Turkey is reportedly on the verge of yet another military incursion into Syria, even as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is blocking Sweden and Finland from NATO membership, referring to Kurdish politicians, political activists and refugees who live in Sweden and Finland as "terrorists." Meanwhile, Erdoğan's regime does not see actual jihadists in the region as terrorists and even actively supports them. Media outlets have documented evidence of the Turkish government's close relationship with ISIS. Pictured: Turkey-backed jihadists in Saraqib, northwestern Syria, on February 27, 2020. (Photo by Bakr Alkasem/AFP via Getty Images)
Turkey, reportedly on the verge of yet another military incursion into Syria, appears up to other fun and games as well.
While Russia's invasion of Ukraine remains ongoing, two Nordic nations have applied for NATO membership: Sweden and Finland.
However, one NATO member, Turkey, said it is opposed to their NATO membership based on their alleged support of "terrorism". On May 25, delegations from Sweden and Finland arrived in Ankara, seeking to address Turkish objections to their joining the military alliance.
"Turkey could not have a positive view on Sweden and Finland's NATO membership so long as these countries did not show that they would be in solidarity with Turkey concerning fundamental issues, combatting terrorism in particular," Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
In a telephone call with Sweden's Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson on May 21, Erdoğan had said that "the political, financial and weapon support Sweden had been providing to terrorist organizations should be brought to an end."
Erdoğan added that "Turkey expected Sweden to take concrete and serious steps that showed it shared Turkey's concerns over PKK terrorist organization and its extensions in Syria and Iraq."
Erdoğan also spoke by phone with Finland's President Sauli Niinistö and said that "a mentality that disregarded terrorist organizations which posed a threat to an ally within NATO would not comply with the spirit of alliance and friendship."
"Our approach to NATO's enlargement," Erdoğan announced on May 23, "originates from our principled stance on combatting terrorism."
The so-called "terrorists" to whom Erdoğan is referring are Kurdish politicians, political activists, and refugees who live in Sweden and Finland. In particular, those who engage in advocacy for political equality and the official recognition of Kurds in Turkey and Syria. The Turkish government wants the two Nordic nations to extradite these individuals to Turkey.
Sweden and Finland also have shown no opposition to Kurdish fighters in Syria and Iraq, who are US allies and have effectively fought against ISIS. Erdoğan's regime nevertheless labels these fighters as "terrorists" and wants the West to combat them.
Many citizens of Turkey have also sought political asylum in Sweden and Finland since Erdoğan's government began cracking down on the actual (as well as supposed supporters) of Fethullah Gülen, a Muslim former ally of Erdoğan who lives in the US, for allegedly organizing the 2016 coup attempt. Turkey has also declared so-called Gülenists as "terrorists" and asked these two governments for their extradition as well. Turkish media reported on May 16 that, according to the Justice Ministry, "Sweden and Finland rejected Turkey's request for the extradition of people with links to the PKK [Kurdistan Workers' Party] and Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ)."
Erdoğan's regime, however, does not see actual jihadists in the region as terrorists and even actively supports them. For instance, news outlets have documented evidence of Erdoğan's government's close relationship with ISIS (the Islamic State). This includes their use of Turkish territory to travel to Iraq or Syria and having trade relations with Turkey. On June 29, 2016, The New York Times reported:
"From the start of the Islamic State's rise through the chaos of the Syrian war, Turkey has played a central, if complicated, role in the group's story. For years, it served as a rear base, transit hub and shopping bazaar for the Islamic State.
"The centrality of Turkey for foreign volunteers flocking to the Islamic State is evident in court documents and intelligence records. Dozens of young men and women were arrested by the F.B.I. in the United States and by officials in Western Europe after they booked flights to Istanbul. Because so many of the group's foreign fighters passed through Istanbul's Ataturk Airport, the destination itself became synonymous with intent to join ISIS.
"By 2015, the group was advising recruits to book round-trip tickets to beach resorts in southern Turkey instead, and to be sure to spend a few days pretending to be a tourist as a ruse."
In a 2020 essay, the historian Professor Mordechai Kedar detailed Turkey's cooperation with ISIS:
"The ability of ISIS to become a functioning state so quickly is largely due to its relationship with President Erdoğan in Turkey.
"ISIS has had strong connections to Turkey over the years, whether through its oil industry or through its willingness to shield wanted members of the Muslim Brotherhood. This "neighborly" relationship was essential to ISIS's success, and it continues to be reflected in Turkish decision-making."
Turkish contributions to ISIS, Kedar wrote, were most apparent in areas such as finances, volunteers and tactics:
"In 2014, it was reported that ISIS had taken over oil fields in Iraq and Syria and produced large quantities of crude oil to sell, consolidating its grip on oil supplies in the region. They are thought to have transported the oil to Turkey in tankers, whereupon Turkey sold the oil to other countries as if it were from Iraq and Syria and shared some of the proceeds with ISIS.
"Thousands of Muslim volunteers who identified with the goals and methods of ISIS went to the Islamic State from Muslim countries, Europe, America, Africa, Australia, and even Israel. The vast majority arrived legally in Turkey and went from there to Syria and Iraq. The Turkish authorities, who were aware that these people were passing through Turkey on their way to join ISIS, did nothing to stop it.
"It has been widely reported that Turkey's Intelligence Agency illegally dispatched arms to Syrian jihadists. In August 2014, an ISIS commander told the Washington Post: 'Most of the fighters who joined us at the beginning of the war came via Turkey, as did our equipment and supplies.'"
Meanwhile, ISIS collaborators received Turkish citizenship, a leaked official Turkish report showed, detailing how the jihadi group used Turkey to traffic money and obtain supplies.
"Hamas operates its headquarters in Istanbul, recruiting Arab Israelis and Palestinian Arabs for intelligence work and to carry out terrorist attacks. Senior Hamas member Salah al-Arouri, whom Turkey supposedly deported at Israel's request, continues to manage his people there and even organize training and target practice in Turkey. The headquarters also oversees the development of Hamas' maritime and rocket capabilities, as well as its cyberwarfare, development of new weapons, and the transfer of Iranian money."
The government of Turkey also supports jihadists in Syria. Turkey has occupied parts of northern Syria, including Afrin and Idlib, through local jihadist groups. The Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) -- which forms an integral part of the US-led fight against ISIS but which the Turkish government lists as a "terrorist organization" -- took control of Afrin after Syrian government forces withdrew from the city in 2012. A de facto autonomous Kurdish rule was then declared. In 2015, a US ally group, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), of which the YPG is a member, was formed.
Turkey has been targeting the US allies against ISIS through military incursions such as the 2018 "Operation Olive Branch" and 2019 "Operation Peace Spring." After "Operation Peace Spring," Sweden imposed restrictions on dealings with Turkey's defense industry. Erdoğan told the Swedish PM Andersson that if Sweden is to become a NATO member, those restrictions "should" be lifted.
Turkey's "Operation Olive Branch" against Afrin began on January 20, 2018, and concluded on March 18, 2018, with the defeat of the YPG at the hands of the Turkish military and its Islamist auxiliaries. Turkey's Islamist allies in Afrin have since committed many crimes against civilians, including Christians, Yazidis and Kurds. These crimes include extortion, detention, abduction, rape, torture and murder. Investigative journalist Jonathan Spyer has documented some of these crimes. "[US] State Department, UN and NGO reports cite a pattern of grave human rights violations, assaults and targeting of women," he wrote.
The US State Department's "2020 Country Report on Human Rights Practices: Syria" stated:
"ISIS and armed opposition forces such as the Turkish-backed SNA [Syrian National Army], reportedly arrested, detained, tortured, killed, and otherwise abused numerous Kurdish activists and individuals as well as members of the SDF during the year. The COI [Country of Origin Information] reported a consistent, discernible pattern of abuses by SNA forces against Kurdish residents in Afrin and Ras al-Ayn, including "[c]ases of detentions, killings, beatings, and abductions, in addition to widespread looting and appropriation of civilian homes.
"The COI, STJ [Syrians for Truth and Justice], the Violations Documentation Center (VDC), and other monitors documented a trend of TSO [the Turkey-supported opposition] kidnappings of women in Afrin, where some women remained missing for years."
Meanwhile, Turkey is reported to be the power behind Al-Qaeda affiliates in Idlib such as the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS or the "Organization for the Liberation of the Levant"). According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies:
"In May 2018, the group [HTS] was added to the State Department's existing designation of its predecessor, the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). Today, HTS can be thought of as a relatively localized Syrian terrorist organization, which retains a Salafi-jihadist ideology despite its public split from al-Qaeda in 2017."
A 2021 study by the Middle East Institute details how Turkey and HTS are co-occupying and exploiting parts of northwest Syria:
"The most significant shift in HTS economic policy occurred in July 2017, when the group took over the Bab al-Hawa crossing, one of the biggest sources of revenue in NW [north-west] Syria and a particularly strategic acquisition in terms of the relationship with Turkey."
In January 2018, the Watad Petroleum Company was formed in HTS-occupied northwest Syria and granted exclusive rights to import oil derivatives and gas from Turkey into the area. In June 2020, HTS began replacing the Syrian pound with the Turkish lira (TL), indexing the prices of goods to the lira. The Turkish government, through its massive economic support to the group, thereby became a lifeline for the jihadist HTS.
Meanwhile, on April 25, the Turkish media reported that Mehmet Salih Kölge -- a mass murderer and member of the Turkish Hezbollah -- has been released from prison. Between 1999 and 2001, Kölge, whose trial lasted for six years, had participated in interrogations using torture. Turkey's Court of Cassation stated in its ruling that he had been responsible for killing 91 citizens in 157 armed activities and given orders for operations that caused injuries to 66 people.
Kölge, who had previously been sentenced to aggravated life imprisonment, had also been granted release from prison earlier, before the local elections on March 31, 2019.
On May 13, the Turkish media reported that Turkey had additionally released from prison three more murderers, previously sentenced to aggravated life imprisonment for involvement in killing 28 people, wounding 14, kidnapping 1 and burning 4 vehicles in 48 armed actions on behalf of Turkish Hezbollah.
Currently, Turkey's military invasion of Iraq and its Kurdistan Region, which Turkey has named "Operation Claw-Lock", has escalated. Yazidis, Kurds, and Assyrians are all being seriously affected by Turkey's military actions in Iraq. The media report that at least five people were killed and more injured in two separate Turkish air strikes on Iraqi Kurdistan on May 21, one of which targeted a UN-administered refugee camp in Makhmour.
Repeated attacks by Turkish war planes in Iraq -- including the Yazidi homeland of Sinjar -- have prevented Yazidis who were forcibly displaced by ISIS in 2014 from returning home. According to a 2021 report by the Assyrian Policy Institute:
"The [Turkish] airborne attacks often occur in close proximity to areas mainly inhabited by Assyrian, Yazidi, and/or Kurdish civilians, posing significant risks including: endangerment of civilian life, displacement, traumatization, destruction of property, and agricultural lands, and threats to livelihoods. "
Meanwhile, the Turkish government keeps threatening Greece, another NATO member, over Greek islands in the Aegean. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters on May 26 that Greece must withdraw its military from its Aegean islands. "We are not bluffing. If Athens does not comply, we will take matters further," Cavusoglu said, adding that Ankara is prepared to challenge Greek sovereignty over the islands.
Although NATO's official website claims that NATO "promotes democratic values" and "is committed to the peaceful resolution of disputes," for decades, the Turkish government's actions have only brought death and destruction to countless people, both within the country and outside it. For NATO's well-being, Turkey's threats, aggression and blackmail must not be allowed.
Uzay Bulut, a Turkish journalist, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute.