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When Turkey Plays Nice With Russia And Israel, It Plays With Fire

Turkish President Erdogan on June 30
Turkish President Erdogan on June 30
Nuray Mert

ISTANBUL Since Turkey made conciliatory moves towards Russia and Israel last week, critics have pointed to the inconsistencies between what has been said before and what is being said now. But that is not the real issue here: The real issue is about the roots, the true nature and the costs of these changes in foreign policy.

The current state of the deal with Russia is not clear, but if matters unfold as planned, we can start selling tomatoes to Russia again. That part is easy. But dealing with jihadists is nothing like selling tomatoes, and this issue is going to give us a headache. The Istanbul airport attack was a clear sign of the cost: Is it a coincidence that ISIS members who carried out the suicide bombings turned out to be jihadists with Russian citizenship?

Turkey started supporting radical Chechen fighters — who are considered enemies by the Russian state — long before the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to power. At the end of the Cold War era, Turkey jumped at the opportunities presented throughout the breakup of the Soviet empire. On the one hand, moves towards the "Turkish world from the Adriatic Sea to the Great Wall of China;" on the other hand, assuming an active role in the conflicts in the Balkans and being close to the Islamist groups who fight in Russia and in areas with Russian populace. All of this was effectively part of Turkey's official foreign policies before AKP ever took over the government.

But best to turn our attention to the present: More recent turmoil in Syria turned Turkey into a gateway for the jihadists who were going to Syria to fight against Assad's regime. At first, Turkey was not alone in this policy, as Western allies supported it, but then things got complicated. We all know that the jihadists who went to fight in Syria didn't go there to support this country's "moderate opposition," but to establish an Islamic State. And we also know that some of these Muslims who "lost their way" were professional fighters who had gained experience in areas such as Afghanistan and Chechnya. That is how ISIS was formed — it didn't suddenly appear out of nowhere.

A jihad hub

In short, during this process, Turkey was a safe hub for the Caucasian and Middle Eastern jihadists. So yesterday's "jihadists running to Syria to help" are today's terrorists from the al-Nusra Front or ISIS. Mayhem was inevitable.

In fact, Western countries and Turkey started paying for their involvement. Now, the Turkey-Russia rapprochement adds new layers to this problem, and it will continue to do so. If you start chasing those who used to be able to easily come and go to Syria and settle down in Turkey with their families, and start calling them terrorists, chaos breaks out. It will be hard to explain the deal with Russia to the Chechens or to the Dagestani who previously found Turkey's support in their war with Russia. Mending the relationship with Russia will require Turkey to further isolate these groups, and the cost of doing so could be high.

Sectarian tension

The deal with Israel is another story. Clearly, both Israeli and Turkish leaders, as well as Sunni regimes such as Saudi Arabia, found common ground not for peace or diplomacy, but to strike a balance against Iran in the Middle East. Rather than a new hope for peace in the Middle East, such an alliance promises only deeper sectarian tensions and further threatens the delicate Turkey-Iran relationship.

Finally, what do we make of President Erdogan's promise of citizenship for the Syrian refugees? For starters, it confirms the Syrian war as one of the biggest threats to Turkey's internal political balance. Certainly, the government in power will try to sell this issue on "humanitarian" grounds. But we all know that this issue is not about humanitarianism — it is a political tool for increasing the number of Sunni Muslims in Turkey, which will increase the Alawite-Sunni tension. And then there is effect on the Kurdish-Arab balance. The Turkish government doesn't learn from the past, and insists on continuing to play with fire.

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Photo of Ukraine soldiers patroling at Avdiivka city of Donetsk

Ukraine soldiers patrolling near Avdiivka.

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