To Westerners, it might seem that Vladimir Putin was exaggerating in anger when, after a Turkish F-16 on Tuesday shot down a Russian fighter jet allegedly violating Turkish airspace, he referred to the government in Ankara as “terrorists’ accomplices.”
Americans aren’t used to thinking of Turkey—our NATO ally and most powerful backstop in the Muslim world—in this way. And surely Putin is just engaging in some saber-rattling. But as Turkey and Russia dispute the incident, it is casting a spotlight on one of the most troubling developments in the evolving struggle in the Middle East: When it comes to fighting the Islamic State and extremism more generally, Turkey—and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan—has become a significant part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.
You wouldn’t know this from the official rhetoric. NATO is standing firmly by Turkey in the wake of Tuesday’s incident. And the Obama administration often trumpets the critical importance of Turkey’s participation in the international coalition to counter ISIL. Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy for that coalition, told Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News this summer that the United States “can’t succeed against Daesh [the Islamic State] without Turkey.” And after a bloody two weeks—during which ISIL claimed credit for the Paris shooting and bombing spree, the killing of 43 people in another bombing in Beirut and the downing of a Russian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula—Erdogan, an Islamist who runs a country that is 99.8 percent Muslim, appeared with President Barack Obama ahead of the G-20 summit in Antalya and spoke firmly against jihadism: “We are confronted with a collective terrorism activity around the world. As you know, terrorism does not recognize any religion, any race, any nation or any country. … And this terrorist action is not only against the people of France. It is an action against all of the people of the globe.”
For the uninitiated, Erdogan’s statement must have seemed heartening. But close observers of Turkey know better: Over the past five years, American policymakers, Turkey watchers, terrorism experts and a slew of journalists have come to understand that while Ankara can play a constructive role in combat ing extremism and resolving the Syrian conflict, it has chosen not to. And as that conflict spreads and jumps borders, the Turks’ myopia on jihadism in Syria may very well come back to haunt them and their Western allies.
Of course, the Turks didn’t start the war across their border in Syria, in what has become ISIL’s breeding ground. In fact, by Turkey’s own accounts, it made huge diplomatic efforts with Syrian President Bashar Assad to head off that conflict when civil war began to erupt in the summer of 2011. That Syria has descended into unspeakable violence is first and foremost the fault of Assad, his enablers in Tehran and the Kremlin, and Hezbollah, which has provided the manpower to fight alongside Assad’s army and militias. The Turks also deserve credit for how they have handled the flow of more than 2 million Syrian refugees into their country: Turkey has spent $7 billion to care for these people, in well-organized refugee camps that meet international standards.
Still, the choices that Erdogan and top Turkish officials have made contributed to the vortex of violence and extremism that is Syria’s reality. Erdogan has never paid a price for these choices either at home, where he has hollowed out Turkish political institutions to ensure his grip on power, or abroad, where Turkey’s NATO allies are forced to pretend, by dint of circumstance and geography, that Ankara shares their goals.
It all starts with Turkey’s decade-old relationship with Assad.In the mid-2000s, Erdogan, who was then the prime minister, and the three foreign ministers who served him—Abdullah Gul, Ali Babacan and Ahmet Davutoglu—cultivated Assad. Their goals were both economic and strategic: to improve and expand relations with Syria and thereby provide a land bridge for Turkish trade to the Persian Gulf via Jordan, as well as to peel Damascus away from Tehran. The result was a flowering of relations that included increased trade and investment, security cooperation and joint cabinet meetings; Erdogan even invited the Assad family on vacation (though the trip never actually materialized).