ISTANBUL, Turkey — As the United States tries to cobble together a regional alliance capable of containing and eventually crushing the self-styled jihadist caliphate in Iraq and Syria, the behavior of NATO member Turkey is increasingly problematic. It isn’t volunteering any of its hundreds of thousands of soldiers, it doesn’t want the Americans using Turkish bases to launch airstrikes, and its efforts to close its border to ISIS oil smugglers have been half-hearted.
Now Turkey is openly welcoming members of the Muslim Brotherhood branded as terrorists by other governments vital to this awkward anti-ISIS coalition.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the current Egyptian government are united in a drive to crush the Brotherhood throughout the Middle East, while Turkey and Qatar have defended the Brotherhood as a modernizing movement that should participate in evolving democratic systems.
Turkey’s offer to host the Muslim Brotherhood follows accusations, denied by Ankara, that the country has turned a blind eye to activities of Sunni extremist groups like ISIS in the hope that their fighters would push Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad from power. Instead, ISIS is becoming a regional threat and a growing problem for Turkey itself.
Qatar also has come under fire as an alleged supporter of ISIS jihadists, and, under mounting international pressure, the fabulously rich little emirate decided to expel seven Brotherhood officials, including the leader Mahmoud Hussein. Brotherhood foreign relations officer Amr Darrag said in a statement on September 13, carried by Ikhwanweb, the Brotherhood’s official English language website, that Qatar had asked the group to leave and that the Brotherhood officials would comply with the request “in order to avoid causing any embarrassment for the State of Qatar.” Days later Darrag was reported to be in Turkey.
Then, earlier this week Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Qatar. Afterward, he told Turkish reporters that Ankara was prepared to take the Brothers in. “If there is a request by them, it will be looked at,” Erdogan said. “If there is no obstacle, they would enjoy the ease that is shown to everyone else.”
Ankara has been a key supporter of the Brotherhood in recent years, arguing it is a legitimate organization that won a democratic election in Egypt before President Mohamed Morsi was unseated in a coup led by current President Abdel Fattah al Sisi. As a consequence, ties between Ankara and Cairo were thrown into crisis. Egypt expelled the Turkish ambassador last year, prompting Ankara to declare the Egyptian envoy in Turkey persona non grata.
Erdogan has refused to work with the new government in Cairo and in public speeches since Morsi's ouster Erdogan has used the four-fingered “Rabia” hand sign, a symbol of Brotherhood resistance against Egypt’s security forces. In return, Egypt has accused Erdogan of making “provocative” statements and meddling in its internal affairs.
Offering asylum to the Brotherhood leadership would take things one step further, and not everybody in the Turkish government is happy with it. Murat Yetkin, a respected Turkish columnist and editor of the Hurriyet Daily News, an English language newspaper read by many foreign diplomats in Ankara, quoted an unnamed high-ranking Turkish official saying that Turkey would rather not serve as the new base for the exiled Brotherhood. “We do not want to be in any business that will put us in difficulty,” the source told Yetkin. “A perception that Turkey is hosting the leadership of Ikhvan [Brotherhood] or any other foreign organization will put it in a difficult position.”
But Erdogan’s statements about a possible welcome for the organization in Turkey appeared to brush aside those concerns. A Turkish official told reporters in Istanbul on September 16 that there was no reason blocking the Brotherhood officials from traveling to Turkey.
“Egyptians can come here without a visa,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity during a background briefing. “Then they can apply for a residence permit.” The official insisted that Turkey’s approach was based on democratic principles. “We didn’t support the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, we supported democracy,” he said.
Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood also share skepticism concerning the U.S.-led alliance against ISIS in Iraq. Ankara has said it will not take part in military action against the jihadists, even though Erdogan told reporters on his flight back from Qatar that the Turkish military was working on plans to set up buffer zones within Syria to give shelter to Syrians fleeing ISIS territory.
The Muslim Brotherhood is a major force within the non-jihadist Syrian opposition. But the organization said it would have nothing to do with the new alliance against ISIS. “The West’s sudden interest and announcement of an international coalition to eliminate ISIS … is evidence of Western hypocrisy,” Brotherhood spokesman Omar Abdul-Aziz Meshwah said in a statement carried by Ikhwanweb. “We will not start a fight with ISIS so long as it is fighting Assad,” he said. “Part of the battle with that organization is ideological, done through dialogue rather than weapons.”