By Mustafa Akyol
October 8, 2014
“The US green belt project” is a notion that Turkish intellectuals, especially leftists, keep harping on when it comes to political Islam. What they mean by it is the US support for certain Islamist groups and regimes against the Soviet threat during the Cold War, mainly the mujahedeen who resisted the Red Army’s invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. In stark contrast to the negative image of today’s jihadists, the United States saw the mujahedeen as “freedom fighters” battling Soviet oppression and lent them support. ("Rambo III" is worth watching as Hollywood’s rendition of the said perception.)
That era, however, came to an end with the Soviet Union’s withdrawal and the ensuing disintegration of Afghanistan. The mujahedeen believed they on their own had led the great USSR to collapse, and some got the idea they could bring the other superpower to its knees as well. This is how the ground for al-Qaeda was laid.
In short, US policy in the 1980s, which focused exclusively on the USSR, or the “evil empire” as President Ronald Reagan called it, backfired in the ensuing years. Washington failed to calculate that the mujahedeen it beefed up could one day turn against it. It was a typical case of “unintended consequences,” a rule often overlooked in politics.
Yet, conspiracy-prone minds tend to believe “unintended consequences” are actually intended and even diligently planned. That’s why Turkish conspiracy theorists obsessed with the “green belt project” insist seeing al-Qaeda as an “American puppet.”
Now, let’s turn to Turkey, for the issue is closely related to Turkey as well. How? The outcome the United States faced in Afghanistan has befallen Turkey in Syria. Some of the mujahedeen Turkey backed as “freedom fighters” against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s “evil empire” have devolved into an “unintended consequence” of a major threat.
What I mean here is the so-called Islamic State (IS). But unlike Turkey's anti-government conspiracy theorists, I don’t think the organization is a “sub-contractor” deliberately created, armed and aided by Ankara. On the contrary, I believe Ankara has been growing increasingly aware of the IS threat since the summer of 2013. Today, Ankara sees the IS as a threat, but is also confused by its continuing preoccupation with the Assad regime and the Kurdish political movement in Syria.
Yet, one thing is obvious: For the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, the Syrian civil war was long a matter of black and white. The government’s stand against the Assad regime’s brutality and massacres was justified, but in the meantime it failed to see — or perhaps underestimated — the consequences of the growing number of fanatical jihadists joining opposition ranks. Hardly lending an ear to Western and particularly American warnings and reservations, it kept the border open to the movement of foreign fighters and looked the other way when Saudi and Qatari money flowed to various jihadist factions.
Never mind that US Vice President Joe Biden apologized to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Americans have a point when they say “we told you so” regarding the jihadists. And Turkey, for its part, is perhaps right in telling the Americans, “None of this would have happened had you hit Assad in the beginning.”
In other words, the disastrous situation in Syria and Iraq speaks of myriad mistakes and “unintended consequences” on everybody’s part. Yet if we analyze it honestly, rather than resorting to the easy way of conspiracy theories, we Turks could learn some important lessons:
• While staking a claim to being a “major power,” we, too, have become prone to the same mistakes and liabilities we always attribute to Western states. We, too, have supported — or at least failed to stand against — militant groups in the pursuit of a goal we deemed rightful before those groups came to eventually threaten us as well. Our own “green belt project,” so to speak, blew up in our face, too.
• The Middle East is a complex region, where we don’t stand the chance of being a “playmaker” just because we would like to be one. In fact, there is no “playmaker” here, but rather an equation of many unknowns amid an increasingly irresolvable chaos. To assume we have a better understanding of this chaos and a better foresight of the future just because we are “Ottoman heirs” or Sunni Muslims could prove to be a self-harming overconfidence.
• When it comes to “Islamists,” certain stereotypes and impulses instantly come into play. Westerners switch to an antipathetic mode and sometimes become so blind they fail to make a distinction even between Egypt’s peaceful Muslim Brotherhood and the savage IS. In Turkey, on the other hand, government quarters tend to instantly switch to a sympathetic mode when “Islamists” are the issue. In pro-government media, for instance, radical jihadist groups of the likes of IS, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram and al-Shabab are perceived either as Western puppets or “understandable” reactions to Western imperialism. The religious fanaticism that spawns those groups is being missed, which in turn leads to strategic blindness.
In sum, Turkey’s Syrian adventure and its unintended midwifery to the IS offer important lessons for Turkish foreign policy, if we could do a rational analysis. But sadly, those lessons, like many other important issues, are lost in the fierce quarrels of Turkish commentators avowed either to glorify or vilify the government.
Mustafa Akyol is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse, a columnist for the Turkish Hurriyet Daily News, and a monthly contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times. His articles have also appeared in Foreign Affairs, Newsweek, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian. He is the author of Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty