A limousine with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrives at the White House in Washington on May 16, 2013. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Laura Buchta)

Is Turkey Fueling a New Jihad in Northeast Syria?

With the Oct. 9 Turkish onslaught into northeast Syria and Turkey’s reliance on Syrian Arab proxy fighters, who have been accused by U.S. Ambassador William Roebuck (Deputy Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS) of carrying out war crimes, there is talk about whether or not these are militant jihadists acting on behalf of Turkey.

When Turkey invaded northeast Syria last month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed to be rooting out a terrorist group: the PKK, which has admittedly been a thorn in Turkey’s side for decades, costing tens of thousands of Turkish lives. However, the Turkish onslaught into northeast Syria does not appear to be aimed at just the PKK. Instead, Turkey appears to want to completely destroy the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units), who Turkey claims are the PKK under another guise. These fighters, however, remain our strongest Syrian ally in territorially defeating ISIS and the SDF lost 11,000 lives doing so. The SDF were also, until recently, holding 70,000 ISIS prisoners and also governing the lands that they had won back from ISIS in a fairly democratic and peaceful manner over the past few years, while also continuing to hunt ISIS sleeper cells who persist in recruiting and carrying out attacks in the region.

Turkey, as opposed to the SDF, appears to be blithely unconcerned with the still-lethal threats from ISIS, having bombed indiscriminately near prisons and camps holding ISIS prisoners, resulting in hundreds of ISIS militants escaping. This caused one of our ICSVE colleagues to quip, “It’s as if Turkey is responding to Baghdadi’s call to release the ISIS prisoners!”

To carry out its claimed fight against the PKK, Turkey is using a mix of Syrians who took refuge in Turkey during the war, alongside others bused in from Idlib province in Syria, both willing to fight on behalf of Turkey’s aims and who appear to embrace jihadist thinking and actions. In fact, these Turkish-backed forces include former jihadists, some of them identified as former ISIS and al Nusra members, and they appear to be as ruthless and violent as those who went before them.

The main group Turkey is using, the Syrian National Army, includes factions of the same Free Syrian Army (FSA) that Americans for some time were arming and supporting[1] — until we found them too unreliable. We gave up training and equipping these FSA militants after learning that some broke off to join ISIS and al Nusra, while others simply sold their Western-provided arms to jihadist groups.[2] Thus with Turkey still using these groups, the question becomes, with their long hair and beards and actions and slogans that sound disturbingly like ISIS, are we seeing the birth of a new jihadist movement in Syria? And is Turkey, our NATO ally, arming, paying for, and backing a new army of militant jihadists, empowering them to grow into another monster — perhaps to become the “son of ISIS” — that we will yet again have to face down in Syria, and perhaps even globally?

Barin Kobani (YPG)

There is evidence, dating back to Turkey’s March 2018 incursion and takeover of Afrin, of Turkey working hand-in-glove with, if we judge them by their actions and words, what appear to be militant jihadists. In Turkey’s 2018 incursions into Afrin, in which 300,000 civilians were displaced, several videos emerged of the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army militants filming themselves mutilating the bodies of Kurdish fighters. The most disturbing was a video in which these fighters kicked the dead corpse of YPJ (Peoples Protection Units) fighter Barin Kobani. Brazenly, they filmed themselves stripping off her clothes, stepping on her breasts and ultimately mutilating her body by cutting off her breasts, as they discussed whether or not she was attractive. In the same video others called her a “female pig” and are heard saying “shame on them for sending women to fight.”[3]  This video was only one among many videos that these Turkish-backed fighters proudly recorded of their atrocities carried out in Afrin. Some of them who were later captured by the SDF were revealed to be former ISIS members.

In Afrin, Turkish-allied forces were also reported to be forcibly converting Yazidis, a Kurdish-speaking religious minority, to Islam, and destroying Yazidi places of worship after conquering their villages.[4] This, too, is highly reminiscent of ISIS. In Turkey, less than a week after the Afrin operation began, Ismail Kahraman, speaker of Turkey’s National Assembly and deputy of the AKP, said, praising the operation, “Look, we are now in Afrin. We are a big state. Without jihad, there can be no progress, one cannot stand on their feet.”[5]

In its current incursion into northeast Syria, Turkey now appears to be carrying out an ethnic cleansing of the local Kurdish populations in the areas of its so-called “safety zones” and is accused of such by Ambassador Roebuck, who labeled the Turkish invasion a “catastrophe,” stating that what is going on under Turkish backing “can only be described as war crimes and ethnic cleansing,” while also pointing out that Turkish actions are also destabilizing U.S. efforts to defeat ISIS.[6]

Hevrin Khalaf

The Turkish incursion, while only one month long, thus far, has displaced over 160,000 civilians, many Kurdish and Christian, fleeing bombing and violence; approximately 100 civilians have also been killed. One of these civilians was Hevrin Khalaf, secretary general of the Future Syria Party. Khalaf was brutally murdered while driving peacefully in her car by a group of assassins who appear to have entered the battle after traveling through Turkey. As one of her close friends recounts, these militants “attacked Khalaf’s car, tortured her, beat her with blunt objects, broke her legs, dragged her by her hair until it was ripped from her scalp and then shot her body and face until she was mutilated beyond recognition even to her mother.”[7]

Likewise, now, in the Turkish invasion of northeast Syria, the Turkish-backed jihadists are again proudly filming and broadcasting their atrocities. One shows them as they stomp on the corpse of a female YPJ fighter, calling her a whore and a dog.[8]  Another video show Turkish-backed fighters shooting their prisoners in cold blood.[9] In yet another, a fighter shouts in Arabic: “We have come to behead you infidels and apostates!” All of these actions, and the fact that those carrying them out are proud enough to film and broadcast them, are chillingly reminiscent of ISIS.

Indeed, it appears that Turkey is fueling a new jihad. And this jihad comes complete with a fatwa issued just before the 2018 Turkish invasion of Afrin that legalizes, systemizes and justifies what occurred in Afrin, and what we are again seeing in northeast Syria. This fatwa justifying the jihad against the SDF was issued by the Syrian Islamic Council; when it was formed in 2014, some thought it might provide opposition to the Sunni religious authority in Syria – becoming a beacon of “moderation and wisdom” in the face of the rise of ISIS.[10] Judging from their fatwa, however, it appears not so, as they write in support of Turkey and the Turkish-backed fighters in carrying out their nefarious deeds and call for a jihad against the SDF.

Despite the SDF being one of the strongest, if not the strongest local force, in the territorial defeat of ISIS in Syria, the Syrian Islamic Council defines the SDF as an enemy that “fought against our people and our nation.” Making the SDF out as an oppressor, the fatwa then uses the Quran to justify fighting back, stating “there is to be no aggression except against the oppressors.” The fatwa goes on to accuse “the SDF militia are among those who spread corruption on earth,” and that “Jihad against them is a must for the sake of protecting lives, wealth and lands.”

The fatwa also claims that to fight against the SDF is “jihad for the path of Allah,” again quoting the Quran in much the same way that militant jihadist and terrorist groups do. Then, in typical jihadist fashion, it goes on to claim Islamic martyrdom for any who die fighting the SDF while also stating that SDF soldiers must be killed unless they repent. Continuing in the jihadist vein, it also claims, “As for their weapons, they are legitimate booties.”

Perhaps most alarmingly, when it comes to the captured SDF, the fatwa gives a scripture that ISIS and other terrorist groups have used in justifying beheading: “As for the captives and captured, it up-to the mujahidin to decide, as the Almighty said ‘strike [their] necks until, when you have inflicted slaughter upon them, then secure their bonds, and either [confer] favor afterwards or ransom [them].’” (Mohammed, Verse 4). Even wounded SDF, according to this fatwa, can be killed while retreating.

Interestingly, the Syrian Islamic Council’s fatwa also specifically addresses the matter of Turkish involvement, stating: “Sharia laws don’t prohibit or forbid the cooperation with the Turkish government in fighting against … the separatist SDF militias.” This fatwa, available in Arabic on the Syrian Islamic Council’s website (and in English upon request to scholars from ICSVE)[11] was authorized and verified by some 14 Muslim scholars in the Syrian Islamic Council.

We know that militant jihadists generally love to justify their violent actions by means of fatwas and here we have just that. We also know now that militant jihadists ascribe to the goal of spreading Islamic governance and shariah law while achieving sovereignty over an area, and often harbor global ambitions as well, believing that violent struggle is necessary to achieve such. They also usually define Islamic “martyrdom” to include suicide terrorism, which they endorse as a legitimate means to kill others while claiming the rewards of Paradise for the attacker. They also see themselves as the only Muslims holding the truth, and they readily excommunicate (i.e. takfir) other Muslims who don’t share their severe and brutal interpretations of Islam and justify brutally killing those they label as unbelievers, infidels and apostates. As we also know all too well from our experiences with al-Qaeda, and then ISIS, militant jihadist movements are, of course, existentially threatening to the West – and one would hope a NATO ally, such as Turkey, would not be supporting such. Yet it appears that is exactly what is happening of late.

Clearly Turkey’s Syrian proxy fighters are engaging in militant jihadist actions – carrying out field executions, slaughtering captives and filming themselves committing horrifying crimes against humanity and seemingly proud of it. But as Syrian Farhan Gaddo ,who found and translated the Syrian Islamic Council’s fatwa into English, asks, “When even President Erdogan himself was reciting the Quran after a Friday prayer in a mosque in Istanbul this past October (2019) and stating that his country is clearing Syria from infidels – should we then be surprised by this fatwa? “

Moreover, when one looks at Turkey’s recent history of also supporting ISIS, allowing 40,000 foreign fighters to stream in across its borders and negotiating with an ISIS emir over border entrances, treating ISIS wounded soldiers in Turkey and even keeping the water levels in the Euphrates high enough to allow ISIS to generate electricity in the Tabqa dam it controlled in Raqqa,[12] it looks like Turkey may be proving itself more of a militant jihadist ally than a NATO one.

As Ambassador Roebuck pointed out in his recent memo back to the State Department, the damage to the U.S. of allowing Turkey to act in this way is far-reaching. Roebuck states, “As more news emerges from northeast Syria of Turkish supported groups/organizations (TSO) atrocities and expulsion of citizens, the reputational risks to the U.S. and criticism of our decisions will rise. To protect our interests, we need to speak out more forcefully, publicly and privately, to reduce the blame placed on the U.S. and to highlight the Turkish responsibilities for civilian wellbeing.”[13]

Indeed. President Erdogan will be in Washington this week to meet President Trump and surely these issues should be addressed, as no NATO member, or ally of the U.S., should be supporting militant jihad in Syria, or anywhere else, for that matter. Turkey has a poor track record in that regard – something our government needs now to address.

Farhan Gaddo contributed to this article by translating and analyzing the Syrian Islamic Council fatwa.

[1] Özkizilcik, ÖMER (October 2019) United the Syrian Opposition: The Components of the National Army and the Implications of the Unification Analysis. SETA https://setav.org/en/assets/uploads/2019/10/A54En.pdf
[2] Balanche, Fabrice (August 2, 2017). The End of the CIA Program in Syria. Foreign Affairs. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/syria/2017-08-02/end-cia-program-syria
[3] Brown, Daniel (February 5, 2018) Fighting in northwest Syria is in a tailspin, as Turkish forces shoot at fleeing civilians and mutilate US-backed forces. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/conflict-in-syria-afrin-province-is-getting-more-dire-2018-2
[4] Cockburn, Patrick (April 18, 2018) Yazidis who suffered under ISIS face forced convertion to Islam amid fresh persecution in Afrin. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/syria-yazidis-isis-islam-conversion-afrin-persecution-kurdish-a8310696.html
[5] Khalidi, Ari (January 27, 2018) Turkey Parliament Speaker calls offensive against Syria Kurds ‘jihad’. Kurdistan 24. https://www.kurdistan24.net/en/news/1f4b98cc-3304-4f26-9bf1-015736d7c283
[6]The New York Times (November 7, 2019). Read the Memo by a U.S. Diplomat Criticizing Trump Policy on Syria and Turkey https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/07/us/politics/memo-syria-trump-turkey.html
[7] Al Hendi, Ahed (November 6, 2019). I Saw the Birth, and Bloody Death, of the Dream of Syrian Democracy. Foreign Policy. https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/11/06/hevrin-khalaf-murder-syrian-revolution-jihadis/
[8] Rwanduzy, Mohammed (October 23, 2019 ‘This is one of your whores’: Turkey’s Syrian proxies desecrate corpse of female SDF fighter. Rudaw. https://www.rudaw.net/english/middleeast/syria/231020191
[9] Khadder, Kareem, Deaton, Jennifer & Sha (October 13, 2019) Kurdish politician and 10 others killed by ‘Turkish-backed militia’ in Syria, SDF claims, CNN https://www.cnn.com/2019/10/13/middleeast/syria-turkey-kurdish-politician-intl/index.html
[10] Peirret, Thomas (May 13, 2014) The Syrian Islamic Council. Carnegie Middle East Center. https://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/55580
[11] The fatwa was translated by Syrian Farhan Gaddo.
[12] Speckhard, Anne & Shajkovci, Ardian (March 18, 2019) The ISIS Ambassador to Turkey.  Homeland Security Today. https://www.hstoday.us/subject-matter-areas/terrorism-study/the-isis-ambassador-to-turkey/
[13]The New York Times (November 7, 2019). Read the Memo by a U.S. Diplomat Criticizing Trump Policy on Syria and Turkey https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/07/us/politics/memo-syria-trump-turkey.html
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Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She has interviewed over 600 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East. In the past two years, she and ICSVE staff have been collecting interviews (n=101) with ISIS defectors, returnees and prisoners, studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS, as well as developing the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project materials from these interviews. She has also been training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally as well as studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and consulting on how to rehabilitate them. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counterterrorism experts and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA and FBI and CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. She regularly speaks and publishes on the topics of the psychology of radicalization and terrorism and is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS, Undercover Jihadi and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Her publications are found here: https://georgetown.academia.edu/AnneSpeckhardWebsite: and on the ICSVE website http://www.icsve.org Follow @AnneSpeckhard

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