Southeastern Turkey has now become a jurisdiction for terrorism finance, weapons smuggling, illegal oil sales, and the flow of fighters to Syria. This pipeline serves the interest of several terrorist organizations, including Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) and the Islamic State (IS).
It is unclear whether Ankara is explicitly assisting these groups, or whether JN and IS are merely exploiting Turkey’s lax border policies. Either way, it is clear that Turkey seeks to bring down the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria with the aid of irregular fighters.
Ankara opened its border to Syrian rebel forces, namely the Free Syrian Army, in the early stages of the uprising in 2011. But when Assad did not fall, the makeup of the Syrian opposition began to change. Radical groups such as the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and the Salafist Ahrar al-Sham emerged in 2012. Within a year, jihadist groups dominated the Syrian opposition. Border towns in southeastern Turkey were effectively a rear guard for some of the rebel units, while foreign fighters streamed into Syria from Turkey. All of this served as a crucible for the rise of the Islamic State.
The meteoric ascendance of IS has led to a full-blown crisis in Iraq and Syria. After conquering large swaths of territory in both states, IS declared a caliphate. The group’s brutality, highlighted by the beheadings of journalists, has prompted the United States and a broad coalition of Arab States to intervene with military force.
The IS crisis has put Turkey and the U.S. on a collision course. Turkey refuses to allow the coalition to launch military strikes from its soil. Its military also merely looked on while IS besieged the Kurdish town of Kobani, just across its border. Turkey negotiated directly with IS in the summer of 2013 to release 49 Turks held by the terrorist group. In return, Ankara secured the release of 150 IS fighters, many of whom returned to the battlefield. Meanwhile, the border continues to serve as a transit point for the illegal sale of oil, the transfer of weapons, and the flow of foreign fighters. Inside Turkey, IS has also established cells for recruiting militants and other logistical operations. All of this has raised questions about Turkey’s value as an American ally, and its place in the NATO alliance.
Turkey’s Syria policy also has negative repercussions domestically. The presence of extremists threatens Turkey’s internal security, as well as its economic stability, given Ankara’s dependence on foreign investment and tourism. Additionally, the turmoil in Syria has greatly complicated Turkey’s relationships with the Kurds and exacerbated the government’s battles with domestic opponents.
Washington now needs to work with Ankara to address the extremism problem on its southeastern front. This will require high-level diplomatic engagement that must address head-on the security challenges that Turkey has helped spawn. However, Washington must also address Turkey’s valid concerns, including long-term strategies for ending the Assad regime and how to increase support for the moderate opposition in Syria. The United States also has an opportunity to work with its NATO allies to help Ankara erect an integrated border protection system along the Syrian border to contain the current security and illicit finance threats. If Ankara is unwilling to tackle these challenges, Washington may need to consider other measures, including sanctions or curbing the security cooperation that has long been a cornerstone of this important bilateral relationship.