BACKGROUND: On June 10, ISIS seized control over the city of Mosul. Within hours of capturing Mosul, ISIS troops seized the Turkish consulate and kidnapped 49 people, including the Consul General himself, several diplomats, guards and others. Along with 28 truck drivers and 15 construction workers, this brings the toll of Turkish citizens in ISIS hands close to 100. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his cabinet find themselves dealing with a semi-permanent chaotic condition at their southern border, facing the grim prospect that Turkey may end up as neighbors with a regime so extreme and unpredictable that it was disavowed even by al-Qaida itself.
ISIS forces have been steadily gaining ground in Syria and Iraq for the last year, using extreme acts of violence and terror to reach their proclaimed aim of reinstating a theocratic Sunni caliphate stretching across the region. Most recently, groups fighting under the ISIS banner – which reportedly include foreign jihadists, former army officers of Saddam’s ousted regime and dissident Sunni tribes – initiated a massive offensive into the heart of Iraq in early June, seizing control of the country’s second largest city, Mosul, as well as Tikrit and strategic border crossings to Syria and Jordan. Their advance appears to be a tactical move to hit the central government in Baghdad where it really hurts: taking the nearby Haditha dam, crux of Iraq’s electrical grid, and the Al-Asad military base, one of the country’s largest defense facilities.
Due to the serious grievances that Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated regime has caused among Iraqi Sunnis, ISIS and allied forces faced little resistance in these largely Sunni regions where masses celebrated their arrival. Just as in other territories under ISIS administration, such as Raqqa in Syria, they quickly made allegiances with the leaders of Sunni tribes and managed to establish some sort of law and order in and around Mosul. Having promulgated a makeshift constitution based on extremist interpretation of Sharia law, they have also begun to provide social services to the city’s two million or so inhabitants, including schooling, electricity and transportation.
All these, in return, seem to have generated considerable popular support for ISIS in Iraq, making it increasingly more difficult to categorize the group simply as just a terrorist organization. Rather, the group emerges as a serious political contender, demonstrating a certain will and capability to rule at least the Sunni-dominated parts of the country. Unlike the old al-Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS is posing as the “protectors” of the people against a tyrannical Shia regime in Baghdad, which makes them more dangerous.
The unprecedented rise of ISIS from nothing to having military and administrative presence all the way from Syria’s Mediterranean coast to north of Baghdad in less than three years is very much related to the fact that the group has been enjoying an uninterrupted access to two essential resources: money and manpower. And the group has Turkey’s less then vigilant control over its Syrian border, to say the least, to thank for both of these resources.
After looting about $429 million from the central bank in Mosul, ISIS is considered to be the richest terrorist organization in the world, sitting on an enormous war chest of about $2 billion. One key financial source that generates a continuing flow of money for ISIS is the systematic extortion the group exerts in the areas under its control, including “taxes” levied at borders and major transportation arteries passing through the Tigris-Euphrates valley. Even before taking over Mosul, extortion rackets in the city are believed to have netted as much as $8 million a month.
But a significantly greater source of funding for ISIS is the eastern Syrian oil fields, where the group operates primitive refineries producing around $50 million worth of oil per month. And following its capture of Baiji refinery in late June, oil revenues of ISIS are expected to rise significantly in the coming months. While the group sells some of this oil in the domestic market, most is turned to diesel and gasoline and smuggled into one single market: Turkey. For the past few years, it has been customary to see lines of trucks filled with oil extending as far as two kilometers on each side of the Turkish-Syrian border.
IMPLICATIONS: Besides money, another key to ISIS’ success is its distinct capability to attract a continuous flow of fighters from abroad. Once again, Turkey plays a crucial role. According to a recent report by Washington Institute, the bulk of estimated 9,000 foreign jihadists fighting under ISIS banner come from the Arab World (5,000) and Western Europe (3,000), and they enter Syria exclusively from Turkey. In addition to at least 500 Turks recruited from their hometowns in Anatolia for the jihadist cause, dozens of amateur and well-seasoned fighters alike pass the Turkish-Syrian border with considerable ease every day. In a report to his superiors in the Ministry of Interior, the governor of the Hatay province of Turkey listed the movements of ISIS members in and around the city, testifying that the regional airports and bus stations have been swirling with individuals waiting to get ‘smuggled into Syria in groups of three to five.’
What is even more troublesome are the reports that numerous radical groups, including the ISIS militants, have been freely operating on the Turkish side of the border, turning towns and refugee camps into strategic hubs to organize and initiate offensives in Syria. Human Rights Watch’s report holds that the members of ISIS and other radical Sunni groups responsible for the massacres of Alawite villagers in Syria ‘smuggle their weapons and obtain money and other supplies’ from Turkey and even ‘retreat [back to Turkey] for medical treatment.’ These accounts are confirmed also by the Kurdish “peshmergas” fighting against ISIS forces in northern Syria who witnessed Turkish ambulances picking up wounded militants and carrying them to north of the border. In at least one incidence, the Turkish gendarmerie even discovered weapons and military equipment in a truck manned by members of Turkey’s intelligence service (MİT), only to release it to continue to Syria upon receiving instructions from their superiors.
Although the Turkish government vehemently denies the allegations that it turns a blind eye to the activities of Sunni terrorist groups on its southern border, let alone being actively involved in providing support for them, an increasing number of first-hand accounts from the region paint a completely different picture. What rather seems to be the case is that AKP leaders, until very recently, hoped for the quick fall of Bashar al-Assad’s Baath regime and thus pursued a wholesale supportive policy towards opposition, choosing not to distinguish between those who fought for a Syria free from authoritarianism and others whose goal is a Syria free from non-Sunnis.
The AKP government of Turkey did not see any problem with fuelling these sectarian tensions either. When ISIS claimed responsibility for a car-bomb attack in border town of Reyhanlı, Prime Minister Erdoğan blamed it on the Alawite regime in Syria and referred to those who lost their lives in the attack as the ‘our 53 Sunni citizens.’ (See June 11, 2014 Turkey Analyst)
There is in fact an underlying domestic political dimension which partially accounts for the AKP government’s sectarian stance in Syria. Estimated to make up to a fifth of the population, Turkish Alevis, like Alawites in Syria, are an offshoot of Shia Islam and politically opposed to the Islamist parties in Turkey which come exclusively from Sunni tradition, including the AKP. Despite their numbers, Alevi identity still is not officially recognized in Turkey, and Alevi demands for their temples to be legally recognized are ignored. Also, the ruling Sunni conservatives do not refrain from singling Alevis out as “the other” or, as Erdoğan did, non-Muslims and atheists.
It was thus no coincidence that all who died during the last year’s massive anti-government protests in Turkey were Alevis, since they comprised an important portion of the protestors. The fact that the leader of the main opposition party, the Republican People's Party (CHP), happens to be an Alevi only heightens the tension, enabling the AKP leaders to suggest that the CHP's criticism against government policies, whether concerning domestic or foreign issues such as Syria, have to do with its leader's Alevi creed.
CONCLUSIONS: The politics of polarization has long been the key strategy that the AKP government utilizes during the time of elections and crises to consolidate its grassroots support against its supposed enemies. Playing on the prejudices of Turkey’s Sunni majority against the Alevis or Alawites (there is no linguistic difference between the two in Turkish) during the time of multiple crises it faces at home and abroad has simply been the easy way out for AKP government. The party leaders liberally have thrown it at whomever they considered as their enemy – be it the Baath regime in Syria, the Alevi minority in Turkey or the main opposition party CHP. The rise of ISIS is a painful reminder for Turkey that its Middle Eastern policies, with their internal echoes, are bound to cause unpleasant side effects.
Halil Gürhanlı, a Kone Foundation scholar, is a PhD Candidate of Political Science and part-time lecturer teaching on democratic theory at the Department of Political and Economic Studies, University of Helsinki, Finland.
(Photo Credit: Twitter)