it was able to ensure a constant supply of weapons, ammunition, vehicles and advanced communication devices.
The question is, how was it possible for ISIS to become a functioning state so quickly? With its increasing connections to Turkey over the years, whether through its oil industry or housing wanted members of the Muslim Brotherhood, this “neighborly” relationship is one that is repeatedly examined for consequences and decisions that Turkey is instrumental in today.
Since 2002, Turkey has been ruled by Erdogan, a vocal supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood. As a movement that seeks to establish a worldwide Islamic caliphate that applies Islamic Sharia law, instead of man-made laws, the Muslim Brotherhood has been linked to many fundamental Islamist organizations, coinciding with the fact that Erdogan has neglected to launch counterterror operations to disrupt ISIS’s networks or recruitment activities, since its inception. Its presence has been most felt in the following areas:
In 2014, it was reported that ISIS had taken over oil fields in Iraq and Syria and produced large quantities of crude oil to sell, consolidating its grip on oil supplies in the region. They are thought to have transported the oil to Turkey in tankers, with Turkey selling the oil to other countries as if it were from Iraq and Syria, sharing some of the proceeds with ISIS. These oil exports were stopped in December 2015 following a Russian bombing of these tankers, but not before ISIS received millions from oil exports through Turkey. It seems pertinent to mention that Erdogan’s family was also involved in the oil business with ISIS.
Thousands of Muslim volunteers who identified with the goals and methods of ISIS went to the Islamic State from Islamic countries, Europe, America, Africa, Australia and even Israel. The vast majority of them arrived legally in Turkey, and from there went on to Syria and Iraq. The Turkish authorities, aware that these volunteers were passing through Turkey, did nothing to stop it.
In June 2014, Turkish interior minister Muammar Guler even admitted that Hatay was a strategic location for the Mujahidin crossing to Syria and that logistical support for Islamist groups would be increased in this area.
It has been widely reported that Turkey’s Intelligence Agency illegally dispatched arms to Syrian jihadists. In August 2014, an ISIS commander told The Washington Post: “Most of the fighters who joined us at the beginning of the war came via Turkey, as did our equipment and supplies.”
Turkey also allowed ISIS forces to use its territory to surprise their opponents with attacks from within Turkey. ISIS forces could have not entered or left Turkey freely without the consent of the Turkish government. Anti-Assad activists reported that ISIS was attacking them from inside Turkey, and a senior Egyptian official indicated in October 2014 that Turkish intelligence was passing satellite imagery and other data to ISIS.
In summary, Erdogan’s reluctance to take a step back and denounce ISIS’ methods of operation has, in part, led to the assumption that Turkey ceased to assist ISIS primarily because of the pressure exerted on it by Russia, the US and Europe, instead of an outright rejection of the ideology.
With the increasing parallels drawn between the Islamist extremism of Turkey and Iran, and repeated criticism directed at former US president Barack Obama for being soft on Islamist forces in the region, the US and EU in particular will have a part to play in deciding what kind of a role they assume in the Middle East.
To this day, Turkey is seen to be under the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood doctrine which underpins the continued flourishing of ISIS and shows a lack of concern for their damaging actions.
With that said, it is becoming undeniably harder for Erdogan to hide behind his NATO membership as he draws a foreign policy that has inevitably become less Western-oriented and more EU- and US-hostile – a far cry from the political reforms that were once promised for a democratic transition in Turkey. This will have consequences for the country’s regional and international relations as it becomes less and less of a reliable security partner, especially if it chooses to work increasingly with those who fight against the West.
The writer is a scholar of Arabic culture and a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University.