It’s Impossible to Beat ISIS With Erdoğan in Power

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Turkish President Recept Tayyip Erdoğan during a meeting with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden in Washington on March 31. Joshua Roberts/reuters

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

Turkey’s authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is in Washington to participate in a conference regarding strategies to defeat the Islamic State militant group (ISIS). That’s like inviting Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to a conference about fighting anti-Semitism.

Simply put, Erdoğan has transformed Turkey into “Pakistan on the Mediterranean.” Diplomats might, out of politeness, publicly accept the fiction that Erdoğan wants to fight violent extremism, but after years of denial, there is broad consensus that Turkey does more to undercut that fight than advance it.

It’s not just a matter of jihadis from more than 100 countries transiting through Turkey, often unmolested, to join ISIS. Blaming poor border security doesn’t cut it when journalists have photographed Turkey’s intelligence service actively supporting and supplying ISIS.

Rather, it’s the fact that Turkey provides visa waivers, or issues visas on demand, for citizens of countries that contribute to ISIS. Demand that visitors under the age of 40 get visas in advance and the flow of foreign fighters into Syria would slow to a trickle.

The basic problem with Erdoğan, however, is he does not believe radical Sunni militancy exists. Even when ISIS fighters took hostage 49 Turkish diplomats and truck drivers in Mosul, Iraq, Erdoğan bent over backward to avoid calling the hostage-takers terrorists, both before and after the diplomats’ release. But it’s not just ISIS.

Erdoğan has defended his invitation for Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir to visit Turkey, despite genocide charges leveled by the International Criminal Court. “A Muslim can never commit genocide,” he explained, adding that he preferred to meet with Bashir over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

After Hamas won the January 2006 Palestinian elections, the United States, European Union and even moderate Arab states urged continued isolation of Hamas until it accepted Palestinian commitments under the Oslo Accord, namely foreswearing militancy and recognizing Israel’s right to exist. Hamas refused and found a friend in Turkey.

Erdoğan broke the international consensus by inviting Khaled Mishaal, the movement’s most radical leader, to address the AKP party, where he received a hero’s welcome. In the wake of last week’s bombing in the heart of Istanbul’s shopping district, an AKP deputy lamented only that more Israelis had not been killed and wounded.

It gets worse. After Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb overran northern Mali, precipitating French intervention to oust the group, Turkish Ambassador Ahmet Kavas, an Erdoğan appointee, declared, “Al-Qaeda is very different from terror” and “The word terror is a French invention. Not the work of Muslims.”

Erdoğan’s refusal to recognize Sunnis who justify violence through religion both increases Turkey’s own vulnerability to attacks and also cheapens its broader counterterrorism effort.

When suicide bombers struck a peace rally in the capital of Ankara in October 2015, Erdoğan immediately imposed a ban on reporting. Part of the reason might be revelations that the suicide bombers’ parents had tipped off security forces that their sons had trained in Syria with ISIS and requested their arrest. The police refused, however. Indeed, they released one bomber caught crossing the border because of the “constitutional right to travel freely.”

The irony here, of course, is that Erdoğan has used his bully pulpit to label Kurds, environmentalists, academics, journalists and members of Fethullah Gülen’s moderate Islamic movement as terrorists without evidence or due process, and he has had his security forces detain and arrest—often on spurious charges lacking supporting evidence—those whom he believes oppose his political agenda or have criticized growing corruption in his inner circle.

Kudos to President Barack Obama for refusing to meet Erdoğan this time around, after his earlier endorsement of the Turkish leader. Evidence matters. The problem remains, though, that the diplomatic love of politeness and fiction continues. To treat Erdoğan as a part of the solution rather than the primary problem is akin to saying a sieve is actually a glass bowl and then wondering why it doesn’t hold water.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He is a former Pentagon official whose major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy. He instructs senior military officers deploying to the Middle East and Afghanistan on regional politics and teaches classes regarding Iran, militant violence and Arab politics on board deploying U.S. aircraft carriers. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen and both pre- and postwar Iraq and spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. His newest book, Dancing With the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimesexamines a half-century of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and militant groups.