The official Turkish version is reasonable, despite what skeptics might believe. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was most likely behind the suicide bomb attack in the southeastern Turkish town of Suruç last week, which left more than 30 people dead. This latest action by ISIS is not surprising, however. Following the attack, US President Barack Obama seized the opportunity to call his Turkish counterpart to convince him to stop the flow of fighters across the Turkish border into Syria.
This urges a review of events and raises the following question: What is it that went wrong here for Turkey?
Turkey’s stance towards the Syrian regime was, initially at least, entirely normal—that is, until things got more complicated as the conflict went on. For the first 18 months of the uprising, Syrian youths took up arms in response to the Assad regime’s massacres. Ankara’s position was in favor of the opposition, which was formed from several local groups under the umbrella of the Syrian National Coalition and the Free Syrian Army (FSA). By the end of the second year of the uprising—now a full-blown conflict—the Assad regime was teetering on the brink of collapse; it lost many major cities, and the outskirts of the capital Damascus were experiencing daily battles between the two sides. After the second year, two events, almost simultaneous, changed the conflict’s course: Syria began to represent a serious issue in the Muslim world, similar to the Bosnian tragedy of the 1990s, due to the large numbers of dead and the destruction wrought by the regime’s forces. Outrage began to mount in the face of a lack of response from world powers, a failure of mediation without sanctions, and the refusal to arm the opposition. The second event was the military interference of Iran and its allies in Syria to support the waning regime in Damascus. Jihadist fighters, both pro- and anti-Assad, began to flow into the country.
So while Iranian aircrafts were transporting fighters, along with thousands of Iraqi and Lebanese militias crossing the borders, fighters were also crossing from the Turkish border to fight against the regime. Thus, Syria turned into a magnet and hub for regional and sectarian conflict. The West saw it as a war within the Muslim camp and felt it should therefore do nothing to intervene.
Turkey, meanwhile, turned a blind eye on fighters sneaking into Syria through its borders, and, if its detractors are right, began supporting “the lesser evil” of the conflict’s jihadist groups, the Al-Nusra Front. Al-Nusra is just another organization affiliated to Al-Qaeda—just one that doesn’t film its slaughter of hostages. But Ankara believed it could only counter the Iraqi, Lebanese, Afghan, and Iranian jihadist militias with similar groups such as ISIS and Al-Nusra. This erroneous thinking led to its overlooking the true opposition—the FSA and other revolutionary groups—which did not resort to religious slogans because they had a national and political issue that represented most Syrians.
Of course, those who know Al-Qaeda well will be able to predict the end of ISIS. And just as Al-Qaeda did previously, ISIS began kidnapping and killing Westerners. It played with fire and rallied enemies much stronger than itself. This is what characterizes terrorist organizations: they have neither national nor moral boundaries. They are mere destructive groups that believe in defeating the whole world in order to pave their own way to paradise. All the while, Ankara was also involved in other regional conflicts and the chaos of the Arab Spring. But despite all this, Turkey remains the only country capable of bringing about substantive changes in Syria. The recent rebellion by ISIS and Al-Nusra against Ankara is not surprising, because ISIS especially became trapped in a corner when thousands of fighters were recently prohibited from crossing Turkish borders and Turkey closed down some of the group’s websites.
We should not forget that ISIS, which has achieved several impressive military victories in Iraq and Syria, has also fulfilled the will of the Syrian and Iranian regimes by sabotaging the Syrian revolution, tarnishing the image of the Syrian national movement, and damaging governments such as those of Turkey and the Gulf states, who stood up against Tehran and Damascus.
Despite all the chaos and pressures, I believe Ankara, like the rest of the region’s governments, is in the midst of a battle of balances. It cannot leave its southern neighbor Syria under the control of Iran, especially after the signing of the nuclear deal that lifted all sanctions on the Iranian regime, because such a deal will increase Iran’s confidence to pursue further expansion in the region. Turkey now has an opportunity to reestablish its ties with Syrian revolutionary forces, who are fighting for a genuine, legitimate cause the world simply cannot ignore.