Aya Burweila, director of Code on the Road, a non-profit organization aimed at building resilience to extremism through researching protective factors
“The resurrection of Hagia Sophia heralds the liberation of Al-Aqsa Mosque” — Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, July 11, 2020.
When Souad Mohamed removed the cloth covering Hevrin Khalaf’s chest and face, she found nothing left of the Kurdish-Syrian politician but a small piece of her jaw. Last October, Khalaf was executed by Turkey-backed fighters on the M4 highway in northeast Syria and returned to her mother in pieces.
The Turks pointed out that Khalaf was a member of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a registered terrorist organization that uses the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as a smokescreen. But in the aftermath of the shocking assassination it led Dr. Anne Speckhard, the Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism to ask, “Who are the real terrorists in North East Syria?”
Almost a year later, buttressed by spin, Turkey invaded North-East Syria, upsetting a fragile situation and heralding more “misery” for Syrian-Kurds.
In addition to its large conventional military, according to a report by the Dutch Clingendael Institute, the Syrian National Army (SNA), composed of former Syrian Arab rebels, is almost fully under Turkish control through the provision of training and equipment, salary payments, and the creation of new organisational structures. The SNA is now an integrated part of the Turkish army that is instrumental in advancing Turkey’s foreign policy goals in Syria.
Turkey did not stop at the M4 highway. Six months later, in April 2020, Turkish-backed fighters from Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) would find themselves in the outskirts of Tarhouna, where, to the cheers of “Allahu Akbar”, local militias promised to kill every woman in the besieged town.
The town eventually fell to the GNA as the Libyan National Army (LNA) withdrew on June 5. The valley town met the fate of other cities both in Libya and Syria that fell to Turkish-backed rebels: disorder, the release of criminals (and even allegedly some terrorists) from the prisons, looting, kidnapping, and executions.
The fact that Turkey has directed the SNA against the SDF, which was the ground force in Syria for the Coalition’s war against the Islamic State (ISIS), raises once again the question about Turkey’s approach to ISIS. There are allegations that recycled ISIS members are now part of the SNA, and for a long time it has been said that Turkey used ISIS and other Islamic militants as a way to contain Kurdish nationalism in Syria. In April 2017, David L. Phillips, Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights, submitted a report to the U.S. government detailing what he said was military cooperation between Erdogan’s government and ISIS—the provision of weapons, logistical support, financial assistance, and medical services to the jihadists.
There are echoes in this of the accusations levelled at Pakistan over its handling of Al-Qaeda, notably the discovery of Osama bin Laden within shouting distance of a major Pakistani military base. The parallels seemed more acute after ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was found in a compound in Barisha, five kilometres from the Turkish border.
The New Rogues
Writing over two decades ago, Raymond Tanter, noted in Rogue Regimes: Terrorism and Proliferation how idiosyncratic politics are the order of the day in the post-Cold War era:
“Without checks and balances of a democratic system or the constraints of large-scale bureaucracies, rogue regimes are subject to the whims of charismatic individuals. These leaders may hold the future of international stability in their hands.”
Today, new rogues have emerged on the world stage and have redefined the scope of their threats and capabilities. While the old rogues, like Saddam Hussein and the Ayatollahs of Iran, remained firmly outside the pale of global security alliances, new rogues such as Turkey and Qatar are deeply embedded within the political, military, and financial systems of their target states and communities, allowing them to effectively pursue their policies from within.
For half-a-century, secular Turkey has been a valued member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which was created to counter the ideological and military threats posed by the Soviet Union. It was inconceivable in the aftermath of World War II that the leadership of the Turkish state would domestically succumb to Islamist ideology and co-opt international terrorist organizations that pose one of the greatest post war threats to not only international security but internally to the security and human rights of Turks themselves.
Eighteen years since the victory of the Islamist AKP party led by Erdogan, the Turkish government has descended into an Islamist authoritarianism and belligerence towards NATO allies and other sovereign states. On July 2, a Member of the European Parliament, Manfred Weber, said:
“Turkey is unilaterally escalating conflicts with Europe and the situation is getting worse. Turkish security forces attack the Greek border on a regular basis and the drilling attempts in the waters of Cyprus are intensifying continuously. The EU cannot leave these aggressions unanswered.”
Turkish provocations are many and long-standing. On September 4, 2019, Erdogan suggested it was Turkey’s right to acquire nuclear weapons, telling his party members that “some countries have missiles with nuclear warheads, not one or two. But [they tell us] we can’t have them. This, I cannot accept”. In November 2019, Turkey tested the Russian-made S-400 air defense system on U.S.-made F-16 jets. In January 2019, Turkish forces and proxies landed in Libya, under the cloak of a legally dubious military cooperation agreement signed with the GNA the previous month. On June 10, 2020, Turkey threatened France and Greece as their vessels attempted to enforce an arms embargo as part of the EU’s Operation IRINI which Turkey continues to violate.
With these actions abroad, and domestic abuse of its citizens and subversion of democracy, Turkey is transforming into a new rogue regime from within the NATO alliance, a profound challenge for the neighbouring European Union.
Proxy Armies and Proxy Governments
“God has granted Turkey glory and might. In Libya it faces alone a Zionist-led alliance, and we have to thank it” — Libyan Islamist cleric Sadiq al-Gharyani, July 9 2020.
Turkey’s use of proxies in Libya is not limited to the military dimension; there are also proxy political entities that in turn act as an umbrella structure and financier to militias that have troubling ties to terrorist groups. Since December 2019, Turkey has sent more than 10,000 mercenaries—apparently including minors—from its auxiliary army in Syria. On June 29, Middle East Monitor (MEMO) also reported that 200 Yemeni mercenaries arrived in Libya to fight on behalf of Turkey.
Here it should be noted that while the GNA is often described as the “internationally recognised government” of Libya, this is a very selective misreading of history. After the Qatar- and Turkey-backed Islamist parties based in Misrata lost the democratic elections of 2014, they invaded Tripoli and took over by force—an undisguised coup d’état. Since that time they have engaged in all manner of criminal conduct, from tyrannizing civilians to plundering the capital’s banks. The GNA was a structure created under a UN-brokered deal to try to foster reconciliation; the militias in Tripoli started calling themselves “the GNA,” but the deal was never ratified by the final elected parliament that the militias had evicted from Tripoli, and ratification was a condition stipulated by the Libyan Political Agreement. Moreover, the deal made clear that the GNA expires on December 17, 2017. The militias and their foreign sponsors have continued to trade on the GNA label and its claims to legitimacy long after any such claims are plausible.
Not only does the arms pipeline from Turkey to Libya predate the Tripoli offensive, so, too, does the movement of foreign fighters. Working “hand in glove,” Qatar and Turkey have engaged in this for quite some time, even before the pivotal events of 2014 that midwifed Libya’s divide. As far back as 2013, evidence gathered by The New York Times “offer[ed] a profile of a complex and active multinational effort, financed largely by Qatar, to transport arms from Libya to Syria’s opposition fighters. … Those weapons … are sent on ships or Qatar Emiri Air Force flights to a network of intelligence agencies and Syrian opposition leaders in Turkey.”
Christopher Davidson, author of Shadow Wars: The Secret Struggle for the Middle East, has argued that following the defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Qatar is now involved in facilitating the reverse flow of fighters from the Levant to North Africa. “[ISIS’s] usefulness has significantly declined in [the Syrian] theater of operations,” writes Davidson, “and the weapons and presumably the men — at least the foreign fighters — are being moved to where they’re needed most … one of those locations at the moment is the Libyan conflict.”
Alongside the accusations that Turkey and its lawless GNA are drawing on ex-ISIS and ex-Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Qaeda in Syria) jihadists through their absorption in the SNA, there is also evidence that the remnants of two other Al-Qaeda affiliates, the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council—which includes Ansar al-Sharia, the group that attacked the U.S.’s consulate in Benghazi in September 2012—and the Derna Mujahideen Shura Council, are engaged on the GNA side.
This behaviour makes peace very difficult to reach. As Dr Salwa al-Daghili, Libya’s former representative to the United Nations in Geneva, has said:
“The Turkish role aims to prolong the presence of the group belonging to Misrata and the Islamic groups embodied in the expired government of the President of the Presidential Council, Fayez Al-Sarraj, and thus impede the possibility of unifying the Libyan state. Therefore, there is no possibility to make a deal with those who ally with terrorists and are part of the Turkish occupation project. Turkey’s support for them is not only in favour of its interests, but in service of a project by several countries that allowed Turkey to supply this stray group with weapons, mercenaries, and terrorists to perpetuate their control of Libya.”
Turkey’s use of political proxies extends to Europe, where, according to Lorenzo Vidino, director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, Turkey is the Muslim Brotherhood’s leading backer. According to a Swedish case study by Magnus Norell, adjunct scholar of The Washington Institute, “Erdogan’s government has been very assertive in building economic, social, and religious bridges to European parties it views as politically in alignment with its own interests” and has “been very assertive in building bridges through various NGOs, religious movements, and social clubs”
The AKP’s contributions to radicalism are sometimes more indirect. For instance, the casting of refugees in October 2019 as weapons used for regional blackmail and not as suffering human beings escaping the horrors of war, and the more recent conversion of Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque, are likely to further empower the polarising phenomena of reciprocal radicalization between the far-Right and Islamist extremists.
Across on the North African front, Turkey’s actions risk creating a new hub for jihadists, and it is thwarting the chances for peace and democracy in the country. Rather than allowing the militia problem to be solved and space to be opened for reconciliation, Ankara preserves the GNA, which acts not as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people, but as the unelected, unratified and expired vassal for the AKP’s regional ambitions. This comes at the expense of Libyans and with no oversight or accountability, and with tentacles into the underworld of smugglers and UN-sanctioned human traffickers such as Al-Bija. Given Erdogan’s record of weaponizing migrant flows to pressure Europe, and the potential for terrorists to infiltrate these flows, this is deeply worrying.
The Islamist movement works as similar ideological movements before it, like the Communist movement, did, by adapting to local conditions. In Syria and Iraq, it was possible, in circumstances of societal breakdown and war to construct an Islamic State through violence from the ground up, as ISIS did. In Turkey, this is impossible, but the reverse—of transforming a secular state from the top-down and instrumentalizing Islamists in foreign policy—is possible, and has largely been completed as a process. Regardless of the methods in getting there, Islamist states pose a threat to the human rights of people who are forced to live under them and to international security beyond their borders.
Speaking at an event by the Ministry of Treasury and Finance on July 4, Erdogan promised to turn Turkey into “an unstoppable power” by 2023, the centenary marking the end of the last great Islamic empire, that of the Ottoman Turks. On the recent record—with Turkey intervening at will in the region, pressuring NATO and the EU through the combination of conventional and asymmetric methods, cosying up to renegade states like Qatar, and acting with impunity through military and political proxies—it must be said Turkey is close to being an unstoppable power, negatively impacting multiple countries on multiple fronts. It is urgent that this freedom of action be constrained and the unearned legitimacy of the Libya venture and others be combatted swiftly and decisively.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.