Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently announced a joint American-Turkish effort to sanction two individuals with ties to radical entities inside northern Syria. Specifically, the U.S. Treasury Department and its Turkish counterpart designated Omar Alsheak and Kubilay Sari as supporters of terrorism for their role as “financial facilitators for designated terrorist groups Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and Katibat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad.” This collaborative move represents a seemingly renewed era of cooperation between Ankara and Washington, just ahead of Turkey’s impending national elections on May 14. While the effort will and should be welcomed by the Biden administration, it should be perceived as a token move—one that is intended to facilitate a reset in the beleaguered bilateral relationship between the two NATO allies.
Just days before this announcement, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, announced that the country’s intelligence service operatives had successfully neutralized the current leader of the Islamic State (ISIS), Abu Hussein al-Qurayshi. The new decision to sanction two individuals affiliated with radical entities in Syria builds upon a previous collaborative effort between U.S. and Turkish authorities that succeeded in disrupting ISIS’ financial networks at the beginning of January. On the surface, it appears as though Turkey has begun to substantively cooperate with its Western partners in the counter-terrorism efforts. However, that would be a hasty conclusion.
For one thing, the designation of a relatively few number of terrorist entities in 2023 misses the fact that radical entities and their operatives inside Syria are large in number. More importantly, for years, Turkey has provided support to entities that include, but are not limited to, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and Katibat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad. Erdogan’s quest to topple the Assad regime resulted in Turkey making a series of terrible choices. Ankara provided salaries, weapons, equipment, and logistical information to a plethora of jihadist organizations. Moreover, since 2015, Erdogan parted ways with the United States, as Washington was primarily focused on eliminating the ISIS threat, mainly by partnering with the Syrian Kurds under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces. Turkey chose to label this organization a terrorist group due to its affiliation with its parent organization inside Turkey: the Kurdistan Worker’s Party. In doing so, Erdogan chose to ignore the real terrorist threat posed by ISIS and chose to back jihadi entities to fight against the Assad regime.
Erdogan’s jingoism in foreign policy can no longer continue, however, and Erdogan is aware of this. For one thing, he has had to abandon his fixation to topple Assad, as he is now likely to remain in power. Second, if Erdogan wins Turkey’s elections in the days to come, he will need to reset ties with Washington and the West in general. This is likely due to the serious amount of economic support that Turkey’s economy will require from Western creditor institutions. Turkey’s central bank spent over $14 billion to prop up its national currency in the past month. Following the elections, the ability to maintain the present level of exchange rate will be impossible. Bottom line: Erdogan (or whoever is in charge of Turkey) will need a Western lifeline, however, he has shown little that would convince lawmakers in Washington to sympathize with Turkey’s economic woes.
Erdogan has initiated a series of regional resets with Egypt, Israel, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. What has been lacking is positive overtures toward the West—Washington in particular. Ankara, under Erdogan’s continued tutelage, is attempting to buy American support, particularly if Turkey decides to knock on the IMF’s door. To be sure, sanctioning individuals affiliated with jihadist organizations and disrupting their financial networks will be welcomed. However, these initiatives represent only a fraction of the moves that Ankara could make if it was serious about counter-terrorism. To demonstrate that intent, it could definitely withdraw its support from radical groups in Syria and provide sustained information of more high-profile individuals to sanction. We have yet to see this happen.
Sinan Ciddi is a nonresident senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he contributes to FDD’s Turkey Program and Center on Military and Political Power. Follow Sinan on Twitter @SinanCiddi.