Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is pursuing an aggressive policy both at home and abroad, aiming both to realise his own ideological goals and to feed nationalist sentiments. As he faces an increasing possibility of losing power, so this aggression has also grown.
Sometimes, he pursues these policies even at the expense of disturbing major international powers. When faced with a negative reaction, he makes a manoeuvre and takes a step back, but he soon returns to similar practices. This policy became clear with the Syrian war, and Erdoğan has continued to pursue it in the Eastern Mediterranean, Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh and Iraq. Now, he is declaring that he is ready to take a voluntary role in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of NATO forces led by the USA. He does all this by relying on the jihadists he recruited in Syria and the armed drones that have become an important tool of war.
When the Syrian war broke out, Erdoğan – along with the western world – followed a policy aimed at overthrowing the Assad regime and bringing the opposition to power. However, unlike the western powers, Turkey, together with Qatar, supported the extreme Islamist forces. Erdoğan offered all kinds of support to al-Nusra Front and al-Qaeda, and later to ISIS. He initially supported these forces against the regime, but he later used them to attack the Kurds, after the Kurds had declared their self-government in the north.
In fact, some ISIS commanders who were captured alive by the Kurds admitted that their main target had been Damascus, but that they had turned to attack Kobanê at Erdoğan’s request, and that they had made a historic mistake.
After the Kurds had defeated ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front and other jihadi groups, and had created free areas, Turkey itself occupied parts of northern Syria with the approval of first Russia and then the USA. Erdoğan placed jihadists in the occupied areas under the name of the “Free Syrian Army,” which Turkey had formed from the remnants of terrorist groups such as ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Al Nusra; and he used the jihadists to form an administration.
He turned the occupied areas into military and ideological training camps for jihadists. Some nominal refugee camps within Turkey have also been used as training camps for these jihadi groups. They receive funding from refugee support money that is received by Turkey as part of the migration agreement with the European Union. Idlib, which is said to be inhabited by around 3-4 million people today, has turned into a “Jihadistan” under the auspices of Turkey. Yet, Turkey continues to be supported by western powers, especially NATO.
Jihadists trained in these camps were initially used to impact domestic politics. For example, when Erdoğan lost his majority in the general elections of 7 June 2015, he didn’t accept the election results and decided to rerun the elections. During this second election campaign, jihadists under the control of the Turkish Intelligence Service detonated bombs in many places, including Diyarbakır, Suruç, Ankara and Istanbul, causing the death or injury of hundreds of people. In the climate of fear thus created, Erdoğan gave a clear message: “Either you vote for me, or you will have to continue to live in such an environment.” He effectively won a majority in the elections at gunpoint.
Recently, the Turkish government has again been trying to create a climate of fear by using these elements against the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). The past history of the murderer who entered the HDP’s İzmir provincial building on 17 June and murdered Deniz Poyraz shows that he was trained in the Turkish occupied regions of Syria and took part in war practice. This naturally raises questions about links to Erdoğan’s policy of preparing for elections by creating an atmosphere of fear. Recent racist attacks against Kurds living in western Turkey and against the HDP have been encouraged by the actions and rhetoric of the Turkish government itself.
Turkey has now employed their jihadi mercenaries in many parts of the world. In Libya, when Khalifa Haftar’s forces were besieging Tripoli and were about to overthrow the government, which was close to the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey stepped in and changed the balance of power. They were able to do this largely thanks to the tens of thousands of jihadist fighters and armed drones they brought from Syria. Despite criticism from many countries – especially Egypt, Russia and France – and despite decisions by the United Nations Security Council, they still retain some of these forces in Libya.
Last autumn, Turkish provocation turned the long-standing Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia into a ferocious war. Thanks to the armed drones and jihadists that Turkey brought from Syria, the Azerbaijani army gained a clear advantage and defeated Armenia.
Turkey has never been able to gain the upper hand in the war they have waged with the PKK for nearly 40 years, and nor have they been able to prevent the growth of the PKK. In recent years, they have started to use heavily armed drones and jihadist fighters brought from Syria against the PKK too. Erdoğan has begun to carry out assassinations with armed drones, not only in the PKK’s mountain bases, but also in residential areas such as Makhmur refugee camp and Sinjar.
Now, Erdoğan wants to play a role in Afghanistan, using the same war apparatus to realize his objectives. Turkey imports parts for their armed drones from western states, and then uses them to commit serious crimes against humanity. But these western states continue to supply the parts.
When Erdoğan came to power in 2002, the expectation of the West was that the secular Turkish state could set an example for the entire Islamic world in terms of moderate Islam. They openly supported him, and thanks to this support, he came to power in the elections. He has now been in power for nineteen years. To give confidence to the West, Erdoğan frequently stated that joining the European Union was Turkey’s primary goal, and during negotiations with the European Union, he initially made some ostensible reforms.
However, later, especially after attaining a solid level of power, he confounded western expectations by deviating to a radical Islamist line. We see the most concrete example of this in the Syrian war. The Syrian opposition, which began as a peaceful revolt against the Assad regime, soon shifted in a completely different direction with the influx of radical Islamic elements from across the world.
Almost all of these international radical Islamists who went to fight in Syria were transferred through Turkey. For Erdoğan, it wasn’t enough to help the Islamists cross into Syria. Turkey has also provided all sorts of support – training, logistics, weapons – and continues to do so.
Erdoğan’s plan is to clear all Kurds from the areas of Iraq and Syria bordering Turkey, and to replace them with these jihadists. For a hundred years, Kurds lived without recognition within four different states; with this plan, Erdoğan wants to separate them geographically through demographic change.
But that is not Erdoğan’s only purpose. He also aims to use his strategically placed jihadists to threaten the whole world with terrorism. Turkey’s ongoing invasion of South Kurdistan/northern Iraq has involved intense bombing of residential areas and their surroundings over the last three months and has caused the evacuation of many villages as well as civilian casualties. If the Turkish state can establish dominance here, they will settle jihadists from Syria and from the camps within Turkey and turn the region into training and living spaces for them. This would become a serious terrorist threat for the peoples of the region and for the whole world.
There appears to be a similar plan for Afghanistan. For now, Erdoğan comes with a “reasonable” demand to protect and manage Kabul International Airport, and it seems that he has the support of the NATO forces who are withdrawing from Afghanistan, especially the USA (with financing and similar issues still to be negotiated). What can Turkey achieve in Afghanistan, from where the Soviet Union had to withdraw with many losses and the Americans have also decided to withdraw without gaining results?
Despite this history, Erdoğan has declared his willingness to go. What is he relying on, and what are his plans? In statements made in response to warnings from the Taliban, he revealed his intentions by explaining that he has no difference in faith with the Taliban, and that there has been a communication accident. In other words, Erdoğan’s planned role in Afghanistan involves negotiating with the Taliban and even joining forces with them, in the same way that he was able to establish dominance in part of Syria and have a seat at the bargaining table by working with ISIS, Al-Nusra and Al-Qaeda.
There are reports that ISIS, which has been largely defeated in Syria and Iraq, has started to use Afghanistan as its home base. When this is taken into account, it can be understood that Erdoğan plans to work in a brotherly manner with the Taliban and ISIS.
Just as the western world – especially the USA and Europe – support Turkey’s occupation of certain areas in northern Syria as a balancing factor against Russia and Iran, so they seem also to have decided to support Turkey in Afghanistan as a balancing factor against China and Iran. In fact, all the different imperial powers seem to have accepted the Taliban’s control of the region.
There are ongoing negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government taking place in Qatar, and the US was keen for these to happen in Turkey, though this plan was rejected by the Taliban. After their withdrawal, the US is simply watching the Taliban take control of areas that US soldiers fought for and guarded for years. Britain has already declared that they are ready to work with the Taliban. Russia and China are preparing to work with the Taliban by inviting their top leaders to Moscow and Beijing.
The Taliban, which has a similar mentality to ISIS, is being accepted by the world’s great powers, and Turkey’s declaration that they are ready to play a role here is being regarded positively, especially by the USA and NATO. This is consistent with the history of US intervention in Afghanistan. It was the United States that effectively formed and supported Al Qaeda against the Soviet invasion.
When they then attacked Afghanistan after 9/11 in order to destroy al-Qaeda, they only increased the chaos in the country. Now, they are withdrawing from Afghanistan and the Middle East within their policy framework of encircling China – which they see as their main rival – and they are preparing to hand over the dirty task of NATO intervention to Turkey, which is both a NATO member and Muslim. But Erdoğan’s government has its own perspective and sees this task as offering possibilities to pursue their own ideological worldview and strategic plans.
It is not necessary to be a prophet to see how cooperation between the Taliban and Erdoğan will only ensure the strengthening of an ISIS mentality and the emergence of a terrorist state that will become a threat to the whole world.
Fayik Yağızay is the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) Representative to the European Institutions in Strasbourg.