Tony Badran

Why Turkey is firing on jihadists in Syria

American criticism, not jihadist border threats, was the real target of Turkey’s attack on the ISIS.

Turkish-American kabuki uses artillery fire instead of fans

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.

Questions for the allies. (AFP Photo/Saul Loeb)

“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.”

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Thank you, Mr. Badran, for clearly detailing where the interests of the US really lie in the Syrian quagmire: Not with Gulf Arabs, not with Sunnis, and not with Islamists. Yet, in previous pontifications on the US "squandering its credibility", or "losing its allies", or otherwise losing ground in the Middle Est as a result of inaction in Syria, you and other warmongers have precisely argued the complete opposite of what this piece clearly shows. Let us be straight and objective, and not run amok with upside down logic and Topsy-turvey arguments destined to please your paymasters in places like the Gulf and Saudi Arabia: There are no American interests, there never were American interests, and if any existed, they are quickly vanishing, in the Arab Middle East. The only time when the US had "reliable" allies in the Arab world is when the US bought up brutal dictators and corrupt monarchs who nevertheless back-stabbed the US by supporting (under the table) Al-Qaeda and other radical Arab-Islamic groups in their anti-American, anti-western campaigns, including the September 11 attacks. President Obama's policy is exposing the historic duplicity of such defunct American foreign policies. If the Arab spring is to ultimately usher a new Middle East, let it be on the basis of shared cultural values and principles (if they can ever be found), and not on purely economic and mercantile ones such as those who got us nowhere in the past 50 years but to further and further alienation and mistrust. In any case, if the Arab Spring leads us nowhere but to a new generation of Arab dictatorships and corrupt rulers, they can always be bought back with a few billions or jet fighters. At least President Obama has given ethics and principle a chance in the long arduous and failed history of American foreign policy in the Middle East.

    October 21, 2013

  • stephen.albert.353

    Médecins Sans Frontières has pointed out the absurdity of weapons inspectors gaining access to areas where the population is starving while aid conveys are being stopped. They have stopped short of saying that the chemical weapons agreement gives Assad both legitimacy as a ruler and cover for his starvation campaign .A point which you make very forcefully here.. Hopefully articles like yours will help expose the futility of this whole exercise. Turning Putin into a peacemaker in Syria really beggars belief.

    October 19, 2013