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The Struggle with Islamic State that Turkey Hoped to Avoid
The Struggle with Islamic State that Turkey Hoped to Avoid
Cooperation over Conflict in the South Caucasus
Cooperation over Conflict in the South Caucasus
Workers repair the damaged parts of the terminal building at Turkey's Istanbul Ataturk airport on 29 June 2016. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

The Struggle with Islamic State that Turkey Hoped to Avoid

In this Q&A, Crisis Group tapped the views of its Project Director and Analyst in Turkey, Nigar Göksel and Berkay Mandıracı, as well as its Russia and the North Caucasus Project Director, Ekaterina Sokirianskaia.

Turkey has blamed the so-called Islamic State (IS) for the triple suicide gun and bomb assault on Istanbul airport on 28 June that killed 45 people. Some of the gunmen had family links to Russia’s troubled North Caucasus, from where many people have moved to and through Turkey. More broadly, the assault brings into the open a struggle with IS that Turkey had hoped it could avoid. In this Q&A, Crisis Group tapped the views of its Project Director and Analyst in Turkey, Nigar Göksel and Berkay Mandıracı, as well as its Russia and the North Caucasus Project Director, Ekaterina Sokirianskaia.

How much do we know about the North Caucasus jihadists who carried out the Istanbul attacks and their links to Turkey?

Turkish police declared that two of the bombers are Russian citizens, at least one of them with links to the North Caucasus. According to the Turkish media, one or more had travelled to Turkey from Raqqa, one of the main strongholds of IS in northern Syria. It is not yet clear if they previously resided in Turkey.

The raid’s organiser is thought to be Akhmed Chataev (also known as Akhmad Shishani), a highly positioned Chechen in IS. Chataev had previously fought against Russia in Chechnya, where he was injured and lost one arm (for which he is better known as “One-handed Akhmed”), and subsequently fled the country in 2002. A year later he was granted asylum in Austria.

In 2007, he became a “representative”, recruiter and fundraiser in Europe for the newly founded Caucasus Emirate, a group loosely associated with al-Qaeda which used terrorist methods during operations in the Russian North Caucasus. In 2013, Chatayev swore allegiance to IS and reportedly played an important role in the incorporation of the North Caucasus jihadist groups into IS.

Since the nineteenth century, Muslims from the North Caucasus and other areas under Russian rule have moved or were forcefully resettled to Turkey in significant numbers. In the last decade, thousands more moved to Turkey to escape pressure from the Russian government. Most are North Caucasus Salafis, believers in a purist Sunni orthodoxy. The overwhelming majority of them are non-violent.

Why would persons from the North Caucasus take part in a terrorist attack against a mainly Turkish target like Istanbul airport?

There are many signs of rising Muslim radicalisation in the former Soviet space, not just in the North Caucasus but also in Russian cities and in Central Asia. This has resulted in young people travelling to IS, prompted by a wide array of grievances and motivations. These are not just fighters, but individuals and families seeking a different way of life.

For North Caucasians, ultra-radical ideology feeds on memories of brutal wars in Chechnya over the past two decades, heavy subsequent counter-insurgency operations across the region, unresolved intra-confessional and ethnic conflicts, social inequality, corruption, failing social services and lack of democratic procedures.

Istanbul became the main transit hub for jihadists who wanted to go to Syria. A first sign that this posed dangers to Turkey came when a female Dagestani suicide bomber staged an attack in Istanbul in January 2015, killing one police officer. After the attack on Istanbul airport, neighbourhood searches and arrests are now under way targeting North Caucasus and Central Asian communities all over the country.

Do you think the IS choice of attackers with links to the North Caucasus was deliberate?

The attackers’ identity could be coincidental, that is, the Russian-speakers could be just implementing the plan of IS commanders, without additional calculations. But in many places IS appears to be deliberately aggravating and exploiting divisions between communities. In Turkey, it has been working hard to radicalise the Russian-speaking communities, and has won over some, including several leaders. North Caucasus fighters are also highly valued in IS ranks.

The tactic of staging attacks with the aim of provoking state repression, which will then be a push-factor for new recruits – a common purpose of terrorist attacks in many places – has been used by jihadist groups in the North Caucasus for years. After the wave of arrests that followed the 2015 suicide bomb attack by a Dagestani woman, there was a new wave of recruitment to jihadi groups in Iraq and Syria.

In recent months, Russia has reportedly given Turkey the names of those whom they suspect of fighting in or links with jihadist groups in Syria. Human rights organisations have received numerous complaints from the Russian Muslims in Turkey that Russia puts them on wanted lists on suspicion of involvement in the Middle East conflicts, but that they have never crossed the Syrian border. Turkish authorities have arrested a number of people from these lists, for instance when they came to extend their residence permits in Turkey. As a result many in North Caucasian communities in Turkey are afraid to extend their permits, which means they will become illegal and hence more vulnerable to recruiters. If Turkey starts to deport suspects to Russia, there could be a significant outflow from these communities to Syria.

How open is the conflict between Turkey and IS?

This is a conflict that Turkey did not want, but is becoming steadily more violent. Since July 2015, Turkey has also suffered six major bombings blamed on IS that have killed around 200 people. According to official figures, in the first five months of 2016, 989 individuals in Turkey were detained on suspicion of having links to IS, of whom 228 were arrested. The numbers were not broken down by national origin.

Also since January, apparent IS rocket attacks on Turkey’s border province of Kilis have killed more than twenty people. In response, the Turkish military has in recent months also engaged in heavily shelling of IS positions across the Syria border.

Since Turkey officially joined the coalition against IS in August 2015, it has become an explicit target of domestic IS mobilisation, IS leaders’ rhetoric and IS publications. In January, IS hardened its position toward Turkey, branding it as an “infidel” Muslim nation because of its secular democracy, calling its ruling pro-Islamic party a “hostile regime”, and using the word tağut to demonise a state that had supposedly “transgressed” the path of true faith. IS social media campaigns #tağutnedir (“what is tağut?”) and #tağut are in circulation since last September, and have recently focused on top officials like President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Even so, Turkey remains a critical, informal logistical base for IS. One reason IS has not made claims of responsibility for its apparent attacks in Turkey may be that the group hopes to dodge or mitigate Turkish reactions, and to give more space to a small minority of Turkish Sunni Muslims who may support or sympathise with it. It needs to protect its access to the outside world as it faces mounting challenges on its southern fronts. According to Turkish intelligence reports, sermons delivered in IS controlled mosques in Syria reveal that the Turkish towns and provinces of Gaziantep, Nizip, Karkamış and Kilis are among IS’s primary targets.

IS’s official propaganda magazine in Turkish, Konstantiniyye (“Constantinople”, an Ottoman-era name for Istanbul), has targeted the Turkish security forces. January’s edition opened with a section called “The Pharaoh’s Soldiers” that called members of the security forces “blasphemous”. Posts on the Konstantiniyye Twitter account have emphasised that IS will take action against soldiers or employees at any level of the Turkish military apparatus.

In Konstantiniyye’s April edition, IS adroitly tried to find favour in Turkish public opinion, which is traumatised by the past year’s upsurge in the three-decade-old conflict with the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). It highlighted what it said was a Turkish policy that “sacrifices soldiers to support the PKK in Syria” in the name of its Western allies while waging war against the PKK within its own borders. “There will be no rest for Turkey until the establishment of the Islamic State [in the country]”, the magazine said.

Turkey has seemed reluctant in the past to put all its resources in the fight against IS. Its main effort has been to eliminate the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a principal domestic threat. Do you think this will change?

During the early years of the Syria war, Turkey tolerated many kinds of people transiting its territory to Syria, partly because it believed volunteer fighters would speed the fall of President Bashar al-Assad. Even if there was no active assistance from Ankara, this situation made life easier for IS.

Another reason for Ankara’s lack of overt hostility was that IS was locked in combat with Syrian Kurdish groups loyal to the PKK. Ankara perceives the PKK as its main enemy, especially since a ceasefire and peace talks broke down a year ago. Since then, fighting related to the PKK insurgency has killed at least 1,600 people, according to Crisis Group’s open source casualty tally.

For sure, the Istanbul airport attack is notable for being the IS action most directly aimed at Turks or a Turkish institution so far. But if Turkey is going to turn toward an all-out focus on IS, it has not happened yet. In the days after the attack, there was still as much focus on PKK as on the IS in Turkey’s official statements. Ankara’s discourse about the two terrorist organisations being the same is unchanged, with consistent criticism of its Western allies for applying double standards in urging a negotiated resolution to the PKK conflict. Turkey has even tried to use the international sympathy generated by the IS attack as a platform to draw attention to PKK-related attacks.

Given that some of the attackers may have links to Russia, what impact will the Istanbul airport attack have on the apparent warming of relations between Ankara and Moscow?

Since 2012, Moscow and Ankara have had deep differences over Syria. Russia firmly supports President Bashar al-Assad, and Turkey resolutely opposes him. The relationship soured further in November 2015 when Turkey shot down a Russian warplane on its Syrian border, and Russia reacted by imposing bans on trade and once-popular visits to Turkey by Russian tourists.

The two sides had already begun a rapprochement before the Istanbul airport attack, and the trend is likely to improve strongly. This is evidenced by a condolence call after the outrage from Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to Erdoğan and an end to Moscow’s Russian tourism ban. Russia is Turkey’s principal supplier of natural gas and a major trading partner, so this is a gain for Ankara, but wariness toward its historic regional rival will not disappear anytime soon.

It may be that IS chose suicide bombers from these nationalities to send a message to Ankara not to join Russia’s alliance with the regime in Damascus against them. But given Turkey’s feud with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, that would be a long shot. Privately, officials are signalling that Ankara’s hard line against Assad may be changing, but this will be limited and not go so far as allying itself with Russia.

Where does the Istanbul airport attack leave Turkey?

The speed that Istanbul airport got back up and running symbolises the resilience of a country accustomed to crisis and conflict. But this comes after several years in which several pillars of Turkish prosperity have been badly damaged.

Political differences within Europe, democratic regression in Turkey and other factors have gravely undermined faith in Turkey’s European Union accession process, once a major locomotive of reform. The Syria war has tested both its longstanding alliance with the U.S. and also its formerly strong commercial partnership with Russia. Foreign investment and tourism have plummeted as turmoil has spilled over its borders with the Middle East. At the same time, Turkey has had to deploy massive resources to offer refuge and support to several million of people fleeing the conflict in Syria and beyond.

In short, Turkey will need all the hardiness it can muster to withstand the new front IS has opened against it.

Contributors

Former Project Director, Russia & North Caucasus
Project Director, Turkey
nigargoksel
Analyst, Turkey
BerkayMANDIRACI

Cooperation over Conflict in the South Caucasus

While the war over Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020 moved the front lines in Azerbaijan’s favour, it has not brought peace. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2021, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to engage in humanitarian initiatives in both Armenia and Azerbaijan and continue to engage diplomatically through the OSCE Minsk Group.

A brief second war between Armenia and Azerbaijan from late September to early November 2020 dramatically moved the front lines in Baku’s favour. But it has not brought peace. The bloody six-week conflict is a cautionary tale, like the nearly 30 years of stalemate and skirmishes that preceded it. Both experiences warn that a future that does not address the grievances of both sides, integrate the economies of South Caucasus countries and bring real benefits to all who live there risks being a recipe for renewed instability and conflict. Russia, which brokered the 9 November ceasefire deal between Yerevan and Baku and has deployed peacekeeping troops to the region, will continue to shape relations among all concerned. Turkey, as Azerbaijan’s chief backer and the party holding the key to Armenia’s economic reconnection to the region, will also wield considerable clout. EU diplomacy and support, however, will be crucial in creating an environment in which the advantages of cooperation outweigh those of conflict. To engage effectively, Brussels will need to work closely with Moscow and Ankara. Unusual as such collaboration might be at a time when tensions are running high between the EU and both Russia and Turkey, it is necessary.

The EU and its member states should:

  • Undertake sustained humanitarian initiatives in both Armenia and Azerbaijan to ease suffering, whether it results from the late 2020 fighting, the longstanding conflict beforehand or the COVID-19 pandemic;
     
  • Stand ready to facilitate economic and infrastructure projects to reconnect the South Caucasus countries, including by road and rail;
     
  • Continue to engage diplomatically, through the traditional and still official Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group format for negotiations over Nagorno-Karabakh and other forums as appropriate. While efforts to resolve the core issues underpinning the conflict, notably Nagorno-Karabakh’s status, are unlikely to bear fruit so soon after the fighting, it is important that diplomatic channels continue to function for when opportunities do arise.
     
  • As soon as is feasible, resume efforts to build relations and trust between Armenians and Azerbaijanis through direct people-to-people contacts and projects that facilitate cross-border visits for experts and journalists. 

A Ceasefire Short of Real Peace 

When the first Nagorno-Karabakh war ended in 1994, it left the region ravaged, with tens of thousands of Armenians and Azerbaijanis dead and hundreds of thousands displaced. Armenian forces were in control of not only the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, a region within Soviet Azerbaijan that its ethnic Armenian majority had unilaterally declared independent in 1991, but also seven additional adjacent Azerbaijani regions. Armenia was, in effect, under Azerbaijani and Turkish economic blockade. Each side accused the other of war crimes and atrocities.

At the time, all involved hoped that with the fighting over, negotiations could bring a lasting deal. The OSCE established the Minsk Group, co-chaired by France, Russia and the U.S., to facilitate talks. But if the Minsk Group fostered some dialogue, peace grew more elusive with each passing year. As positions hardened, Azerbaijani and Armenian communities became ever more isolated from one another. Both sides built up their militaries, preparing for a rematch. For nearly three decades, the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs tried to broker compromise but, as their attempts were rebuffed, gradually threw up their hands. Peacemaking efforts largely petered out. There was a nominal ceasefire, but violations were numerous, and on several occasions escalated into larger clashes. 

All-out war resumed in September 2020. After clashes on the front line, Azerbaijani forces quickly advanced and, over the course of six weeks, recaptured much of the territory lost in 1994. The fighting killed thousands. Most of the dead were male combatants, a great many of them young conscripts between the ages of eighteen and twenty. The war also displaced, albeit in some cases temporarily, tens of thousands, predominantly women and children, with many families separated for at least the duration of the conflict.

In November, Moscow brokered a deal that ended the fighting but has not brought true peace.

In November, Moscow brokered a deal that ended the fighting but has not brought true peace. As a result of both ground offensives and the deal brokered by Moscow, Baku has regained control of the seven territories Armenia had held around Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as roughly one third of the mountainous enclave itself. The rest remains under Armenian control, patrolled by both Russian peacekeeping forces and the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh authorities’ security personnel. The disputed region’s long-term status remains an open question, as do the details of the Russian peacekeepers’ mandate. Other Russian government personnel are offering aid and reconstruction assistance in Armenian-controlled parts of Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey is active in Azerbaijan, assisting with demining and reconstruction. The sides exchanged some prisoners of war in December, but Armenia is now angry at Azerbaijan’s stated plans to prosecute several Armenian soldiers whom it has in custody. Baku says its forces captured these soldiers after the end of hostilities, but they appear to have arrested at least one while the war was still raging. There are other troubling developments, including skirmishes at the new front line, which is much closer to civilian settlements than the old one. Only the Russian forces’ arrival halted the shooting. 

None of this bodes well for the long term. There is little risk that history, which is to say the pattern of military build-up, stalemate and eventual rematch of the last 30 years, will repeat itself exactly. But the past decades illustrate all too clearly the dangers that lie in festering resentment, the absence of meaningful talks aimed at addressing it and a region in which borders are closed and contacts among communities across front lines few.

A lasting peace does not require everyone to agree on everything from the start. Indeed, it would be premature to push the parties toward agreement on Nagorno-Karabakh’s status so soon after the war. Reconciliation is only likely to take place gradually and only if all parties see it as in their interests. In support of a step-by-step approach, the Russian-brokered ceasefire deal calls for economic reconnection, an aspiration the leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia reaffirmed when they met on 11 January in Moscow, promising to create a working group to define plans for new commercial ties and transport infrastructure. These plans could define a new and different way forward, one that creates real economic incentives to collaborate and eschew violence. But the plans will not work without broader international engagement – and here, the EU may have a special role to play. 

How the EU Can Help 

Both Armenia and Azerbaijan participate in the EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative. One goal of this program is to improve transport links in the South Caucasus, which Brussels has helped do in Azerbaijan as well as in neighbouring Georgia. EU support for rebuilding railways and roads that once connected Azerbaijan, Turkey and Armenia would be in line with both its own goals and those announced at the 11 January Moscow summit.

The EU should also call on both sides to address mutual accusations of human rights abuses.

The EU should also call on both sides to address mutual accusations of human rights abuses. Few other international bodies have the leverage and the moral standing in the South Caucasus to call on Armenia and Azerbaijan to fulfil their commitments to prisoner exchanges and to investigate past abuses adequately. 

Europeans can also help keep diplomatic channels alive, even if seeking a settlement on major issues does not make sense for now. Russia’s direct involvement and the relative disengagement of France and the U.S. has, at least for now, relegated the Minsk format to a less central role. Besides, many Azerbaijanis see France and the U.S. as having failed to deliver on peace plans since the first Nagorno-Karabakh war. But the Minsk process remains relevant as the internationally agreed format for negotiations: it may be crucial to ensuring the flow of humanitarian aid in the near term and broad regional and global support for any future settlement.

The EU could consider bolstering the role of its own special representative for the region, by giving staff support to enable more active engagement, working both with the OSCE and independently. The EU should also support member state Sweden, which just assumed the OSCE Chairmanship-in-Office for 2021, in fulfilling its mandate for keeping up OSCE contacts with Azerbaijani, Armenian, Russian and Turkish leaders on the conflict. The EU can publicly acknowledge the importance of this mission and ensure that Sweden maintains a point role with regard to the conflict for member states. 

Past EU support in this region focused on building relations and trust between civil societies on both sides. Although it facilitated direct people-to-people contacts that would not otherwise have occurred, it increasingly involved the same people, and those less and less frequently, thus limiting its impact. A new approach should involve a broader group of Armenians and Azerbaijanis, including displaced and returning people, people living in border areas, and officials responsible for transitional justice and reconciliation. Brussels could also fund programs that facilitate cross-border visits for experts in a wide range of fields, which largely ceased in the 2010s, and journalists, a few of whom had started making trips prior to the 2020 war. 

The EU can also help mitigate the war’s effects, building on the humanitarian aid it provided during the fighting. Its funding of UN agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross enabled them to deliver urgent assistance to war-displaced Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Now, it can help fund reconstruction both in territories controlled by Armenians and those controlled by Azerbaijan. It could also consider programs in Armenian and Azerbaijani settlements along the border between the two countries. That border has grown longer as a result of wartime shifts in territorial control and towns have grown larger due to displacement. Such support would supplement Russian assistance, carried out in cooperation with the UN, near the border in north-eastern Armenia to build and light local roads and construct new schools, greenhouses and irrigation systems.

EU health-care assistance is also important. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Brussels has sent basic medical supplies to both Armenia and Azerbaijan. EU support may become essential for effective vaccination and the regeneration of tourism, which was a crucial source of household income in both countries before the outbreaks of war and contagion. 

Aside from its direct effects, a strong EU role can build support for peace. It can reassure Armenians nervous about Turkey’s actions in support of Azerbaijan and both Armenians and Azerbaijanis who, although beholden to Moscow for its engagement to end the conflict, recognise that its financial contribution will not match its military and diplomatic weight going forward. Brussels’ involvement would give the bloc an opportunity to cooperate with both Russia and Turkey. There are many areas of disagreement between Brussels and other EU capitals, on one hand, and Moscow and Ankara, on the other, but improving prospects for peace in the South Caucasus is one area where, broadly speaking, they have good reasons to work together.