US: Turkey’s ties to Hamas no obstacle in war on Islamic State

State Department says Ankara’s relationship with Gaza terrorists helped secure ceasefire; the two groups are ‘separate’ issues

Itamar Sharon is a news editor at The Times of Israel

US State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf (Photo credit: Youtube screen capture)
US State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf (Photo credit: Youtube screen capture)

Turkey’s ties to Hamas do not prevent it from serving as an ally in the fight against a different terrorist group — the Islamic State, the US said Friday.

At the daily press briefing in Washington, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf acknowledged that Ankara had “a relationship with Hamas” but added that this “played a productive role in terms of ceasefire negotiations” between the terrorist group and Israel in the recent Gaza conflict.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon last week accused Ankara of openly supporting terrorism, along with another US ally — Qatar. “The command center of Hamas’s overseas operations sits in Istanbul. Saleh al-Arouri is the man sitting there,” he said, referring to the senior Hamas official, alleged by Israel to have played a key role in orchestrating the abduction and killing of three Israeli teens in June, who is based in the Turkish city and enjoys the support of local officials.

Ya’alon also expressed outrage that the international community would allow Turkey to back terrorism while remaining a member of NATO.

But asked whether the US should, in its war against one terror organization, be allying itself with a nation which is ostensibly a supporter of another terror group and provides a haven for its leaders, Harf was evasive.

“The word ‘supporter’ though, I would not use that word when it comes to Turkey and Hamas,” she said, stressing that “Turkey is a NATO ally.”

Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon,  June 14, 2014 (Photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, June 14, 2014 (Photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“We have a close counterterrorism relationship with them…I would also say that ISIS is obviously a specific threat,” she said, using one of the names for Islamic State. “They know our position on Hamas, but the situation in Gaza, what’s going on there is separate from how we work together with countries on fighting ISIS.”

Pressed on whether the US then made a distinction between how “bad” different terrorist groups were, Harf said: “They’re different groups…They have different goals and different capabilities and different aims…I think the level of brutality that we have seen out of ISIS is something that we have not seen from many other terrorist groups.”

Harf stressed that Hamas was a serious threat. “It’s not about being less bad. It’s about what the threat is, the threat that each group poses, where they pose it, how they pose it, and how you confront it.”

“I’m not going to get into the business of ranking terrorist organizations,” she said.

Despite NATO’s stated commitment to help fight Islamic State, it is not yet clear what role, if any, Turkey will have in such operations.

On Thursday an unnamed government official told AFP that Ankara would refuse to allow a US-led coalition to attack the jihadists in neighboring Iraq and Syria from its air bases, and would not take part in combat operations against the terrorists.

“Turkey will not be involved in any armed operation but will entirely concentrate on humanitarian operations,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

Turkey’s reluctance to assist militarily may be influenced in part by Islamic State holding 49 Turks hostage, including diplomats and children, who were kidnapped from the Turkish consulate in Mosul.

“Our hands and arms are tied because of the hostages,” the official told AFP.

The US is working to forge a coalition to defeat the Islamic militants terrorizing Iraq and Syria. The IS aim is to set up a caliphate — an Islamic form of government last seen under the Ottoman Empire — extending from Aleppo in northern Syria to Diyala province in eastern Iraq. The State Department has said that more than 40 countries have already expressed willingness to support the coalition.

Relations between Israel and Turkey, two former allies, have been on a steady decline since 2008 under then-prime minister and current president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Erdogan’s harsh criticism of Israel was first displayed in 2008’s Operation Cast Lead against Hamas in Gaza. Diplomatic tensions between the nations deepened after the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, when Israeli commandos stormed the Turkish-flagged ship, the largest in a flotilla dispatched by the Islamist IHH group. The soldiers were attacked by those on board, and several soldiers were injured. Nine Turks died in the raid and one more died in hospital this year after four years in a coma. The assault on the ship sparked widespread condemnation and provoked a major diplomatic crisis between Turkey and Israel.

Though relations between the two countries seemed to be warming up several months ago, with talk of an official Israeli apology and a reported agreement to pay reparations to the victims of the Marmara incident, ties took a turn for the worse following the recent conflagration in Gaza.

Over the course of Operation Protective Edge, the Turkish leader claimed Israel’s actions in Gaza were worse than what Adolf Hitler did to the Jews, said the Jewish state would “drown in blood” and accused it of committing genocide.

A the same time, Erdogan sought to position Turkey as a central mediator in the conflict, along with Qatar. Israel repeatedly rejected the two nations as mediators, seeing Egypt and the US as the only credible parties.

AP and AFP contributed to this report.

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