When President Donald Trump launched illegal missile strikes on an airfield controlled by the Syrian government, one of the first countries to praise the move was Turkey. The government of Turkey under President Recep Erdogan has long played a double game in Syria, claiming to be in partnership with the United States and opposing extremism, while actively helping Al Qaida and ISIS.
Though many participants in the Syrian Civil War have altered strategy over the years (in Trump’s case, in the course of one week), Turkey has had a duplicitously-executed-yet-consistent plan from the beginning: overthrow the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and curtail attempts by the Kurds for greater autonomy.
In its quest to overthrow Assad, Turkey funneled weapons to those fighting the Syrian government, including ISIS and Al Qaida-linked militant groups. Turkey has also become a central transportation hub for foreign fighters entering the conflict, the so-called “jihadi highway.”
ISIS, at least initially, served Turkey well. With Turkish support and weapons, ISIS took on both the Syrian government and the Kurds. Many of those who joined ISIS were Turkish and ISIS believed Turkey was a key ally.
That dark alliance eventually blew up in Turkey’s face. In 2017, ISIS began attacking Turkey openly in retaliation for Turkish support for U.S. attacks on ISIS in Iraq and Syria, as well as competing rebel groups. The bombing of a nightclub in Istanbul on New Year’s eve, for which ISIS claimed credit, made it clear the partnership was done.
— Prime Source (@PrimeSourceME) January 2, 2017
Though the ISIS alliance may be over, Turkey is still supporting other Sunni Islamist groups fighting the Syrian government, including Al Qaida-linked rebels in control of Idlib, where the reported chemical weapons attack took place that led President Trump to order the missile strike.
Turkey has also been engaging in direct military action against the Syrian government and Kurds. There have been constant border skirmishes with the Syrian army since Turkey began serving as a conduit for foreign fighters to enter Syria. In 2016, Turkey directly attacked Kurdish forces in Northern Aleppo and Azaz.
The Russian government claimed Turkey is using the pretext of anti-ISIS fighting for “creeping expansion” into Syrian territory. Essentially, they argue Turkey is taking territory in Northern Syria, which could eventually give Turkey a direct path to prevent the Kurds from forming a state or consolidating their gains.
Given these dynamics, it should be no surprise that Turkey is happy for the U.S. to further weaken the Assad government and protect Al Qaida-controlled Idlib. President Trump is doing their work for them.