Turkey, not SDF, enjoys seat at anti-ISIS conferences

On June 28th, foreign ministers of the 83 member states of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS met in Rome, Italy to discuss progress in the fight against the terror group.

Among the participants was Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. Yet recent events have once again called into question whether Turkey still belongs in such a gathering—or if it ever belonged there at all.

Earlier this year, a criminal case against more than 100 primarily Kurdish politicians and activists in Turkey was opened, on the grounds that these individuals had supported protests calling on Erdogan’s government to take action against ISIS at Kobane in 2014. At the time, Coalition officials had been making similar demands of Erdogan themselves. Turkey’s intransigence ultimately forced the United States to support the YPG as the best option to defeat the jihadist group in Syria, setting up the differences between the U.S. and Turkey that have become a challenge for policymakers today.

In addition to prosecuting citizens of Turkey who opposed ISIS politically, Turkey is also targeting Syrian nationals who fought ISIS on the ground. Kurdish, Assyrian, and Arab Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters have been transferred from Syria to Turkey and jailed on anti-state charges under Turkish law—a violation of the Geneva Conventions. Some have reportedly been tortured, and all have been subjected to politicized and unfair trials.

A recent report from human rights monitor Syrians for Truth and Justice documented the presence of 27 known former ISIS members in the ranks of the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army, including the Military Police, Ahrar al Sharqiyah, and the Hamza Division. These groups have all been found responsible for human rights abuses against women, Kurds, Yezidis, and other groups that ISIS also targeted.

Older instances of Turkish support for Syrian jihadist groups have also resurfaced on the agenda, thanks to the revelations of exiled Turkish mafia boss Sedat Peker. In one recent video statement, Peker discussed the transfers of Turkish weapons to al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda. He claimed that weapons he had hoped to send to Syrian Turkmen rebels were in fact diverted to al-Nusra by SADAT, a Turkish defense company with close ties to president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP).

None of these matters proved relevant for the Coalition’s meeting, though its final communique stressed the need for member states to “continue to be vigilant against the threat of terrorism, in all its forms and manifestations, to build on the success it has achieved and continue to act together against any threats to this outcome and to avoid security vacuums that Daesh/ISIS may exploit.”

Turkey’s persecution of anti-ISIS forces and sheltering of former ISIS members in the ranks of its Syrian allies shows that it is not truly committed to such an outcome. Yet it maintains a privileged position in the global anti-ISIS body—one that is denied to the ground forces who did the majority of the fighting against the group in Syria.
Though SDF General Mazloum Abdi shared a message to the conference on his Twitter account regarding the repatriation of foreign fighters and their families, neither he nor any representative of the SDF or Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) was invited to the gathering.

This is likely justified by their lack of recognized status as a state, federal region, or other official entity. Coalition officials also meet with Northern and Eastern Syrian counterparts on the ground in the region, and the United States has repeatedly stated its intent to continue cooperation with the SDF for the forseeable future.

Yet excluding political and military forces most impacted the war against ISIS and its aftermath from high-level international discussions on the issue while states that actively hindered that fight are present shows a certain political agenda—one that obscures the root causes of ISIS and harms efforts to truly defeat it.