U.S. strike on ISIS leader draws attention to Turkey’s chequered history

(Edits to remove Davutoğlu's comments)

The U.S. operation that killed Islamic State (ISIS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a northwest Syrian village just 5 km from the Turkish border has raised questions about Turkey’s relations with extremist jihadists in Syria. 

Reports later surfaced indicating that Ankara had only been informed of the operation on the day it took place. This added further fuel to long-running claims on Turkey’s relationship with ISIS.

Ankara has vehemently denied these claims, reiterating that Turkey has suffered more than any country from attacks by ISIS, with major bombing and shooting attacks killing hundreds across the country.

But others have spoken up over years to accuse Turkey of cooperating with the jihadist group, listing what they say is evidence of the illicit connection.

Brett McGurk, the former U.S. envoy in charge of the fight against ISIS, said in a tweet this month that Turkey had repeatedly refused requests to seal a border crossing from Tel Abyad, a Syrian border town that was the main supply route for ISIS from June 2014 to June 2015, when U.S. and Kurdish-led forces drove ISIS out of the area.

“In June 2015, after no action from Turkey and the border still wide open, we enabled SDF fighters to clear Tel Abyad. After the battle, Turkey sealed the border (from the SDF not ISIS) and built a wall,” said McGurk, referring to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.

The same year, after Turkey downed a Russian jet over the Syrian border, Russia’s the deputy defence minister, Anatoly Antonov, accused Turkey of being the main consumer of oil from wells captured by ISIS.

The Russian official shared what he said was proof of his claim – satellite images showing a huge backlog of vehicles on the Syrian-Turkish border.  

Four months before Antonov’s statement, Turkish political magazine Nokta published a report that said 60 foreigners had been caught in Turkey after travelling to the southeastern border province of Şanlıurfa, where they had planned to cross over to Syria and joint ISIS. 

The news report, which named the 60 jihadists, said they had been detained and held by local police, but once handed over to Turkey’s National Intelligence Organisation had been transported across the border to Syria.

Captured ISIS members have also described cooperation with Turkey, with several sources saying ISIS fighters were treated in Turkish hospitals.

One of these was Abu Mansur al-Maghribi, a fighter described as an ISIS emir or commander who spoke to International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism Director Anne Speckhard.

“We negotiated to send our fighters to the hospitals [in Turkey]. There was facilitation – they didn’t look at the passports of those coming for treatment,” Speckhard quoted Maghribi as saying. “It was always an open gate. If we had an ambulance we could cross without question. We could cross [into Turkey] at many places. They don’t ask about official identities. We just have to let them know.”

The ISIS member’s interview with Speckhard included numerous other claims about the group’s dealings with Turkey, including a description of how the Turkish government secured the release of its consular staff captured by ISIS in Mosul, Iraq.

Turkey agreed to release 500 ISIS prisoners in exchange for its staff, Maghribi said.

Turkey has been a main backer of the Syrian opposition to President Bashar Assad since the war broke out in 2011, supporting what it calls moderate opposition fighters from the Free Syrian Army, now known as the Syrian National Army.

But a report broadcast on Oct. 27 this year by German ARD television’s George Heil said that the Turkish-backed groups were composed of former ISIS fighters. 

In a televised news report that included photographic evidence, Heil said rebel commander Hussein al-Jolani had formerly fought with ISIS and was involved in brutal operations by the group.

Meanwhile, a report published on Jan. 8 by SDF-affiliated news agency ANHA said the extremist jihadists had received all of their ammunition and logistical supplies from Turkey.

Another news item published by ANHA in January 2018 quoted a captive from the group as saying dozens of wounded ISIS fighters had been flown to Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport to receive treatment in the city.

The accusations against Turkey do not come from Kurdish sources alone. In August 2017, the U.S. Treasury said another high-ranking ISIS member, Salim Mustafa Muhammed al-Mansur, had moved to Turkey.

Russia’s former Permanent Representative to the U.N. Security Council Vitaly Churkin presented a letter to the council accusing Turkey’s National Intelligence Organisation of involvement with ISIS, including providing the group with weapons. He said Turkish provinces had turned into trade hubs where the group could offload goods looted in Syria to the international market.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s ruling party long refrained from calling ISIS a terrorist group. Instead, former Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu described the group’s members as “angry young people”.