Is the Islamic State Trying to Draw Turkey into Syria?
There is a duel going on in Turkey’s southern province of Kilis. Since the beginning of the year, forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have fired katyusha rockets into Kilis. The Turkish Armed Forces (Türk Silahlı Kuvvetleri, TSK) have responded with artillery fire and airstrikes, reportedly killing at least 862 ISIL fighters this year. Still, rockets have landed in Kilis every day in May. According to a combination of data from Metin Gurcan and Aaron Stein, as of May 8, 21 people have been killed and at least 88 wounded on the Turkish side of the border this year. There is growing anger at the local and national government over the disruption to daily life. Simultaneously, ISIL released a statement that it will soon show the consequences for Turkish state actions in a video featuring a TSK soldier captured in July 2015. Both sides appear to be escalating their reactions, culminating on the night of May 8, with the Turkish military for the first time announcing it had conducted a ground incursion into Syria. According to the pro-government daily Yeni Şafak, 15 to 20 Turkish special forces units entered ISIL-controlled territory to target rocket launchers. The raid was followed by airstrikes from coalition forces and with the knowledge of the United States and Russia.
Why is ISIL picking a fight with Turkey? Does ISIL see its actions as a response to Turkish fire support to opposition forces fighting in northern Aleppo? Or are they a deliberate attempt to force an already strained Turkish military into a more involved and bloodier intervention in Syria? ISIL’s most recent propaganda directed at a Turkish audience may provide a clue to its strategic goals toward Turkey.
ISIL’s Propaganda on Turkey
Looking back at the different stages of Turkey-directed ISIL propaganda, the group appears to have been foreshadowing its plans than was previously apparent. This propaganda can be broken into three basic stages: informal (2013 through mid-2014), semi-official (early-2014 through mid-2015), and official (mid-2015 to present).
In the early days of the conflict, much of the promotion of the Islamic State was informal, done by members. For example, Oguzkan Gozlemecioglu (aka Muhammed Selef), a well-known ISIL facilitator from Ankara, posted a video interview on his personal Facebook page with Ahmet Gunduz, one of the early Turkish ISIL emirs (killed in 2014), in which he asked for donations and discussed their difficult position. During this phase, ISIL recruitment was going on in Turkey, but it much more focused on real world social networks.
After the break between Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIL in early 2014, long standing Turkish-language global jihadist websites such as Takva Haber and Enfal Medya became broadly pro-ISIL (following shifts of some Salafi figures inside Turkey such as Halis Buyancuk AKA Ebu Hanzala). They produced some positive, original reporting, often based on the Facebook posts of Turkish ISIL members. They also helped disseminate official propaganda, but it was in Arabic without Turkish translations or subtitles. Turkish security forces did not aggressively pursue Turkish ISIL members or their networks. By early 2015, however, the situation on the ground changed. The Mosul hostage situation in June 2014 — where ISIL captured and held 46 Turkish citizens at the Turkish consulate in Mosul, Iraq for three months — was resolved and negotiations to allow U.S. warplanes to use Incirlik airbase to bomb ISIL had begun. At the same time, in March 2015, ISIL launched Darul Hilafe, the Turkish language arm of al-Hayat Media, ISIL’s main propaganda arm. In June 2015, Darule Hilafe began posting a daily Turkish-language news bulletin from al-Beyan radio and finally launched its magazine, Konstantiniyye. At the same time, on July 12, 2015, the Turkish government began its crackdown on pro-ISIL media outlets. Police arrested the editor of Enfal Medya and shut down his website. While both Enfal Medya and Takva Haber, never recovered, Darul Hilafe and its social media presence have remained. Now on its 61st iteration on Twitter, it has morphed nearly daily as Twitter aggressively shuts down ISIL-associated accounts.
Since the launch of Konstantiniyye, there have been several examples of how its coverage precedes future incidents. The third issue of Konstantiniyye, released on September 27, 2016, focused on suicide bombings with the cover story, “The Acceptability and Morality of Suicide Operations.” While it did not take responsibility for the Turkish suicide bomber in Suruc, it did highlight several Turkish suicide bombers in Syria and Iraq. Just 13 days later, a Turkish citizen, Yunuz Emre Alagoz (brother of the Suruc bomber, Seyh Abdurrahman Alagoz) and a still unidentified Syrian killed 102 people in Ankara on October 10, 2015. Subsequently, there were three more successful or failed suicide bombings inside of Turkey by Turkish IS members – the failed New Year’s Eve bombing in Ankara, the January attack on German tourists in Istanbul’s tourism district, Sultanahmet, and the March bombing on Istanbul’s Istiklal street. The fourth issue of Konstantiniyye, released in December 2015, focused on critiquing the Turkish educational system and offered a warning to journalists writing about ISIL. It was in this issue that ISIL had its one and only claim of responsibility for an operation in Turkey: the murder of a Syrian teacher in Kahramanmaras in April 2015. Over the next several months, two Syrian journalists/activists writing on ISIL were targeted and killed in Gaziantep and Sanliurfa.
Learning About ISIL’s Strategy in Turkey
After the bombing in Ankara, it became clear that the previous attacks in Diyarbakir, Mersin/Adana, and Suruc were more centrally directed and planned than original thought, as laid out by Aaron Stein. Police uncovered a safe house in Gaziantep where the bombs for all three attacks were built. In late January 2016, Turkish security forces released information on the contents of a captured laptop belonging to Yunus Durmaz, one of the most important Turkish ISIL members who fled Turkey into Syria prior to the October Ankara bombing. From the available information on the laptop, it appears ISIL had the goal of trying to sow disorder in Turkey’s social fabric. The laptop reportedly held attack plans for 26 different targets in 19 locations across the country. Some of the most alarming targets were Alevi and Kurdish villages. Such attacks would have been aimed at activating the Sunni-Alevi fault line in Anatolia as well as further exacerbating Turkish-Kurdish tensions. The laptop also contained reconnaissance on military bases and police stations. ISIL probably picked these targets for the same reason as the PKK: to weaken confidence in the state by all sectors of society.
This new intelligence appears to have led to a large number of arrests across the country. State media sources reported Turkish police detained over 820 ISIL members or supporters in 2016 alone, (though our close tracking of media reports on detentions puts the number around 450). Turkish ISIL members smuggled back into the country from Syria conducted the subsequent attacks in Turkey, such as Mehmet Ozturk’s attack on Israeli tourists on Istanbul’s Istiklal Street on March 19, 2016.
With reduced capabilities inside Turkey following the detentions of many Turkish ISIL members and an increased Turkish state response to the ISIL threat, it is possible that ISIL has shifted its strategy into attacking TSK targets and potentially trying to draw Turkish troops into Syria, where they would be more vulnerable. The two most recent issues of Konstantiniyye point to that possibility. Simultaneously, ISIL may be trying to take advantage of disagreement between the United States and Turkey on how to close Manbij pocket and finally shatter ISIL’s hold on territory along Turkey’s border. The group may try to be lure Turkey into an intervention, which risks clashes with Russian forces, the Assad regime forces, or Kurdish forces – all of which would create further complications for the anti-ISIL coalition.
The Shift in ISIL’s Propaganda and Strategy?
The fifth and sixth issues of Konstantiniyye, both released this year, focused on the TSK and Turkey’s current support for opposition groups in northern Aleppo. Both issues contain explicit warnings to the Turkish government of consequences for continued military and police operations against ISIL. The fifth issue warns:
The [apostate nation of Turkey] personally supports the sahawat groups [referring to Syrian opposition groups] who fight against the Islamic State in northern valleys of Aleppo by means of artillery attacks. … By the will of Allah, the Islamic State makes those infidels who kill Muslims pay a price for their actions and will continue to do so.
Along with the warning, ISIL promotes the idea that the Turkish military is overstretched in its two-front conflict:
Attacks [by opposition groups] were supported by artillery … of Turkey … in the northern fields of Aleppo, a state that is not even any shape to protect itself against the atheist PKK.
In the sixth issue, ISIL states:
[T]he apostate Turkish government is sacrificing its soldiers. Dragging the war his own country for his war against Islamic State….For all countries bombing the Islamic State — as our Caliph said, “I swear we will take revenge, I swear, even if it is after some time, we will take revenge!”
The issues feature an extended series of articles which explicitly excommunicates all members of the TSK as “the soldiers of the pharaoh,” stating, “[those] who fight in defense of apostate systems … have left Islam.” According to ISIL, this makes all TSK soldiers legitimate targets. Since the sixth issue of Konstantiniyye was released, ISIL has focused on Turkish state targets in what appears to be a major shift in tactics. Since mid-December 2015, ISIL attacked Turkey’s training base in Ninevah Province, Iraq many times, wounding several TSK soldiers. On April 28, 2016, ISIL released video of the destruction of three pieces of mobile artillery with anti-tank missiles in broad daylight, though it appears they were unmanned at the time. This was the first attack on mechanized TSK units from across the border. On April 30, 2016, a Turkish suicide bomber targeted a police station in Gaziantep, killing two police officers.
The sixth issue was the most recent issue of Konstantiniyye so far because it features the captured TSK soldier, Sefer Taş (referred to as Sefter in the magazine). Taş was captured during the first direct skirmish between the TSK and ISIL on July 1, 2015 in the village of Ardıçlı, Kilis Province. He was reportedly wounded while another TSK soldier was killed. Taş was last heard of in a September 2015 report, stating he was being held prisoner in Raqqa. Originally from Igdir, Turkey’s most eastern province, Taş appears to be ethnically Kurdish. In a January 2016 interview, Taş’s father stated that the Interior Ministry contacted him about his son and stated, “Daesh may want something in return for our son.” However, unless the Turkish government would be willing to make a deal (and have it be publicly known), past experience has shown the fate of Taş is likely grim. In a 2015 issue of its English-language magazine, Dabiq, ISIL offered to sell a Norwegian and Chinese hostage, posting photos of each in yellow jumpsuits, meaning they were available for bargain, similar to Taş. Both were executed in November 2015.
What would happen if ISIL executed Taş in a similar fashion? First, such an act would be unprecedented. ISIL held Mosul consulate staff for three months but treated them more or less humanely before a prisoner exchange was organized. (Turkey reportedly traded 180 ISIL prisoners held in Turkey for the 46 Turkish hostages.) Publicly executing a member of the Turkish military would communicate to the Turkish public that ISIL sees Turkey as part of the “crusader” nations like the United States, Britain, and Germany, and therefore an enemy of Islam. This message already permeates ISIL propaganda, but does not make it into mainstream Turkish discourse, especially not the Islamist variety that shies away from causing division among Muslims. Even the rocket attacks on Kilis have been covered by most media channels using the passive tense (“rockets fall on Kilis”) with scant mention of the people launching them. The symbolic power of an execution, in ISIL’s thinking, would potentially force the Turkish public to hold up a mirror to the Turkish public, which is torn between its Islamic identity and its alliance with the West going back to the late days of World War II.
Turkish Ground Troops in Syria?
If it is ISIL’s strategy to draw the TSK into Syria, there are a number of factors that would make it a difficult and complicated affair. “If ground troops become vital, we would send them,” then prime minister Davutoglu recently said in response to the rockets fired at Kilis. The topic would surely come up if Taş were harmed. However, once the TSK enters Syria to conduct operations against ISIL, staging ground operations against Kurdish militants could prove irresistible. Without adequate, proper coordination, Turkish forces operating in northern Syria could also run into issues with Russian forces. Given the range of Russian-deployed S-400 anti-air missiles, this would most likely involve a threat to Turkish warplanes providing cover and support to their brethren on the ground.
Turkey appears to have little appetite for intervention. Turkey did not stage even a limited ground invasion in Syria when the situation was considerably less risky, and is unlikely to do so, even if ISIL continues to escalate. When asked, Turkish diplomats usually start by pointing out the legal nightmare such a military action would entail. Some Turkish military sources in turn argue that there is no clear mission against ISIL. One military source told us that the Turkish military could “easily” beat ISIL and “take Raqqa, but,” he continued, “we couldn’t stay there. We couldn’t occupy [ISIL territory] indefinitely.” That is why, if ISIL escalates its fight against Turkey, the TSK is likely to engage in heavier artillery attacks, stage more small ground incursions and step up its armed aerial drones program, possibly with greater cooperation with the United States. This, combined with a continued crackdown within Turkey, would be Turkey’s stick to deter further ISIL attacks.
The larger ISIL suicide attacks (Suruc, Ankara, Istanbul) punctuated political discourse and attitudes in Turkey. However, politically, the Erdogan government can likely absorb more rocket attacks from ISIL without it being reflected in the ballot box. The AK Party electorate is focused on the fight against the PKK. The rockets on Kilis have caused anger in that province, but so far, they have not had a significant impact on the national mood. This does not mean that the government will not try to stop the rockets, but rather, that it is doing this relatively independently of short-term political concerns.
Even if there are factors working against ISIL strategy, none of this is to say that escalation is impossible. A mass casualty attack against Turkey, particularly against an exclusively Turkish civilian target, could change the equation entirely. ISIL could do something unpredictable that would trigger a large-scale military response from the TSK. As things stand, it appears ISIL is harassing Turkey, probing for its northern neighbor’s limits. However, if rocket attacks continue after the May ground incursion, the TSK may be forced to conduct future raids. Each step opens the possibility of further escalation. Attacks at this point are a form of political communication, in which the two sides are probing each other’s limits. Turkey, together with coalition partners, needs to pierce the fog of war, and set the price for attacking its soil. Only this kind of clarity can prevent a potentially reactionary and disastrous escalation against ISIL.
S.G. Grimaldi is the pen name of a Washington-based analyst focused on Turkey and the Caucasus. Follow S.G. on Twitter: @Ncaucasuscaucus.
Selim Koru is an analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV), where he focuses on Turkey’s relations with the Middle East and Asia. You can follow him @SelimKoru.