Turkey functions like a state-sponsor of terrorism (SST), fueling Islamist extremism domestically and deploying jihadist mercenaries to Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh. Listing Turkey as an SST should not be taken lightly. The SST designation requires mandatory sanctions by the US, which would cause deep damage to US-Turkey relations. Short of an SST listing, Western countries can sanction Turkey and Turkish security officials for supporting terrorism while providing benchmarks of good conduct so Turkey can redeem itself and restore good relations with the West.
Turkey’s collusion with terrorist organizations can be traced back to the establishment of Turkish Hezbollah in the 1990s, which assassinated Kurdish politicians deemed sympathetic to the PKK.
Support for jihadis was institutionalized in August 2013 when Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons to strike the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. Artillery tipped with sarin and mustard gas killed an estimated 1729 people, including 400 children.
Erdogan was outraged by the killing of Sunni civilians and took it on himself to respond. Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency (MIT) established the so-called jihadi highway that enabled 40,000 foreign fighters from eighty countries to transit through Turkey on their way to Raqqa in Syria. MIT provided weapons, money, and logistical assistance. Foreign fighters wounded on Syria’s battlefield appeared in Turkish hospitals where they received emergency care – no cost and no questions asked.
Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) adopted an Islamist ideology. In July 2014, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc gave a speech about moral corruption. “The woman…will not laugh in public. She will not be inviting in her attitudes and will protect her chasteness.”
Turkey’s collusion with Islamists was well-known to intelligence agencies around the world. Vice President Joe Biden confirmed it during a speech at Harvard University on October 2, 2014: “President Erdoğan told me, he is an old friend, you were right, we let too many people through…”
Idlib in Syria’s northwest became ground zero for Turkish involvement with al-Qaeda affiliated militias. Erdogan supports Idlib’s Sunni fighters — Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the Al Nusra Front, Ansar al-Din, and Jaysh al-Sunna – who aspire to establishing an Islamic emirate in Syria under al-Qaeda’s control.
When Turkey invaded Afrin in January 2018, a majority Kurdish town west of the Euphrates River, 6,000 Turkish troops and 10,000 jihadists were supported by armour and airstrikes as Erdogan escalated conflict with Kurds in Syria. He justified the attack, maintaining that Syrian Kurdish fighters were a branch of the PKK. Turkish-backed jihadis beheaded civilians and mutilated the bodies of Kurdish women. For Erdogan, counter-terrorism means killing Kurds.
Turkey developed a military formula in Syria. Turkish air power and artillery attacked civilians before jihadi mercenaries, backed by Turkish armor and artillery, would advance to seize territory and conduct ethnic cleansing.
Having proved their mettle in Syria, mercenaries were exported to other conflict zones where their battlefield prowess could advance Turkey’s strategic and ideological goals. Turkish land, air and sea forces coordinated with the Syrian National Army (SNA) in Libya. Turkey sent 300 mercenaries from the SNA to defend the Government of National Accord (GNA) in December 2019. In less than a year, 18,000 Syrian fighters had been sent to Libya. The force includes 350 child soldiers.
Turkey’s support for the GNA involved both training and operational support. Turkey used Bajraktar unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), as well as intelligence assets alongside the SNA, which helped shape the battlefield in its favor.
Turkey’s deployment in Libya took place within the framework of 2019 Security and Military Cooperation Agreement between Tripoli and Ankara. Turkish troops fortified the Watiyya Air Base on the Tunisian border, as well as facilities in Misrata and a navy base in Khoms. Turkish troops stayed in their bunkers, while SNA mercenaries did the dirty work.
In May 2021, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed the presence of 6,630 Syrian mercenaries in Libya. These fighters were unwilling to return home. They demand repatriation to destinations in Europe where they represent a fifth column.
Turkey treated its support for jihadis as a franchise, exporting fighters from one combat zone to the other. Battle-hardened mercenaries were sent from Libya to Nagorno-Karabakh (“Artsakh” in Armenian). Some well-known mercenaries joined the Artsakh operation, launched on September 27, 2020.
Sayf Balud, also known as Sayf Abu Bakr, led SNA’s Hamza Division, which fought in Afrin as part of Operation Olive Branch (Afrin) as well as the Libyan Civil War. Balud and approximately 500 of his men were flown to Azerbaijan to join fighting in Artsakh. Balud is a Syrian Turkman who first appeared in a 2013 ISIS propaganda video. He was responsible for multiple war crimes, including kidnapping Kurdish women and brutal repression in Afrin.
Beginning in 2015, Fehim Isa led the SNA’s Sultan Murad Division. He was involved in Operation Euphrates Shield, Operation Olive Branch, and the Libyan Civil War. Balud, also an ethnic Turkman, is accused of multiple war crimes, such as the torturing of Kurdish soldiers in Syria and indiscriminate shelling of civilians.
Abu Amsha leads the Suleyman Shah Brigade, otherwise known as the al-Amshat militia. It gained prominence as one of the most brutal factions occupying Afrin. It confiscated property, kidnapped individuals for ransom, which generated $12 million/year. Amsha has been accused of rape and murder.
Other Turkish-backed mercenary leaders include Ahmed Osman, another military leader of the Sultan Murad Division; Abu Jalal, is a leader of the Hamza Division and Mohammad al-Abdullah was “head of Hamza’s Political Bureau; Fadlallah al-Haji heads Faylaq al-Sham, an important Turkish proxy who fought in Syria, Libya, and Artsakh. Al-Haji and his men have connections to the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda in Idlib.
In addition to gross human rights abuses against civilians, Turkish-backed mercenaries destroyed churches and Armenian cultural monuments, which is also a violation of international humanitarian law.
Does Turkey’s assistance to jihadi mercenaries make it a state sponsor for terrorism (SST)?
The term SST is applied by the US Department of State to countries that have “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism“, pursuant to section 1754(c) of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019, section 40 of the Arms Export Control Act, and section 620A of the Foreign Assistance Act. Currently, Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Syria are designated SSTs. Designation requires unilateral sanctions.
Being listed is not merely a technical matter. The decision is heavily politicized with listing reserved for America’s most intractable opponents. Today, there is growing debate about Turkey’s suitability as a NATO member. Regardless, the NATO Charter makes no provision for evicting members that have gone rogue. If Turkey applied today, it would not even be considered for NATO membership because it is Islamist, anti-American and a serial abuser of human rights. NATO is more than a security alliance. It is a coalition of countries with shared values.
Whether it deserves to be in NATO is debatable. Turkey is an important intelligence source and early warning post for missile launches and other nefarious activities by Iran and Russia. If any other non-NATO country behaved like Turkey, it would warrant designation as an SST. Given Turkey’s strategic importance, it is unlikely Washington will go this route.
Short of the SST designation, the US can signal concern by reducing its reliance on Turkey as a security partner. It could relocate assets from Incirlik Air Force Base in southeast Turkey to facilities in Cyprus, Romania or to an aircraft carrier in the eastern Mediterranean. The US could also consider moving 50 tactical nuclear weapons from Incirlik.
Additionally, the US could suspend weapons sales to the Turkish Armed Forces. It could also restrict travel to the US by Turkish officials, such a MIT Director Hakan Fidan, as well as their family members. The foreign bank accounts of Turkish officials involved in support for violent extremism could also be frozen.
The threat of SST designation may prove more effective than actual listing. The US and European allies should pursue quiet, consistent diplomacy. It should provide benchmarks, giving Turkey a way out of the penalty box. Annually, the President should certify that Turkish officials are not supporting terror groups.
Western countries want good relations with Turkey, but relations must be based on respect for the international order. Without publicly embarrassing Turks, US officials can make clear that Turkey crossed the line and will pay a price.