Exactly a decade after the United States sought a pioneering role for Turkey by launching the regime change project in Syria, it has solicited help from Ankara for another political transition in the Greater Middle East – in Afghanistan.
Analogies never hold 100% in politics or diplomacy but the similarities are striking.
If in Syria the project involved the overthrow by force of the established government of President Bashar al-Assad, in Afghanistan the agenda is somehow to ease out the elected government led by President Ashraf Ghani and have it replaced by an interim government that includes the militant Islamist group the Taliban.
Both situations narrow down to co-opting jihadi groups who masquerade as “liberation movements.”
In Syria, Turkey provided not only the logistics for jihadi fighters from all over the world to enter that country to join Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda but also equipped them and supported them – even nursing injured fighters – to wage a protracted, horrific war against Assad.
There is incontrovertible evidence that Turkey mentored the cadres of ISIS and al-Qaeda. A dispatch by CNN from Turkey in November 2013 noted that “it is extraordinary to watch this volume of international traffic from countries where al Qaeda has a confirmed and consistent presence into a NATO member state.
“Many of these devout Muslims believe they are joining the final battle prophesied as happening in Syria – known as al-Sham – which will herald the end of the world. The recruits are ecstatic; they never thought this final fight would come in their lifetime.
“We stood at the Turkish border and filmed a chilling sight: the flag of ISIS, flying calmly over a minaret a few hundred meters away in the Syrian town of Jarabulus – a sign that they control the town.
“Turkey now has to reconcile the seemingly relaxed traffic of jihadis into their south to travel into Syria – many of whose aim is to help establish an al-Qaeda-friendly caliphate – with the fact they can now see al-Qaeda from their border. It couldn’t get any closer.”
Russia and Iran repeatedly called attention to this unholy alliance in Syria between the US and Turkey on one side and ISIS and al-Qaeda groups on the other. Curiously, this unholy alliance continues even today.
In March last year, al-Qaeda’s now largest branch, which is its Syrian organization that used to be called al-Nusra – and now calls itself Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) – openly praised Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government for standing up for al-Qaeda, and for other jihadist organizations that were trying to overthrow Syria’s secular government.
This year, in an interview on March 8, James Jeffrey, who served as US ambassador under both Republican and Democrat administrations and most recently as special representative for Syria during the Donald Trump administration, was quoted as saying that HTS has been “an asset” to America’s strategy in Idlib, the northwestern province of Syria bordering Turkey.
To quote Jeffrey, HTS “are the least bad option of the various options on Idlib, and Idlib is one of the most important places in Syria, which is one of the most important places right now in the Middle East.” (Read a long-ranging interview here by Jeffrey with Al-Monitor on US’s Syria policies.)
Indeed, in a recent interview with the US government media organization PBS, Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, leader of the HTS in Idlib, sought to impress the American audience that his group doesn’t pose a threat to the US or the West but, to the contrary, shares common interests.
Some American experts – for example Nicholas Heras, senior analyst and program head at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, a Washington-based think-tank – have described HTS as “a Turkish intelligence asset, and via proxy from Turkey to [the] USA.”
Heras told the Turkish news journal Ahval this month, “HTS cannot survive without Turkish support, it’s that simple. Turkey’s significant military investment to protect Idlib is the key factor that protects that region from collapsing back into the control of Assad and his allies.”
Indeed, Turkey has deployed substantial military forces in Idlib since late 2017 and also controls the most important transit routes for the HTS-controlled parts of Idlib.
Heras told Ahval: “HTS is the dominant actor in Idlib, and it would be quite expensive in terms of casualties and destruction for Turkey and Turkish-backed Syrian proxy groups to remove HTS from power. HTS is literally the only local Syrian actor that can control Idlib at a low cost for Turkey. Turkey and this Syrian al-Qaeda-linked group have a symbiotic relationship, and HTS is an asset to Ankara.”
A well-known US expert on Syria, Professor Joshua Landis, director of the Center of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, also shares this opinion. According to Landis, the US supports Turkey in Idlib and wants to turn Syria into a quagmire for both Russia and Iran by finding allied groups that can prevent Damascus from recapturing the north of the country.
Besides, the HTS “assets” and Turkey both “serve the US policy to deny Damascus access to oil, water, and much of the best agricultural land of Syria,” Landis said.
Taking all of the above into account, it is the mother of all ironies that in Afghanistan the US is roping in Turkey to mainstream yet another jihadi group, the Taliban, and accommodate it in that country’s power structure. Incidentally, the United Nations has documented that the Taliban still retain their old links with al-Qaeda.
Perhaps the most bizarre part would be that none other than the US vice president at the time, Joe Biden, once named Turkey openly for its shameful links with ISIS and al-Qaeda in Syria.
In October 2014 during a session at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, Biden said, “Our allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria. The Turks were great friends, and I have a great relationship with Erdogan.
“What were they doing? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad – except that the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra, and al-Qaeda, and the extremist elements of jihadis who were coming from other parts of the world.”
Biden continued, “Now, you think I’m exaggerating? Take a look. Where did all of this go? So now that’s happening, all of a sudden, everybody is awakened because this outfit called ISIL, which was al-Qaeda in Iraq, when they were essentially thrown out of Iraq, found open space and territory in Syria, work with al-Nusra, who we declared a terrorist group early on. And we could not convince our colleagues [Turkey] to stop supplying them.”
Bravo! Now as president, Biden has directed his diplomats to invite Turkey once again to join hands with Washington in yet another regime change project in the Greater Middle East, knowing full well Ankara’s controversial past association with ISIS and al-Qaeda.
Couldn’t the US have discovered some other friendly country with an impeccable record on state-sponsored terrorism? Why not Tashkent, which has hosted Afghan peace conferences before?
The answer is simple: Turkey is indispensable precisely because of its abhorrent past in consorting with ISIS and al-Qaeda. Those are the credentials that the Biden administration needs in a partner to steer the Afghan peace process.
Turkey is a clone of the US in its genius for manipulating “Islamist terrorists” as geopolitical tools – with the added virtue of being notionally a Muslim country. It can be trusted to navigate the jihadis in the Hindu Kush toward a higher destiny in times ahead.
M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.