On Tuesday, the Turkish military fired across the border with Syria onto positions of the jihadist group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). This action marked a first for the Turks, spurring commentary that Ankara has finally become aware of the supposed danger of its permissive border policy with Islamist groups in Syria.
Perhaps. Or perhaps the shelling was an attempt by Turkey to deflect criticism from the US, as the incident occurred as anonymous US officials have taken to the media to criticize Turkey and other regional backers of the Syrian rebels. The likely purpose of this media campaign is to get allies to fall in line behind the White House’s preferences in Syria and the direction of its regional policy more broadly.
For a while now, the Obama administration has been using the media to air its complaints about financial and other support going to salafist groups in Syria. The principal target has been private donors and charities in Kuwait, but now Turkey is also being zeroed in on as a prime facilitator for such groups.
While Washington was preoccupied with a David Ignatius column that painted Hakan Fidan, the chief of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT) as a problematic Iran sympathizer, the more relevant criticism appeared elsewhere. In a Wall Street Journal article that profiled Fidan last week, unnamed US officials publicized the White House’s strong disapproval of his role in Syria.
The MIT chief had accompanied Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on his trip to Washington last May. At a meeting at the White House, President Obama bluntly told Erdogan and Fidan that they were letting arms flow indiscriminately into Syria, allowing them to fall in the hands of jihadists. An unnamed senior official who spoke to the paper said that Obama sought to convince the Turks that “the Islamist threat could harm the wider region.”
These leaks have struck a nerve in Ankara. Since last week, the Turks, showing both nervousness as well as annoyance at the campaign to depict them as enablers, if not supporters, of al-Qaeda in Syria, have responded with strong denials. Then came the targeting of the ISIL position, which was intended to show that Turkey understood Washington’s message.
This public criticism of Turkey’s Syria policy by US officials followed a private dressing down on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meetings last month. A Turkish source disclosed to Reuters that the Americans were “were politely but aggressively critical,” adding that "we are being accused of supporting al Qaeda.” Then, the Turkish source expressed Ankara’s frustration with the direction of US policy. The White House’s attention, he said, “has focused away from Assad to al Qaeda.”
However, does Washington’s focus on al-Qaeda point to something else? It seems that the administration’s category of “extremist groups” has been gradually expanding to include not only al-Qaeda affiliates ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra but also salafist groups, like Ahrar al-Sham and others, which also receive backing from donors in the Gulf states. Cutting off support to Islamist groups, which are an effective fighting force against Assad, would have negative effects on the battlefield.
What’s more, President Obama’s decision to back down from striking the Assad regime effectively cut the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Syrian Military Council off at the knees. Nixing all proposals to arm the FSA compounded the effects of the decision to scrap the military strike. The administration does not seek any military option in Syria and does not want to challenge Iranian interests there, especially now that the White House is pursuing rapprochement with Tehran.
The purpose of the campaign criticizing Fidan is to tell the Turks where the US stands and where it wants regional players to be. The White House is sending messages to allies that its priorities intersect with Iran and Russia's. The US does not want a confrontation with Tehran, and does not want to see a proxy war with it in Syria. US allies in Turkey and the Gulf need to get with this program.
In addition, US criticism of Turkey is meant to reassure Iran and Russia regarding the direction of US policy. A public repudiation of Turkey and the Gulf backers of the Syrian rebels obliges Moscow, which has demanded that Washington pressure its allies to stop supporting the rebels if it wants the Geneva conference to succeed. It also signals to Tehran and Moscow that Washington shares their view that the main threat comes from Sunni Islamist groups.
Ankara may have struck an ISIS position, and it may further recalibrate aspects of its policy to keep the White House, and the charge of enabling al-Qaeda, off its back. It is however unclear how long the Turks and other US regional allies feel they can afford to play along with Obama’s policy in the region before they recognize they’re being asked to go against their own interests.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.