WASHINGTON – There has been mounting concern over the lack of participation by Turkey – a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – in the U.S.-led coalition to attack ISIS, but the reason for holding back has become more apparent.
At first, Turkey did not take action because ISIS, which now calls itself the Islamic State, was holding hostage 49 its diplomats who were captured when ISIS blitzkrieged into Iraq from Syria last June and took over the city of Mosul.
However, the diplomats were released under mysterious circumstances. ISIS says they were exchanged for 180 ISIS fighters, but Turkish officials will neither confirm nor deny the claim.
At the recent Paris meeting of Western powers to discuss how to defeat ISIS, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu made clear that Turkey’s first priority wasn’t the elimination of ISIS but to overthrow the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
According to informed sources, Cavusoglu charged Assad was responsible for the creation of ISIS. The only way to eliminate the extremist Sunni jihadist group, he said, was to eliminate its root causes, citing the need for an all-inclusive government in Iraq and the toppling of Assad as necessary priorities.
In addition, Turkey has been looking to ISIS to take care of another problem sources say is more critical to Ankara than the Sunni jihadist group. The concern centers around the outlawed Kurdish Workers’ Party, or PKK, which historically has sought a portion of the country to form the independent country of Kurdistan.
The Kurds have sought to carve out their own country from the eastern portion of Turkey, northeastern Syria, northern Iraq and northwestern Iran.
PKK members have been leaving Turkey to join Kurds in Iraq to fight ISIS, which seeks to take over its territory and accompanying oil production and refineries, especially around Kirkuk.
Sources say the Turks believe the coalition against ISIS not only will bestow new legitimacy on Assad but will empower the PKK as part of the coalition.
The U.S. has begun to provide weapons to the Iraqi Kurds to fight ISIS and defend its territory and assets, a development causing strain in U.S.-Turkish relations.
There are some unconfirmed reports that Turkey has been providing weapons to ISIS to fight the Kurds. One report said that a train from Turkey had carried ammunition and weapons to ISIS to besiege the city of Kobane, a Kurdish town near Aleppo, Syria. To date, however, Ankara hasn’t denied such a claim.
In view of Ankara’s continued war with the PKK, Cemil Bayik, a top PKK commander, said the Turkish government has “eliminated” conditions of a mutually observed 18-month cease-fire. As a consequence, it would “step up its struggle in every area and by all possible means.”
If that were to occur, Ankara could look to ISIS to help eliminate its PKK problem.
“What has emerged is that Turkey is continuing its relations with Daesh and that Turkey will not solve the Kurdish problem in the north,” Bayik told Al-Monitor in an interview.
Daesh is the acronym for ISIS in Arabic.
Bayik said a Turkey “that supports Daesh’s attacks against Kobane, that seeks to depopulate Kobane and lobbies for the establishment of a buffer zone cannot sever its ties with Daesh.”
“Because if it did so, Daesh would expose all of Turkey’s dirty laundry, and document the links between them,” he explained.
‘Whatever means necessary’
At the Paris meeting, some 30 countries pledged to use “whatever means necessary” to defeat ISIS, including halting sources of its financing. However, Turkey wasn’t one of the signatories to the pledge. In its determination to eliminate Assad, Turkey has supported jihadist groups whose fighters later morphed into ISIS fighters.
Cavusoglu’s comments seemed to reflect some of the popular views in Turkey, as presented in an editorial in the Turkish Hurriyet Daily News prior to the Paris conference on ISIS.
“The international conference to be held under French leadership in Paris on Sept. 15 is unlikely to change Turkey’s position vis-à-vis the international military campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), according to a Turkish official. … Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who will represent Turkey at the conference, will underline the need for ‘absolute elimination of ISIL’s root causes,’ citing the formation of an inclusive government in Iraq and the toppling of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria as necessary priorities to achieve this end.”
The Hurriyet Daily added that Turkey’s position toward ISIS has the support of the Turkish people in staying out of the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition. This position also is reflected in Turkey being a continued conduit to help ISIS raise funds and use ISIS-occupied areas of Iraq to encourage Turkish businesses.
In spite of denials, Turkey remains a conduit to launder money and for ISIS’ sale of captured Syrian and Iraq oil on the black market inside Turkey and in neighboring regions.
Sources say ISIS makes some $30 million a month from such black market sales as the oil it sells is at less than half the global market rate. They add that the primary recipient of the cut-rate oil is Turkey itself.
The market price for a barrel of Brent Crude, as of the end of August, was some $102 a barrel. However, ISIS is selling the oil from $25 to $60 a barrel. The sources say such sales haven’t affected global oil prices since much of the black market oil never leaves Turkey.
Such below-market sales of ISIS oil continues despite ongoing U.S. bombing of ISIS’ so-called mobile oil wells especially in Syria.
The oil for turkey goes through its southern region, which ISIS has already designated to become part of its caliphate, encompassing northeastern Syria into western and central Iraq.
“Countries like Turkey have turned a blind eye to the practice, and international pressure should be mounted to close down black markets in its southern region,” according to Lusay Al Khatteeb of the Brookings Doha Centre.
“The northern part of Iraq, southern Turkey and eastern Syria are known for smuggling historically,” Khatteeb said. “Earlier, these gangs used to smuggle goods. Now, they have evolved into oil trading.”
Given that the cut-rate oil price is far better than what energy-hungry Turkey now has to pay on the international market, Turkish officials are reluctant as well to turn off this vital source of oil.
Sources say that ISIS currently controls some 60 percent of the oil fields in eastern Syria and seven oil fields and two refineries in Iraq.
As WND recently reported, Turkish companies also are heeding a call by ISIS to invest in areas it has taken over in Iraq.
Turkey’s minister of economy, Nihat Zeybekci, expressed interest in encouraging Turkish businesses to invest in ISIS-occupied portions of Iraq.
“Our exports to Iraq are now down to 35 percent but Iraq cannot easily substitute other sources,” Neybekci said.
“We think there will be a boom in demand soon,” he said. “We also know that [ISIS] is contacting individual Turkish businessmen and telling them, ‘Come back, we won’t interfere.’ That is not easy, of course. But when the future Iraq is rebuilt, it will be Turkey doing it.”