By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach
Special to the Mirror-Spectator
Following a series of detailed exposés of Saudi Arabia’s complicity with the so-called Islamic State, German government leaders have broken diplomatic protocol, and openly issued warnings that Riyadh must cut its ties to terrorists. In remarks made to the mass-distribution tabloid Bild Zeitung in its December 6 Sunday edition, Social Democratic Party (SPD) leader Sigmar Gabriel demanded a halt to Saudi financing of extremist mosques. Gabriel, who is also Economics Minister and Deputy Chancellor, said, “We must make it clear to the Saudis that the time of looking the other way is over.” Specifically, he charged, “From Saudi Arabia, Wahhabi mosques are financed throughout the world. In Germany many extremists considered dangerous persons emerge from these communities.” He called for tougher action against this threat, saying, “This radical fundamentalism taking place in Salafist mosques is no less dangerous than right-wing extremism.” Thus the state should move as soon as “calls for hatred and violence are heard” in Salafist mosques.
Thomas Oppermann, the SPD leader in parliament, made a parallel pitch in remarks the same day to another leading paper, Die Welt. “We will prevent Saudi help in the building or financing of mosques in Germany where Wahhabi ideas are to be disseminated,” he said, evidently in reference to an offer the Saudis had made to fund 200 new mosques in the country, as their contribution to integrating refugees (!). Oppermann was defending the guarantee of fundamental freedoms enshrined in the German Constitution, against the preaching of hatred. He explicitly stated that Wahhabism provides the “complete ideology of the Islamic state and contributes in other countries to a radicalization of moderate Muslims,” and that “this is something we don’t need and don’t want in Germany.”
While Deputy Chancellor Gabriel was exerting this unprecedented pressure, he made clear his intention was not to punish but to persuade. “We need Saudi Arabia for the solution of regional conflicts,” he said. It would be counter-productive to merely criticize the Saudis, if serious negotiations for ending the Syrian conflict are desired, he argued. Clearly, the political move aims not only to publicly denounce Saudi support for ISIS, but to use this to force a shift in Riyadh’s strategic alignments. Just days earlier, in fact, the German foreign intelligence service had issued a scathing report on Saudi Arabia’s aggressive foreign policy in the region.
And the Turkey Connection?
So far so good. But the Saudi complicity, albeit the most significant among the Gulf Arabs (including Qatar, Kuweit and others), is not the only case of double-dealing in the regional lineup of forces ostensibly “fighting terrorism.” The Turkish connection is perhaps even more insidious, given it is a member of NATO and an aspirant to membership in the European Union.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was the one to blow the whistle on Turkey. After the Turks had shot down a Russian plane on November 24, claiming it had violated Turkish air space, Putin charged on December 1 that they had done so in an attempt to protect truck convoys carrying oil from ISIS controlled areas across Turkish territory to ports for further transport. The following day, Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov held a press briefing in which he presented facts, figures and aerial photographs documenting the trade routes of the oil trade between ISIS and Turkey. Antonov charged that “Turkey is the main consumer of the oil stolen from its rightful owners – Syria and Iraq,” and went on to suggest that the family of President Erdogan was directly involved. Erdogan, predictably, denied all accusations and even offered to resign were the allegations to be substantiated, and Mark Toner of the State Department assured the world that Ankara was “not complicit in Islamic State oil smuggling.” To which Moscow responded, this was a cover-up by the Americans.
On December 5, none other than Handelsblatt, the prestigious financial newspaper in Germany, hazarded the question, “Is Erdogan’s Son the Oil Minister of ISIS?” The story has it that Necmettin Bilal Erdogan, the president’s third son, is a kingpin in the affair. Returning from the US in 2006, he bought up an oil tanker fleet and became one of the three owners of the BMZ Group transport firm. In 2003, according to the Handelsblatt report, Bilal was suspected of having laundered bribery funds for his father. In November this year the Syrian Minister of Information Omran Ahed Al Zoub told Russian media that this BMZ group was involved in ISIS oil deals worth millions. Not only: reports appeared that his sister Sümeyye ran a hospital near the Syrian border, where wounded ISIS fighters were treated. Conclusive evidence may be lacking, Handelsblatt concludes, but the accusations are serious.
Then came Russian President Putin’s state of the nation speech to the Russian federal assembly on December 3. He minced no words in depicting the challenge posed by ISIS and the required response. “Unwillingness to join forces against Nazism in the 20th century cost us millions of lives in the bloodiest world war in human history,” he recalled. “Today we have again come face to face with a destructive and barbarous ideology, and we must not allow these modern-day dark forces to attain their goals. We must stop our debates and forget our differences to build a common anti-terrorist front that will act in line with international law and under the UN aegis.” Demanding solidarity among all civilized countries against this threat, Putin stressed: “This means that the terrorists must not be given refuge anywhere. There must be no double standards. No contacts with terrorist organizations. No attempts to use them for self-seeking goals. No criminal business with terrorists.”
To be specific he stated: “We know who are stuffing pockets in Turkey and letting terrorists prosper from the sale of oil they stole in Syria. The terrorists are using these receipts to recruit mercenaries, buy weapons and plan inhuman terrorist attacks against Russian citizens and against people in France, Lebanon, Mali and other states. We remember that the militants who operated in the North Caucasus in the 1990s and 2000s found refuge and received moral and material assistance in Turkey. We still find them there.”
Turkey’s Terrorist Sympathies
Whether or not the satellite photos of ISIS oil truck columns constitute conclusive evidence, whether or not Erdogan’s son was involved or to what degree, the fact that the current AKP government has been at the very least complicit with ISIS (as well as many other jihadist groups, allied or not) is beyond doubt. And this has a history.
“Turkey’s Double Game with ISIS” is the headline of a feature published in the Middle East Quarterly by Burak Bekdil in summer 2015. It argued that the ruling AKP had supported ISIS, its “Frankenstein monster” who are “merely the excessively savage next of kin to Turkish Islamists who pursue similar political goals in Western-style suits and neckties instead of imitating the Prophet Muhammad’s attire.” Bekdil reports cases of Turkish complicity in arms shipments to Syria, for example, in January 2014. (Just recently, Can Dundar and Erdem Gul, two journalists from Cumhuriyet who reported the same story, were arrested on charges of spying and publishing state secrets.) In June 2014, when ISIS took control of Mosul and the Turkish consulate there, whose 46 employees became hostages, Ankara made a deal with the terrorists, the terms of which have not been revealed. Bekdil suggests Ankara may have released some ISIS terrorists from prison and pledged not to attack their strongholds. The German news service Spiegel online reported at the time that the Turkish consulate had ignored warnings by the governor of Mosul that ISIS was preparing to take the city. Citing Turkish media reports, Spiegel wrote that when the ISIS fighters arrived at the consulate, the Turkish special forces reportedly did nothing to stop them, on orders from Ankara.
None of this has been a secret to Turkey’s allies. On July 26, 2015, the Guardian reported that the US had taken care not to inform Turkey of its plans to launch a raid in May targeting Abu Sayyaf, identified as the ISIS official in charge of oil smuggling. Author Martin Chulov writes that the otherwise obscure figure was “well known to Turkey,” and had smuggled oil from Syrian oil fields to Turkish buyers since mid-2013. Chulov says the US and Europe protested Turkey’s involvement, but apparently to no avail. His article cites an unnamed western intelligence official on the “undeniable” evidence of direct dealings between ISIS and Turkey, and recalls Turkey’s support for other terrorist groups fighting Assad.
A “strategic shift” on Turkey’s part was proclaimed only after a suicide bombing in Suruc killed 32 people, and Turkish planes bombed targets inside Syria. However, as Spiegel online reported on July 27, it appeared that Kurdish PKK forces in Iraq continued to suffer the most. The German news service concluded that, a week after Suruc, “Ankara’s policy against the jihadists has not fundamentally changed. The army is still moving most aggressively against those militias in Iraq and Syria who had proven to be the most effective in combat against the ISIS.”
To be sure, the AKP’s brand of Islam is not identical to Wahhabism and, although Turkey shares the Saudis’ claim that Iran is the regional enemy, it is no secret that the Erdogan regime has nurtured fantasies of hegemony, not only in the region, but far beyond. If one reads the works of Ahmet Davutoglu carefully, not only his bestseller Strategic Depth (in which he presents Turkey as the center of the geopolitical universe), but an earlier work which he himself considers more important, one can catch a glimpse of the long-term ambitions the current Turkish establishment harbors. In his book titled, Alternative Paradigms: The Impact of Islamic and Western Weltanschauungs on Political Theory, the prime minister presents his views of the concepts of the “ideal state” and the “perfect caliphate” in the history of Islamic political thought which are worth re-reading in the context of the “ambiguous” posture of Ankara in the conflict today.
(Muriel Mirak-Weissbach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)