Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Turkish President Recep Tayyip ErdoganReuters

Prof. Efraim Inbar, Director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, told Arutz Sheva that Turkey has been supportive of Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq, as it pursues greater influence in the Middle East.

Some experts have called it a "Neo-Ottoman" foreign policy, to regain influence in places that were once backwater provinces to the Ottoman Empire. 

But plans to expand that influence have run into trouble. The relationships with both Israel and Syria have totally collapsed, but Turkey is now looking at influence through the Sunni Islamist movements in the Middle East.

"The Islamic Brotherhood, Al-Qaeda and ISIS – Turkey does not distinguish between them," says Inbar. "They are helping ISIS with its wounded by treating them in Turkey and with weapons, and turning a blind eye to people coming (to Syria) from Europe. It has become a staging ground."

Professor Inbar asserts the controversial proposition that not only is Turkey neglecting the threat of ISIS in the Middle East or remaining passive to it, but actively encouraging it, a position supported by reports of Turkish sympathy to ISIS. Others on the ground do not go so far.

According to a report by the Kurdish Rudaw news site, Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) Chief of Staff Fuad Hussein said at a conference Thursday, “the Turkish priority is different. The Turkish priority is to remove the regime of (President Bashar al-Assad) in Syria, not ISIS."

In Inbar's mind, the way Turkey approached the battle of Kobane – ultimately won by Syrian and Iraqi Kurds - was fully indicative of their attitude toward Islamic State. If they had wanted to do more to liberate the city, they could have.

"They were going to allow Kobane to fall. It was only because of Western pressure that they let Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in from Iraq," Inbar said.

Changing ties with Kurds?

Asked if Turkey's attempts to make a breakthrough in the government's conflict with its Kurdish citizens might be a sign it is growing closer to the Kurds in Iraq and cooling its stance toward Kurdish militias fighting in Syria, Inbar was certain that they absolutely were not.

Regardless, Turkey has been making efforts to prop up the government in the Kurdish region of Iraq. A reported $500 million loan from Turkey is a sign they want the region stable, but Inbar says Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants one thing out of Kurdistan.

"They want energy from the Kurdish area," he says. "This government is less afraid of Kurdish nationalism only because it is more focused on religious Islamic identity and not the ethnic Turkish identity that makes the conflict with Kurds so difficult."

Regardless, the money is not a sign they want a strong ally in Iraq to counter Iran - much less ISIS - but merely out of the stability that allows the Kurdish oil to flow. When asked about reports that Turkey has also sent weapons to the Kurdish region, he downplayed their significance while still being surprised that they delivered such aid to the Peshmerga.

"They do not want a strong Kurdish movement or government," asserts Inbar, while implying that any such aid would be out of character for Turkey. "Any weapons going to the Kurds would be surprising also because the Kurds have their own."

The claims that Turkey has sent small arms to Kurdistan were made by the same Kurdish Presidential Chief of Staff cited above, Fuad Hussein. No one has doubted the aid was sent, though as Hussein himself noted last November, Turkey had until then balked at the chance to send "heavy weapons."

Worries about Iran

While Saudi Arabia and Israel are concerned about both Iran and ISIS, a Turkey that might secretly be supportive of Islamic State would certainly be troubled by the speed with which Iran's proxies in Iraq are advancing in the ISIS-held Iraqi city of Tikrit.

"They do not say it openly, but they are also apprehensive about growing Iranian influence in the Middle East," said the professor. "It is not clear to what extent they're ready to do something on their own, but they might continue to strengthen anti-Assad forces." 

Turkey is certainly considering getting more invested in the emerging anti-Iran bloc. Recent visits to Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf show that at the least the Arab states "want to use Turkey to help balance things out to Iran, at least to some extent."

But if Turkey wants to continue on its more assertive foreign policy path that emphasizes Turkish ambition and a Sunni Islamic identity, it might be inevitable they throw themselves into the enmity between the Iranians and the Saudis.

"Growing Turkish involvement is a clear departure from old Kamalist policies and they will certainly incur a cost for Turkey. But that is just another facet of the Islamization of the country," said Inbar.