Turkey, An Unhelpful Ally

by Jonathan Schanzer, WSJ Online


The Middle East is aflame. The rapid march of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, from Syria into Iraq has rattled Washington and Brussels. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is also heating up, as the Jewish state searches frantically for three teens kidnapped in the West Bank. And the world powers continue to wrangle with Iran over its nuclear-weapons program.

None of these crises are easy to solve, and all three have been exacerbated by policies crafted in Europe’s backyard by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey.

The ISIS crisis in Iraq is inextricably tied to the dangerous and permissive border policies of Mr. Erdogan’s government in Turkey over the past two years. It was only last year that U.S. President Barack Obama chided Mr. Erdogan for “letting arms and fighters flow into Syria indiscriminately and sometimes to the wrong rebels, including anti-Western jihadists.”

Mr. Obama wasn’t alone in that assessment. As Human Rights Watch noted in an October report, “Many foreign fighters operating in northern Syria gain access to Syria via Turkey, from which they also smuggle their weapons, obtain money and other supplies, and sometimes retreat to for medical treatment.”

Mr. Erdogan has denied these allegations and vowed to prevent aid from flowing to jihadists in Syria. But media and law-enforcement reports contradict his statements. “The relative accessibility of the Syrian-Turkish border explains” why so many jihadists have made their way to Syria, the Journal reported earlier this month, citing Europol.

ISIS has found other transit points into Syria. But it’s clear that this group, and other violent factions, have benefited from Turkey’s Wild Wild East. As Thomas Hegghammer of the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment told the website Syria Deeply in December, “Turkey is to Syria now what Pakistan was to Afghanistan in the 1990s.”

Ankara may also be serving as a remote headquarters for the Palestinian terror group Hamas. Senior Hamas figure Saleh al-Aruri “operates out of Turkey, with the backing of the Turkish government,” Ynet reported in October. And a high-ranking Israeli intelligence official confirmed his presence there to me, adding that al-Aruri is “one of the most important leaders of Hamas” and is “involved in a lot of things including finance and logistics.”

More specifically, al-Aruri is in charge of Hamas’s portfolio in the West Bank, according to the London-based pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat. As with other Hamas leaders, his violent proclamations are publicized on the English-language website of the Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military arm. “Hamas will be at the forefront of the resistance work in the West Bank,” the site quotes him as saying in October.

Aruri has been based in Turkey since 2012, according to the Egyptian Al-Ahram Weekly, after Hamas abandoned its Damascus headquarters in protest over the Assad regime’s slaughter of fellow Sunnis. He joined a Hamas delegation in March 2012 that took part in talks with Mr. Erdogan, the Palestinian Maan News Agency reported. Later that year, he traveled from Turkey to Gaza to attend the Qatari emir’s visit to Hamas-controlled Gaza. The following October, al-Aruri joined Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshal for a high-level meeting with Mr. Erdogan in Ankara, according to a Hamas-linked website.

Aruri’s name has recently appeared in the Israeli and Palestinian media as a person of interest in the kidnapping of the three Israeli teens in the West Bank earlier this month; shortly after these reports surfaced, the Israelis razed al-Aruri’s home. His leadership role in the Qassam Brigades in the West Bank raise troubling questions about what he is doing in Turkey—and why Ankara allows him to remain there.

An even more troubling question is why, amid global financial pressure to convince the Islamic Republic’s leadership to dismantle its illicit nuclear program, one of Turkey’s three state-owned banks, Halkbank, was allegedly executing gas-for-gold transactions with Iran. Turkey in 2012 and 2013 purchased Iranian natural gas in Turkish lira and transferred the proceeds to Halkbank accounts. Iranian traders then used these proceeds to buy gold from Turkey, which was shipped to Dubai before making its way to Iran. Ankara insisted that the transactions didn’t violate sanctions because the gold was going to individuals, not the Tehran regime (trade with individuals wasn’t proscribed at the time).

Washington adopted new legislation in January 2013 that imposed a blanket prohibition on all gold sales to Iran. Yet the Obama administration didn’t make the prohibition effective immediately. The sanctions only became effective six months later, on July 1, 2013. By forestalling the imposition of the sanctions, the White House granted Turkey and Iran additional months of trading opportunities. According to a report by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and Roubini Global Economics, “Iran’s golden loophole” allowed Tehran to receive more than $13 billion before gas-for-gold slowed to a trickle.

Then, on December 17, 2013, a massive corruption probe in Turkey alleged multiple links between the Turkish political elite and a shadowy business network tied to Iran. One anti-AKP newspaper reported that Reza Zerrab, an Iranian-Azeri businessman, was “accused of being involved in irregular money transactions, mostly from Iran, that total some 87 billion euros.” Using his connections in Iran and Turkey, Mr. Zerrab moved “almost a metric ton of gold to Iran every day for 1 1/2 years” in transactions amounting to more than $28 billion, according to Bloomberg. A Turkish prosecutor’s report, leaked in March, leveled additional allegations about this financial network between Turkey and Iran.

Mr. Erdogan and his allies deny any wrongdoing, and the AKP has deferred a parliamentary investigation to next year. But if the allegations are true, Turkey helped the mullahs attain financial leverage at a crucial moment in the battle over Iran’s nuclear future.

Ankara is now imploring NATO for assistance in repelling ISIS. The AKP is also condemning Israel’s West Bank manhunt, while opposing an Iranian nuclear bomb (Turkish President Abdullah Gul last year voiced his concern about a “neighboring country possessing weapons not possessed by Turkey”). Yet Turkey bears some responsibility for all three crises, and Europe must hold Ankara to account.

Mr. Schanzer is vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

June 26, 2014 | Comments »

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