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Turkey and the Islamic State: Clash of interests feeds suspicions

Governments throughout the Middle East and well beyond look with suspicion on Turkey’s role in the war against the Islamic State.

“Turkey’s policy is either a double or triple game,” a senior official in Jerusalem said recently, speaking, like most officials in this story, on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive diplomatic and intelligence matters involved.

“Turkey’s connections with terrorism need to be investigated,” a senior Egyptian official in Cairo said.

And in Amman, the capital of Jordan, a former top Jordanian intelligence official was more direct. “They are collaborating with Daash, but they just don’t say it,” he said of Turkey, referring to the Islamic State by its pejorative Arabic acronym.

Even American officials have indirectly tied Turkish policies to the growth of the Islamic State, noting that thousands of Islamic State volunteers have joined it across Turkey’s 500-mile border with Syria.

James Clapper, the U.S. director of national intelligence, said in February that a “permissive environment” in Turkey allowed 60 percent of foreign fighters to enter Syria via Turkey. He told Congress that Turkey had “other priorities and other interests” than to curb them.

Other accounts talk of Turkey’s role as a conduit for Islamic State fuel, which is smuggled through primitive pipelines that cross the Turkish border. The pipelines were put in place when moderate rebels were exporting diesel fuel. Independent news accounts say the smuggling has been cut drastically.

Islamic State fighters still cross the border, despite Turkish pledges to stop the flow. When Turkish troops evacuated an enclave inside Syria a few months back, the Islamic State made no move to stop them or attack them. A recent New York Times story pointed out that ammonium nitrate fertilizer, often the fuel for car bombs, is moving across the border into Syria in amounts seemingly too large for just agriculture.

Turkish views of Syria, Iran

While the innuendo is great, the actual evidence is sparse, and Turkish officials reject the insinuations.

“We are not playing a game here,” a senior Turkish official told McClatchy. “The Islamic State is the enemy. It has been declared as such.”

Turkish officials see a different issue. “The question is not where Turkey is,” the official said. “The question is who will be with Turkey when the mayhem starts. Our soldiers will be the primary target. And we don’t want to be the heroes ... we don’t want to be left alone with this problem at the end of the day.”

Turkish officials blame the country’s risk aversion on the Obama administration. Since the Islamic State captured Mosul, Iraq’s second biggest city, last June, Washington focused its attention and resources on re-training and re-equipping the Iraqi army.

Turkey complains that the United States has yet to develop a plan to fight the extremists in Syria, other than airstrikes, or for forcing Syrian President Bashar Assad from power. Even as other countries say Turkey should deal with the Islamic State’s continued presence in Syria, Turkey says the U.S. is avoiding any step that might upset Iran, Assad’s principal international backer. Turks call it a case of “appeasement,” while their own views – those of a NATO ally and frontline state – are ignored.

“As far as I can understand, the West would like to deal with Iraq, and leave the rest to us – to contain ISIL in Syria,” said a second Turkish official, referring to the Islamic State by one of its alternative names.

“Let’s not kid ourselves,” said the official. “If you’re going to keep up the appearance, as if we’re fighting, we can always do that. But that will not solve the problem in one, two or five years.”

It’s not only Turkey that sees Obama as motivated mainly not to upset Iran during the end stage of negotiations to curb Iran’s nuclear program.

Officials in Ankara note that Iran a year ago threatened to intervene directly in Syria, dispatching 100,000 trained Iranian volunteers to fight. The threat hasn’t been carried out, but officials in several countries voiced concern about what they see as Iran’s rise.

They worry that the Obama administration has watched Iran’s rise mostly in silence.

“The Iranians feel a kind of free hand in the region,” the second senior Turkish official told McClatchy. “They know they don’t have a determined counterpart. They know the U.S. will never act against them.”

Iran sees “the policy of appeasement is the major policy line in the U.S.,” he added. “They see this is the time (to flex their muscle). They won’t have such an opportunity for decades to come.”

As for Iran’s growing role in the region, other than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, some of the strongest denunciations have come from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“Iran is trying to dominate the region,” Erdogan told reporters last month. “Could this be allowed? This has begun upsetting us, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries. This is really not tolerable, and Iran has to see this.”

In the caliphate’s capital

But Turkey has not translated words into action, and this is what raises suspicions in much of the region about Turkey’s real aims.

The best indication is Turkey’s failure to take on the extremists in the Syrian city of Raqqa, just 60 miles south of the Turkish border.

Raqqa is the capital of the Islamic State “caliphate,” the seat of its self-declared government and first stop for foreign volunteers from the Islamic world, Europe and North America. Any plausible strategy for defeating it would designate Raqqa as a primary target.

But Turkey, which has Europe’s biggest army, has no plans to close down Raqqa. Nor, it seems, does anyone else in the U.S.-led coalition of over 60 countries, despite its stated goal “to eliminate the Islamic State and the threat it poses to Iraq, Syria, and the region.”

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was asked in New York earlier this year when and whether Turkey would send ground troops into Syria.

“Why (should) Turkey take the risk if there is no grand strategy accepted by all?” he told the Council on Foreign Relations. “If American, European or other ground troops are not there, why (should) Turkey send” troops?

Cooperation with U.S.

For the time being, Turkey’s most active role in the battle against the Islamic State has been to send arms and trainers to the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, and to join the U.S. in training and equipping Syrian rebels under a $500 million U.S. program.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said this week that training has now begun for a small number fighters but that there was still no agreement between the United States and Turkey over whether the countries would provide the fighters with air cover. Turkey says air cover is essential when the men go into combat, but it’s unwilling to provide the cover on its own.

He also expressed doubts that 2,000 fighters will be trained here this year, as had been planned. Officials said about 70 Syrian fighters are now being trained in Turkey; about 90 are undergoing training in Jordan.

The Obama administration, which for months has sought permission, unsuccessfully, from Turkey to use the joint air base at Incirlik to mount airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria, plays down the differences.

“The United States and Turkey have a shared interest in defeating ISIL, seeing a political transition in Syria, and bringing stability to Iraq,” said Alistair Baskey, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council. “We are engaged in ongoing dialogue with our Turkish allies about the best options to carry forward the various coalition lines of effort to achieve our common end to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.”

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