On July 5, the first airstrike launched in Syria from the Incirlik air base sealed the U.S.-Turkey entente against ISIS in neighboring Syria. Ankara and Washington have recently agreed to join forces to provide aid and air support to selected rebel groups in Syria without committing to extensive presence on the ground. Turkey’s interventionist repositioning comes as a startling reversal in the country’s policy of willing tolerance - if not active support - of the ISIS presence and cause on Turkish territory. Turkey has so far preferred to consolidate the ISIS threat against Bashar al-Assad’s regime rather than strengthen ties with the Kurds. Therefore, Turkish authorities have for year turned a blind eye to the southeastern border traffic and let ISIS gain a solid foothold in the country.
It is no wonder that the first goal of the U.S.-Turkish joint military efforts will be to cut off any opportunity for the Islamic state to access the Southeastern Turkish border and the goldmine of weapons, militants and funds that the border has offered over the past months. In November 2014 Jonathan Schanzer and Merve Tahiroglu argued that the border with Syria – and its strategic potential for the oil trade in particular - remains ISIS’ “most vital asset.” Oil trade has become a major source of revenue for ISIS during the past year. Evidence collected during the U.S. Special Forces’ raid on Abu Sayyaf’s compound confirmed an alliance between ISIS and Turkey over oil trade. Based on those documents, two U.S. counterterrorism officials have estimated that “the amount of money ISIS can earn from selling and smuggling oil and gas is roughly to $8 to $10 million a month.”
ISIS has capitalized on the fact that oil and gasoline smuggling has always been an important component of the Southeastern Turkish border’s economy due to the higher price of oil compared to the rest of Europe. The Islamic State militants control around half a dozen oil-producing oilfields, which they “tapped into established trading networks across northern Iraq.” From two major oilfields in Iraq, Qayara and Ajil, the oil reaches Turkish territories by truck via the Sinjar area and Duhok, respectively, where it is hauled inside canisters, or pumped through plastic pipelines. According to a Twitter user who goes by the name of “Fuat Avni” and is believed to be an insider and whistleblower in Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s administration, Erdogan himself made profit out of an oil-smuggling network run by the Islamic State militants in Syria.
Even beyond oil trade, Turkey is not new to tolerating and supporting ISIS. In April 2015, Avni also claimed that massive proceeds from arms trafficking to ISIS benefited Erdogan’s circle, which allegedly exploited “National Intelligence Organization (MIT) undersecretary Hakan Fidan and his adviser Mucahit Aslan to control money transfers that were used to purchase arms for ISIL from Serbia and Libya,” and later shipped to Islamic State militants through Turkey’s territory. Early in 2014, several trucks transporting weapons destined for extremist groups in Syria were stopped and searched in Turkey’s Adana province and were discovered to belong to MIT.
The Turkish government denied the secret services’ involvement in weapons trafficking, and tried to bury the case by claiming that the vehicles were carrying baby formula and food to Syrian Turkmens. This excuse worked for accusations that Turkey had in the past supported ISIS militants, as Prime Minister Davutoglu reiterated on July 21. While visiting Sanliurfa province, he told the reporters that "Turkey and the AK Party government have never had any direct or indirect links with any terrorist group and have never shown tolerance to any terrorist group."
In the light of Turkey’s long history with ISIS, Davutoglu’s claim sounds like an empty, rhetorical statement. In September 2014 Taraf reported that ammunition coming from the Turkish Mechanical and Chemical Industry Corporation (MKE) had been used by ISIL militants fighting against the Kurdish forces in Iraq. In an interview published by The Washington Post in August 2014, an ISIS commander confirmed that the traffic of equipment and supplies as well as the majority of the fighters who joined the ISIS ranks came through the Turkish territory.
Moreover, a report by the Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies pointed out that, according to multiple reports, extremist financiers are allegedly operating on Turkish soil, fundraising, and facilitating meetings between Qatari and Kuwaiti donors and radical groups. In 2012 the U.S. Treasury noted that funds from a financial network of Kuwaiti donors and fighters were transferred to jihadists through intermediaries in Turkey.
ISIS activity has been detected especially in Gaziantep, Sanliurfa, Kocaeli, Diyarbakir, the Haci Bayram neighborhood of Ankara's Ulus district and Istanbul over the past year. On July 28, 2015, Halis Bayancuk, accused to be the leader of a major ISIS cell in Turkey, was arrested along with three other suspects as part of a nationwide anti-terror police operation in Istanbul.
Turkey’s support for ISIS has been dictated by circumstantial opportunism and political calculus rather than by ideological affinity. Has this history really come to an end, as Turkey’s most recent political realignment with the U.S plan would suggest? Or should we instead read it as a further opportunist move that will allow Turkey to pursue its long-standing struggle with the PKK under the aegis of a more compelling cause such as the fight against ISIS and the marginalization of Assad? Money will talk.