August 5th, 2013
12:15 PM ET

Turkey’s jihadi dilemma

By Soner Cagaptay and Aaron Y. Zelin, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Soner Cagaptay is director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the author of the forthcoming book The Rise of Turkey: The 21st Century’s First Muslim Power. Aaron Zelin is a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and founder of The views expressed are their own.

In late May, the Turkish government uncovered a plan to use Sarin gas as part of a potential bomb attack in southern Turkey. Al Qaeda’s branch in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), was allegedly behind the plot, and the subsequent arrests highlighted the increasing trouble jihadi radicals could pose for Ankara. Indeed, the longer Turkey turns a blind eye to jihadi rebels crossing its territory into Syria, the more likely there will be blowback.

The reality is that providing jihadists access to a neighboring country can result in unintended consequences as radicals ultimately bite the hand that feeds them, something Pakistan should have learned over Afghanistan, and Bashar al-Assad has discovered as Syria-backed al Qaeda elements from Iraqi territory have turned against the regime in Damascus.

True, Turkey has neither the vulnerabilities of Syria, nor Pakistan – the country is a democracy and a majority middle class society, so does not have the social and economic problems so often conducive to jihadist radicalization. Nor does Turkey have a homegrown jihadist tradition. A foreigner orchestrated the 2003 Istanbul bombings that targeted the British consulate, the headquarters of a Turkish bank and two synagogues, and few Turks have since demonstrated a taste for jihad.

However, with jihadist radicalization taking root in Syria, there are some troubling anecdotal signs that some Turks are reaching out to recruiters in an effort to take up the cause. For example, a cook at a luxury hotel in Istanbul erroneously contacted, which is managed by one of the authors, asking for help to become a jihadi fighter ( is actually a clearinghouse of information on the issue). Turkish officials, meanwhile, have also also spoken to us of a group of Turkish citizens of Chechen origin who previously fought against Russia, but who have crossed into Syria recently to join the fighting there.

More from GPS: Turkey in 2013

While it’s true that the language barrier between Turks and Arabs might limit large scale jihadist recruitment of Turks, Syrian or foreign jihadists could still recruit Sunni Arab citizens in Turkey that mostly live in Urfa Province, which borders Syria’s al-Raqqa Governorate.  This area lies just across from a Syrian zone that opposition rebels, including JN, have freed from regime control.

And jihadist radicalization poses yet another threat as Turkey increasingly becomes a staging ground for the facilitation and smuggling of foreign nationals, including jihadists, into northern Syria to fight the al-Assad regime. This is not because Ankara supports the jihadist cause. Rather, Turkey is calculating that al-Assad will fall, and the “good guys” will take power. Ankara therefore sees jihadists as a tool whose fighting power could precipitate the fall of the al-Assad regime.

But, what if Assad’s regime does not fall, or Syria is not taken over by forces acceptable to Ankara? Turkey’s government does not seem to have considered the more likely scenario, one in which Syria slowly collapses into a weak and divided state split between al-Assad and his opponents, including JN.

If this should occur, Turkey would face a jihadist threat on its doorstep, across a 540- mile border that stretches along mostly flat terrain. Ankara has provided the Syrian rebels with a safe haven on its territory, a policy that has already rendered the physically unchallenging border essentially moot: in most places, one can simply drive across the border without obstacles.

Sadly, even only a few radical fighters could pose a threat. In mid-June, a jihadist in Syria from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, whose accent suggested that he is an ethnic Arab and college-educated Turkish citizen, released a video on YouTube calling on all Turks to take “arms against all injustices wherever they are.” Moreover, any transnational attacks that emanate from Syria would likely see plotters traveling through Turkey, Syria’s only neighbor, which acts as a conduit between the Middle East, Europe and beyond.

Following the Reyhanli bombings, Turkey has tightened its borders and the country’s law enforcement are paying special attention to possible JN moves from Turkey into Syria. But Ankara must do more, and Turkey should cooperate more closely with allies to monitor the situation.

And if Washington really wants to help? Well, it could make clearer to Turkey’s leadership that the endgame in Syria might be a weak state scenario with “bad guys” left roaming around. Ankara could quickly regret kicking the Syria can down the road.

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Topics: Syria • Terrorism • Turkey

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soundoff (19 Responses)
  1. Dominic

    Istanbul bombings were carried out by Turks, please check your facts Mr Cagaptay.

    August 5, 2013 at 1:00 pm | Reply
    • Reality

      Yes those were extreme leftist groups but CNN doesn't care about the truth.

      August 5, 2013 at 1:19 pm | Reply
      • Really?

        Muslims are much to the right of any fascist Right Wing group you can find in the west. It is not possible to get more conservative than the burqa wearing, acid throwing, beheading loving, minority killing bunch of nutcases like Muslims. These Muslims make Rush Limbaugh seem like a liberal from Berkeley.

        August 5, 2013 at 3:28 pm |
      • Joseph McCarthy

        Well put, Reality. What the Turks need to do is, first grant the Kurds the independence they deserve, make peace with the Jihadists but most of all, quite taking orders from Washington D.C.!

        August 5, 2013 at 3:52 pm |
      • Reality

        First Israeli Nazis should return the land they stolen than Americans should free the all enslave Muslim population all over middle east and Asia.

        August 5, 2013 at 4:48 pm |
      • gazi

        Bulent Ecevit was leftist as you might recall.
        After the Islamist came to power anyone who is not with AKP is a 'terrorist' in RTE's view. If we keep RTE's Islamic AKP little longer than should, will will end up in the near future with homegrown jihadists all around us. Not even kidding. Because RTE is backing up anyone who is an Islamist as him. RTE goal is to make us another Iran.

        August 16, 2013 at 1:12 am |
  2. Reality

    Only problem is those Wahabbi ideology other wise many rebels are working along with Turkey.

    August 5, 2013 at 1:18 pm | Reply
  3. Ferhat Balkan

    What we Turks need to do is systematically deport or kick out all the far left Communist groups that reside in Turkey. They're the ones responsible for most of the terrorism, violence and instability in our country. Turkey should also stop negotiating with the PKK terrorists and extremist Kurdish groups who are responsible for tens of thousands of deaths.

    August 6, 2013 at 1:12 am | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Come on Ferhat, get serious! What Turkey needs to do is to grant the Kurds the independence they deserve and make the Communists part of their government plus make peace with the Jihadists. Most of all, the Turks need to quit taking orders from Washington D.C. as any three-year-old would know! Tell me Ferhat, do you really believe in all the right-wing mumbo-jumbo?

      August 6, 2013 at 9:44 am | Reply
      • Ferhat Balkan

        I know the truth hurts sometimes Joseph, but we have to accept reality. Take a look at current Communist regimes: China, North Korea & Cuba. Poverty, Oppression, Injustice, Violence & Dictatorship have been the rule of the day since the beginning of their inception. You cannot deny it. These same people want to establish Communist rule by rebelling against the government just as Lenin put in many of his quotes such as: "The press should be not only a collective propagandist and a collective agitator, but also a collective organizer of the masses." or "One man with a gun can control 100 without one.".

        August 7, 2013 at 6:36 pm |
    • gazi

      Ferhat you shall major on the subject of 'communism'. It's like your tantum. You talk about it everywhere and all the time.
      Anyhow, we can't 'kick out' people who belong and are part embroid to our land and culture. Might be better, if we kick all PKK's asses and pursue a better tomorrow with our Kurdish neighbors only. What you think RTE will listen to cut off all 'peace talks' with an ex and present PKK leaders.

      August 16, 2013 at 1:24 am | Reply
  4. Subhan

    Jihad is the only way towards justice!! Keep barking!!

    August 6, 2013 at 5:30 am | Reply
    • gazi

      jihad is the only – one way- ticket to hell, that's for sure, keep dreaming while getting paid from the Islamist.

      August 16, 2013 at 1:34 am | Reply
  5. j. von hettlingen

    The "endgame in Syria" has several options. Yet for the moment we are seeing a "balkanisation" of the country. The Syrian Kurds have already their piece of territory in the northeast. Although they are oppose Bashar al-Assad, they are also at loggerheads with the jihadists and Syria's main Kurdish militia have issued a call to arms to all Kurds to fight jihadists.
    Assad's Alawites have recaptured key towns on the road from Damascus to Latakia – their stronghold – on the Mediterranean. This strip of land would be their "kingdom", should Assad not be able to regain control over the whole country.
    So the endgame could be a weak Syria, in which Assad combats his opposition. None of the two parties can eradicate the other. Or we see a Yugoslavian-style breakup of the country, which isn't a bad option, as sectarian hatred seems to be insurmountable and national reconciliation impossible.

    August 6, 2013 at 8:07 am | Reply
  6. gazi

    What you meant when stated "balkan-ization"?

    August 16, 2013 at 1:36 am | Reply

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