Turkey’s Erdoğan protected ISIS leader Baghdadi

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan protected Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi - and U.S. President Donald Trump should have known.

In his national address announcing that U.S. Special Forces killed Baghdadi, Trump commended Turkey while turning a blind eye to Turkey’s collusion with ISIS.

While Trump thanked “the Syrian Kurds for certain support they were able to give us,” he downplayed the importance of intelligence provided by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). But the SDF’s information was critical to the mission.

There is a long list questions over Turkey’s relationship with ISIS.

Turkey increased support for jihadists after Syrian President Bashar Assad launched a chemical weapons attack on Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus, in September 2013.

Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency (MIT) is reported to have provided weapons, money, and logistical support to extremist groups that evolved into ISIS. Wounded ISIS warriors regularly showed up at Turkish hospitals in Gaziantep to receive medical care. 

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi founded ISIS in the spring of 2014. ISIS attacked Mosul and Sinjar in June, terrorising Yezidis and Kurds. Over five years, the so-called ISIS caliphate grew to the size of Great Britain, with eight million people under its control.

According to the SDF, “Turkey provides all kinds of support to the terrorist groups. These forces, trained and funded by Turkey are engaged in a planned ethnic cleansing against our people.” Turkish-backed jihadists commit crimes on a daily basis in Turkish occupied areas in Syria such as Afrin, Azzaz, al-Bab, Jarablus and Idlib.

In March 2019, the SDF drove ISIS out of its last redoubt in the eastern Syrian village of Baghouz. From its interrogation of hardcore ISIS fighters, the SDF learned that Baghdadi had moved to Idlib in northwest Syria. Discovering Baghdadi in Idlib was a surprise to everyone who believed he was hiding in eastern Syria or western Iraq, near his ancestral village.

Baghdadi ended up at a compound in Barisha just 5 km from the Turkish border. The area around Barisha is controlled by Turkish-backed forces. Dozens of Turkish military outposts are located near the border and security is tight.

There was a network of tunnels beneath Baghdadi’s Barisha compounded. All the tunnels were sealed except for one. Since the tunnel network was destroyed by a U.S. air strike, we do not know if the tunnel was an escape route leading to a nearby Turkish military base, or to Turkey itself.

In contrast to mounting evidence that Turkey protected Baghdadi, the Kurds were indispensable to the Baghdadi operation. U.S. helicopters took off from Hareer Air Force Base outside Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan. Incirlik Air Force base is much closer, but the Pentagon evidently did not trust the Turkish government to make them a partner.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu exaggerated Turkey’s role. “Turkey and our U.S. counterparts shared information, exchanged opinions before the operation to kill Daesh leader started. That’s why Trump thanked Turkey in his speech,” the minister said, using an Arabic name for ISIS.

In fact, Turkey played no active role. According to a U.S. official, “Turkey did not provide any assistance in this operation. [Baghdadi] was located right next to its border … That shows you how little they do on countering ISIS.” An Iraqi official indicated that Baghdadi was killed “after his hiding place was discovered when he tried to get his family out of Idlib toward the Turkish border”.

The SDF provided critical information. Mazloum Kobani, the SDF commander, heralded the “joint effort over more than fives months between military intelligence of the SDF and U.S. Forces.”

He explained how the SDF “documented over the past months the presence of high ranking ISIS leaders, including Baghdadi, in areas under control of the Turkish state.” According to Kobani, “the operation was delayed for more than a month due to Turkish aggression in our region.”

The U.S. after-action report will reveal how Turkey, a NATO ally, colluded with Baghdadi over many years and protected him from capture. Turkey’s present leadership cannot be trusted. The SDF is America’s real friend in Syria - not Turkey.


© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.