By Lale Kemal
May 18, 2015
The US train and equip program initiated as part of the Western-Arab coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) to reinforce local fighters on the ground will not be a game changer in the sense that it will not have a strategic impact on defeating this radical terrorist organization.
This is partly because Turkey and Saudi Arabia are suspected to have been arming the al-Nusra Front, an extremist rival of ISIL that shares many of its desires for a fundamentalist caliphate. Arming the al-Nusra Front means among other things, opening another front against ISIL, thereby further complicating the coalition's war efforts. The US firmly opposes arming and funding jihadist extremists in the four-year civil war in Syria.
A development related to the Turkish portion of the train and equip program, which faced another delay this month, supported the increasing speculation that Ankara gives support to the al-Nusra Front. According to my reliable sources, the US has reportedly turned down about 20 percent of the people that the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MİT) assembled to train as fighters due to suspicions that they belong to the al-Nusra Front. The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), in the meantime, is also understood not to have been involved in selecting fighters and will only train them together with the US. A small number of British officers are also awaiting Turkish approval to join in the training of fighters in Turkey.
It does not seem a coincidence that Gen. John Allen, special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIL, and Deputy Special Presidential Envoy Ambassador Brett McGurk had talks in Ankara last week, which the US Embassy statement said were about ISIL and described as “productive.” It is understood, however, that these two US envoys were dispatched to Ankara for first-hand information about an alleged Turkish alliance with the Saudis to back a group, including the al-Nusra Front, as well as speculation that Ankara may stage a military strike against Syria.
The Turkish government has already been caught red handed in its alleged support to extremist groups in Syria when trucks suspected of being loaded with arms belonging to MİT were intercepted last year by members of the gendarmerie.
In a move that is widely seen as punishing those who disclosed that the trucks were allegedly loaded with arms, a recent government-backed operation culminated with the arrest of 54 people, including four prosecutors who ordered the trucks to be searched as well as dozens of gendarmes. They were accused of “treason and espionage.” The government claimed that the trucks were transporting humanitarian aid to Syria but the arrested prosecutors told the media through their lawyers that the trucks were carrying arms.
In addition to mounting speculation that both Turkey and Saudi Arabia have been arming the al-Nusra Front, both countries' insistence that the US-led war efforts to defeat ISIL should also include a strategy to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, have been a source of further frustration for the coalition. The US-led coalition's ultimate goal is simply to destroy the ISIL presence in Iraq and Syria.
Moreover, Ankara's primary concern regarding ISIL differs from that of the coalition. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his government do not think the same as what the others think. The Turkish government is only interested in stopping ISIL from carrying out attacks inside Turkey. In fact, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, speaking at the opening of the NATO foreign ministers meeting in Antalya in southern Turkey last Wednesday, urged better coordination among NATO allies, after referring to ISIL as a significant threat to the national security of Turkey.
Yet several Western capitals also agree that Turkey has been engaged in better coordination with allies in preventing their nationals from using Turkish territory to enter Syria in order to join ISIL.
Western-Arab coalition forces have so far been able to contain ISIL militants in both Iraq and Syria since their air offensive started almost a year ago against ISIL's strongholds. At the end of the day, major powers' efforts to put boots on the ground may succeed in defeating ISIL.
On the other hand, NATO member Turkey, understood to have been supported by Saudi Arabia, continues to further complicate anti-ISIL war efforts by also creating obstacles for the train and equip program. This is despite the fact that ISIL is a direct threat to Ankara due to its proximity to the Turkish borders.