According to Saudis, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) receives assistance from Iran. Iranians, in turn, claim that the Saudis support ISIS militants. Israel believes that Hamas backs ISIS, while the Egyptian junta point their fingers to Turkey and Qatar. The Muslim Brotherhood, removed from power, blame Iran and Syria. The al-Nusra Front indicates that ISIS is one of the Iraqi Ba'ath Party's tricks - the Syrian opposition, the Mukhabarat. According to the Syrian regime, the Saudis unleashed the militants. While the Turkish government believes Bashar Assad is responsible for the ISIS attacks, the opposition maintains that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself established ISIS. Corroborating evidence, though, is in extremely short supply.
The situation was no different when a series of articles in U.S. media outlets attempted to link Turkey to ISIS militants without a shred of evidence - except, of course, earlier articles by angry opposition pundits and the occasional quote from an anonymous truck driver. Perhaps the most concrete proof happens to be the country's 550-mile land border with Syria, which dates back to the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916.
Some examples of these articles are David L. Phillips's "A grand bargain between Turkey and the Kurds" published on CNBC's website, Ben Hubbard and Ceylan Yengisu's "After Opening Way to Rebels, Turkey Is Paying Heavy Price" and Jonathan Schanzer's "An Unhelpful Ally". Let us keep an open mind and analyze the articles in greater detail. The first piece, entitled "A Grand Bargain between Turkey and the Kurds," was written by David L. Phillips, who currently serves as the director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University's Institute for the Study of Human Rights. Phillips, a former State Department advisor, has 25 years of experience with the Kurds and a book called "The Kurdish Spring: A New Map for the Middle East." Considering that one third of all Kurds live in Turkey, one would expect him to know a thing or two about the country. Unfortunately enough, we cannot even get to the part where he discusses Turkey's alleged ties with ISIS, as the Phillips article hits the reader with an introductory paragraph on Turkey and Erdoğan with a fair share of factual errors.
"Erdoğan studied Islamism at the Imam Hatip School in Istanbul," Phillips writes, to suggest that the expert quite possibly thinks Turkey's largest city has a stunning view of the Tora Bora mountains and that Imam Hatip schools are independent subsidiaries of the Taliban. In truth, the Imam Hatip - akin to Roman Catholic seminaries in the U.S. in many ways - have been training clerics for over six decades, following a regular curriculum with an emphasis on theology courses. Students, therefore, take courses on Islam, not Islamism. Upon graduating from Imam Hatip School, Erdoğan proceeded to receive an Economics degree - good old Keynesian economics, not Islamist economics.
Here's another part: "He banned alcohol and insisted that his wife publicly wear a "hijab," a scarf covering the head and neck." For the sake of historical accuracy, Murad IV, a 17thcentury Ottoman ruler, the last man to impose an alcohol ban in Istanbul, whose local government has been in the hands of Erdoğan and his fellow partymen for two decades. During this period, alcohol consumption and the number of liquor licenses have been steadily on the rise - let alone a total ban on alcohol. If Phillips was referring to the 2013 act of Parliament that restricts retail alcohol sales between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., he should probably know that similar restrictions apply in the U.S. and a number of European countries. If all else fails, the simplest way to refute the author's claim is to take a look at Instagram, which is flooded with pictures of Turks enjoying their alcoholic beverage of choice in Istanbul around the clock. Erdoğan and his wife met at an MSP event, where she, a woman sympathetic to the party, wore the religious headscarf. Perhaps Phillips fell prey to Google Translate - a mistake that happens to the best of experts.
Considering that you, having just witnessed the depth of the author's understanding of Turkey, remain interested in his claims about Turkey's ties to ISIS, please continue. "Turkey is an original sponsor of ISIS," Phillips writes. "Starting in 2013, it provided material and logistical support to ISIS for its fight against Syria's President Bashar Assad."
Oh, the ambition! Phillips argues that Turkey has sponsored ISIS militants since 2013 with no need to, you know, present evidence to substantiate his claim. Obviously, we have to assume that the author already knows that ISIS was originally formed in Iraq and did not cross into Syria until the country was two years into the civil war. And, of course, that the Turkish government added ISIS to its foreign terrorist organizations lists in September 2013.
Digging further into the piece in pursuit of some concrete evidence, we come across another sentence: "Turkey's intelligence agency provided Muslim militias with arms, ammunition, money, and logistical assistance. Financed by Saudi Arabia and other emirates, Turkey operated a cross-border supply channel for Salafi groups fighting in Syria such as Jabhat al-Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham, and ISIS."
To be sure, Turkey has not gone to great lengths to conceal its support for the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a number of groups that the international community accepts as their former counterpart. The CIA, too, reportedly offered occasional assistance to the FSA. Furthermore, Turkey and Saudi Arabia backed competing groups on the ground - another factual error. Obviously, people are entitled to their opinions when it comes to Turkish intelligence providing assistance to al-Nusra Front and ISIS. After all, where concrete evidence (or, to be clear, lack thereof) has little significance, everything comes down to the gut feeling. At the end of the day, how much accurate information does CNBC's audience really need about Turkey? It would be best to leave aside the clichés and let the student body of Columbia University and presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama, whose administrations Phillips served, be the judge of the expert's competence. Despite all the prejudice, one inevitably rejoices upon spotting a story entitled "After Opening Way to Rebels, Turkey is Paying Heavy Price" on the front page of The New York Times. Finally, one gasps, a prime example of investigative journalism, and begins looking for concrete evidence. It is only after reading through the whole text that one encounters the one sentence that relates to the headline: "For three years, we have seen ISIS flags in Syria, and that is because of Turkey," Mr. Aydın said, eyeing hundreds of Iraq-bound trucks that snaked in a line over the horizon. "Turkey let them in." Who is this Mr. Aydın, you wonder? Perhaps a Turkish official, an expert, an Iraqi intelligence officer? Nope. He is a Turkish truck driver.
Thank heavens The New York Times did not bother to check with the truck driver who sponsored the PKK - or we would be looking at a front page blaming the U.S., the European Union and Israel, which is what the average Turk believes deep inside. (Hint: Yes, he would have also said that 9/11 was a CIA conspiracy.) So it was all thanks to Turkey that ISIS flags have been waving in Syria because the government allowed them to transit through Turkish soil. You might think that Mr. Aydın is quite knowledgeable for a truck driver, but he has the support of the editorial board of The New York Times.
To be fair, though, this bit is completely true: Turkey is not an island in the Atlantic Ocean. It shares a land border with Syria that is approximately 550 miles long - which Jonathan Schanzer, who wrote a piece entitled "An Unhelpful Ally" for the Wall Street Journal, presents as evidence that Turkey indeed sponsors ISIS. He maintains, "ISIS and other violent factions have benefited from Turkey's loose border policies," which, one would think, probably refers to the country granting passage to over one million Syrian refugees escaping a bloody civil war. The refugee population, who live in camps that world leaders have repeatedly visited and praised, survived the Syrian civil war thanks to the loose borders that Schanzer criticizes. Who knows, perhaps they were all jihadist militants! It is, of course, true that foreign fighters transited through Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon to join ISIS forces.
At least 150 Australians and 500 European militants are currently active on the ground. And why did the governments and intelligence agencies of Australia, the Netherlands and U.K., among others, fail to prevent their citizens from entering Turkish soil? If crossing a border amounts to active support, we must keep in mind that many PKK and YPG fighters cross to Syria through Turkey. Considering that the Turkish authorities have failed to stop PKK militants from crossing the same border for 35 years, Turkey must be sponsoring the PKK as well.
It is literally this simple for Jonathan Schanzer, who serves as vice president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a neo-conservative organization, to suggest that Turkey supported ISIS, which it recognized as a terrorist organization just five months after its foundation. The same organization whose operatives killed a sergeant, a police officer and a civilian in Niğde, halfway across the country, on March 20, 2014 and continue to fight the moderate opposition forces in Syria.
Clearly, the Wall Street Journal article hardly represents Schanzer's worst work considering that he still accuses Turkey of supporting Hamas, which came to power in Gaza through elections. His memorable moments, like that time when linked corruption allegations against the Erdoğan government with the Turkey-Iran gold trade and Ankara's support for the Iranian nuclear program, remain unforgettable.
Push Schanzer's claims to their logical conclusion and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, of all people, emerges as the chief sponsor of Tehran's nuclear program since her country has the largest trade volume with Iran. President Obama, who initiated talks with the Rouhani government before Iran suspended its nuclear program, receives an honorable mention.
On that note, let us proceed with the accusation that the headline briefly touches upon. No, guys, you are dead wrong. The Obama administration and, by extension, the U.S. government, are the chief sponsors of ISIS. Care for some concrete evidence? (Hint: Sarcasm.) Did the Islamic State of Iraq, the main predecessor of ISIS, not emerge after the U.S. invasion of Iraq? Has the U.S. government not released ISIS mastermind Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi from Camp Bucca in 2004? (Fox News commentator Jeanine Pirro prefers 2009, but no need to be cruel.) Did not most ISIS militants escape the U.S.-controlled Abu Ghraib Prison in 2013? How about the Syrian opposition fighters, which the CIA trained in Jordan, joining ISIS ranks? And just how many weapons that the U.S. issued to the Syrian opposition end up in ISIS hands? Seriously, though, you cannot just get away with all this just because you do not share a 550-mile land border with Syria. Let's face it: President Obama's middle name is Hussein. He studied Islam in Malaysia. His bearded pictures are all over Fox News every day. And don't even get me started on the TOYOTA trucks that ISIS fighters are driving. Perhaps Japan, too, is in on this.
If you are an American commentator looking for evidence of Turkey's ties to ISIS, I would recommend following opposition pundits in Turkey more closely. Our people are more creative. Hands down. The opposition papers here are so devoted that they even tracked down a picture of Bilal Erdoğan, the prime minister's son, with the leader of ISIS at a restaurant - who turned out to be the owner of a barbeque joint in Istanbul.
But who has time for such details? Obviously, all grown men rocking long beards will eventually join ISIS. Reading through U.S. media reports about ISIS, we should all take a moment to acknowledge the fact that Abraham Lincoln's greatest achievement was to be born 200 years ago.
Originally, I wanted to touch upon the Gay Pride parade in Istanbul, Turkey - which, as you know, is currently ruled by the fundamentalist, ISIS-loving AK Party - on the first day of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month, as ISIS leader al-Baghdadi became the self-proclaimed Caliph of Muslims around the world. But I would rather wait for The New York Times to enlighten us mortals with the wisdom of Turkish truck drivers.
* Columnist at Turkish Daily Türkiye