Islamic State lashes out as Turkey flirts with Russia

For years, as an insurgency raged against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Turkey turned a blind eye while rebels groups, including Islamic extremists, moved weapons and fighters across the Syrian-Turkish border. Jihadist groups like Islamic State established strong networks in Turkish towns to smuggle recruits and supplies into Syria.

Despite pleas from Western allies concerned about militant plots emanating from the border areas, the Turkish government felt that it could contain the jihadists and saw the toppling of Assad’s regime as its priority. But after Turkey was targeted with a series of bombings in mid-2015 linked to Islamic State, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan began cracking down along the southern border and granted the United States access to military bases that would be used for air strikes against jihadist groups in Syria.

Even after the Turkish crackdown, Islamic State rarely claimed responsibility for attacks inside Turkey, which have killed more than 400 people since 2015 – unlike virtually any other country, where the group is quick to claim credit for any attack it has directed or even tangentially inspired. That changed on Jan. 2, when Islamic State claimed responsibility for the New Year’s Day assault on an Istanbul nightclub, which killed 39 people and injured dozens. The group described the nightclub gunman, who was captured on Jan. 16 after a two-week manhunt, as “a hero soldier of the caliphate.”

Islamic State’s public shift against Turkey began last summer, when the group’s leaders called on sympathizers to attack Turkish targets. In August, Erdogan’s government dispatched several hundred of its special forces troops into Syria, and launched air strikes to help Syrian rebels allied with Turkey capture territory near the border. The Turkish forces and their allies are fighting both Islamic State militants and Kurdish militias aligned with Washington.

Free Syrian Army fighters gesture as Turkish military vehicles drive in the Syrian rebel-held town of al-Rai while heading towards the northern Syrian town of al-Bab, Syria January 9, 2017. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

In November, Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi issued a rare audio message that singled out Turkey and Saudi Arabia for their campaigns against the group, and called on followers to attack both countries. “Turkey today has become a target for your operations and a priority for your jihad,” Baghdadi said. “Turn their security into panic and their prosperity into dread, and add it to the scorched zones of your combat.”

In some ways, Islamic State is responding to the Turkish crackdown against it – Ankara’s efforts to seal its border, preventing the flow of weapons and jihadists through Turkish territory, and the Turkish military operation to clear jihadists from Syrian areas along the border.

More broadly, Islamic State is also lashing out at a new and burgeoning Turkish-Russian alliance, which is one of the main factors reshaping the Syrian war today. In late 2016, Turkey backed away from supporting Syrian rebels in Aleppo, which helped the Assad regime and its allies – including Russia, Iran and Shi’ite militias from Lebanon and Iraq – to force rebels from their strongholds in eastern Aleppo and regain full control of the city. In mid-December, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that he was working with Turkish leaders to negotiate a new ceasefire between Assad and rebel groups, and to organize a fresh round of Syrian peace talks without Washington’s involvement. The talks are scheduled to start on Jan. 23 in Kazakhstan.

The Syrian conflict has turned into a proxy war that involves regional and world powers – including the United States, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar – whose interests sometimes overlap, but at other times lead to multiple conflicts. Soon after the war began in 2011, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United States started sending weapons and funds to rebel groups trying to topple Assad’s regime. Some of these rebels were forced into battlefield or tactical alliances with al Qaeda affiliated groups and other jihadists. More recently, Washington has shifted its focus to fighting Islamic State rather than ousting the Syrian regime. Assad’s two main backers, Russia and Iran, are mainly targeting rebel factions opposed to the regime, rather than trying to defeat Islamic State.

While Erdogan’s turn toward Russia put Turkey more firmly in the crosshairs of Islamic State, the policy also has had domestic ramifications. On Dec. 19, a 22-year-old off-duty police officer assassinated the Russian ambassador to Turkey at an art gallery in Ankara. The gunman shouted “God is great” and “Don’t forget Aleppo, don’t forget Syria!” during the attack, which was captured on video. The assassin was later killed in a shootout with Turkish security forces.

After the assassination, both Erdogan and Putin stressed that the murder would not impact the evolving Turkey-Russia relationship. And within days, the two leaders announced that they had brokered the latest ceasefire in Syria. Like previous ceasefires, it did not include Islamic State or other jihadist groups.

After the New Year’s Day attack on the Istanbul nightclub, Islamic State’s statement said the gunman had carried out the assault “in response to calls” from Baghdadi to target Turkey. The statement also referenced Turkey’s growing role in the Syrian war, warning: “The apostate Turkish government should know that the blood of Muslims spilled by its warplanes and artillery will ignite fire inside its own house.”

Turkish troops and allied rebels are trying to push Islamic State fighters from Al-Bab, a town north of Aleppo, and one of the jihadists’ last holdouts near the Turkish border. But Turkish forces are bogged down in an unexpectedly grueling battle: About 50 soldiers have been killed since Ankara sent its forces into Syria in August, including 16 killed in a single day during an Islamic State counter-attack in Al-Bab.

The battle for Al-Bab is causing other complications and setting up a potential battle between Turkish-backed Syrian rebels and American-supported Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (known by its Kurdish acronym, YPG). The YPG is part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of rebel groups, which is leading a ground offensive of 30,000 fighters to oust Islamic State from the city of Raqqa, capital of its self-proclaimed caliphate. The campaign is supported by U.S. air strikes and more than 500 special forces who are helping the rebels gain ground.

In late December, Turkish leaders complained that Washington was not providing similar air support to help Turkish troops advance in Al-Bab. Within days, Russia began coordinating with the Turkish military and carrying out air strikes in the area.

In flirting with Russia, Erdogan’s government is sending a message to the incoming Donald Trump administration that Ankara has other options if the United States continues its support of Syrian Kurdish factions. But as it gets closer to Russia and more deeply involved in fighting Islamic State, Turkey risks incurring the group’s wrath.

Mohamad Bazzi is a journalism professor at New York University and former Middle East bureau chief at Newsday. He is writing a book on the proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

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