Erdogan’s latest wake-up call on Islamic State –  US, Russia should give Jabhat al-Nusra no quarter

4 July 2017 – AL MONITOR – The Obama administration is considering a plan to coordinate airstrikes with Russia against Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, in return for Russia’s commitment to pressure the Syrian government to end its airstrikes against civilians and US-backed moderate armed groups operating in Syria.

This column wrote in May that the United States should take up the Russian offer to coordinate airstrikes and put Moscow to the test on its and the Syrian government’s targeting decisions. The announcement of US-Russian negotiations comes a little more than a week after the leaking of a “dissent” cable by State Department diplomats calling for an escalation of US military involvement in the war by undertaking airstrikes against the Syrian military.

The Obama administration, in our view, has rightly kept the focus on trying to end the war and defeat terrorist groups, rather than follow the escalatory and misguided course of action recommended in the cable.What we find perplexing is resistance in some quarters to US-Russia coordination, despite numerous UN resolutions calling for international cooperation against al-Qaeda and its affiliates, including and especially Jabhat al-Nusra, and recent warnings that al-Qaeda may declare an emirate in northern Syria. A Washington Post editorial cites “several experts on Syria” as making the case that US-Russia coordination would be a bad deal because “Jabhat al-Nusra forces are intermixed with other rebel units” and “an assault on them could have the effect of allowing the Assad regime to achieve what it says is its foremost objective, the recapture of Aleppo, tipping the balance of the civil war in its favor. The anti-Assad rebels backed by the West could be decisively undermined, even if Russia and the Syrian regime respected the no-bombing zones — which, given the history of past agreements, is a most unlikely prospect.”

There is absolutely a place for pressure on Assad, and we agree in putting Moscow to the test on whether it can deliver. But there is no place, ever, for giving al-Qaeda, its affiliates and its partners a pass. We should know how this ends by now. Our view is that those groups that ally with Jabhat al-Nusra are making their choice, and it’s the wrong choice, and it should have consequences, given the many UN Security Council resolutions sanctioning any cooperation with al-Qaeda, as well as al-Qaeda’s well-known record of uncompromising hatred and terrorism, which, we would have thought, would be well known to most “experts” on Syria.

Turkey’s failure of intelligence on IS

Turkey suffered a horrific terrorist bombing at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport on June 28 that killed 44 people and injured more than 200. CNN reports that the bombers have been identified as foreign fighters linked to the Islamic State (IS) in Syria.

This was the seventh terrorist attack linked to IS in Turkey. Turkey’s recent increased detention and arrest of terrorists on its Syrian border, the result of domestic and international pressure, may be stoking IS’ ire. Fehim Tastekin observes that “the measures Turkey is taking against IS — even though they are at times hypocritical and for show only — are enough for IS to terrorize Turkey with suicide attacks.”

Cengiz Candar provides further context. “For a few years now, Turkey has been the ‘jihadi highway,’ and its porous long frontier with Syria has been an easy passage for all sorts of Salafi opposition groups under the support of Ankara, Riyadh and Qatar, including al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch Jabhat al-Nusra and IS participants. It is an open secret that IS has many sleeper cells in Turkey. Under the favorable umbrella of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) for all sorts of Islamist activities, IS found an affectionate bosom to entrench, expand and stay relatively safe within the territory of Turkey. The Turkish security agencies tasked with supporting anti-Bashar al-Assad Salafi opposition groups consequently established contacts with many Salafists, most of them residing in the refugee camps along the border or in the Turkish border towns. Thus, they accumulated a lot of precious information about ‘who is who’ in the ‘jihadi highway.’”“Why then is there an intelligence lapse?” Candar asks. “It is mainly because of the laxity of the AKP political rule in the assessment of terrorism. For a long time, Turkish authorities refrained from affixing the label of terrorist to IS, but it easily stuck the label on the Syrian Kurdish groups fighting the Turkish government.”

While the IS attacks are blowback for Turkey’s role in Syria, the mainstream Turkish press hawking the government line has sought to link the attack to those opposed to Ankara’s making amends with Russia and Turkey.

Erdogan sent a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 27 seeking to bury the hatchet over Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian fighter jet on Nov. 24, 2015. Putin and Erdogan spoke by phone soon after the terrorist attack at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport the following day. Maxim Suchkov writes, “The most common explanation among one group of Russian experts and decision-makers was that Erdogan’s move was driven by Russia’s economic blow to Turkey,” as well as that “Ankara’s relations with Europe aren’t working out the way he planned. Syria and the Kurds remain a prime headache, while the Turkish president simply has no chemistry with Washington. Moreover, in recent years Turkey has wasted some of the vast soft-power resources it had without obvious gains for itself. These arguments, often voiced in Moscow, created a perception that Erdogan was cornered. The common perception is: It took Erdogan a long time to understand his own situation and now it’s up to Putin to pardon him.”

Erdogan also restored ties with Israel. Metin Gurcan writes that “pressure from the Turkish armed forces” forced Ankara to restore ties with Israel, and that Turkey urgently need to compensate for its “disturbing isolation in the region.”

Ben Caspit reports from Israel that Israel-Turkey ties will never reach the level of partners or strategic allies, as was once the aspiration. “What we should expect is an ad hoc partnership based on common interests, shared suspicions and the kind of bargaining that one would expect to find in the Turkish bazaar. Israel and Turkey are equally worried about Iranian influence in Syria. They both share the same concerns regarding an Iranian Shiite state pressed up against the border fence on the Golan Heights and Idlib. Having many fronts and challenges to deal with, Erdogan had to cut his losses and reduce the number of unnecessary fronts. The one he opened against Israel was the most superfluous of all. And so, he climbed down from his tree, taking with him his demand that Israel lift its naval blockade of Gaza. That being said, he did receive a candy in return, with the possibility of sending goods to the Gaza Strip through the Israeli port in Ashdod, and of developing projects in Gaza. This is a win-win situation, at least as far as Israel is concerned. These kinds of projects would make life easier for Hamas and reduce the overall pressure in Gaza. This, in turn, could postpone the next Hamas-Israel round of fighting.”

We wrote here in October 2014 about “Erdogan’s slow turnaround on foreign fighters in Syria” as a result of domestic and international pressure. Although we did not expect it would be this slow, the turnaround now seems to be taking form, the result of Turkey’s failed Syria policies and blowback from its deliberate ambiguity in dealing with terrorist and affiliated groups crossing into Syria. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov expressed his hope for increased Russian-Turkish counterterrorism cooperation after meeting with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu in Moscow on July 1.

Mustafa Akyol suggests that the Istanbul attack should force Turkey to resume peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), and intensify its efforts against IS. “While you can negotiate with the PKK, as we have seen, you possibly cannot negotiate with IS. And if we Turks had any delusion of seeing IS as somehow less dangerous than the PKK, then we must have been woken by the ferocious attack on the Ataturk airport,” Akyol writes.