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Tensions Grow Between Turkey, Radical Islamist Group Fighting in Syria

  • Dorian Jones

FILE - Fighters from the al-Qaida linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) marching in Raqqa, Syria.

FILE - Fighters from the al-Qaida linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) marching in Raqqa, Syria.

Tensions between Ankara and the radical group the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIS, have continued to escalate. The Turkish army recently attacked an ISIS convoy and ISIS has targeted ethnic Turkmen leaders in Syria. Ankara is increasingly concerned that ISIS could now strike Turkish targets.

Turkish media reported that ISIS claimed responsibility for the killing four Turkmen leaders in Syria this week. The Turkmen, who are ethnic Turks, are supported by Ankara and engaged in heavy fighting with ISIS. The attack is the latest escalation in tensions between Ankara and the radical Islamic group. Last week, the Turkish army attacked an ISIS convoy close to its border after it said its forces came under attack.

Analyst Sinan Ulgen of Carnegie Europe in Brussels says the attack is an indication that Ankara is taking a more cautious policy towards the radical Islamic groups operating in Syria.

"This strike demonstrates that there is now willingness on the side of the government in Ankara to consider this threat much more carefully. There was a clear threat from ISIS, and ISIS is now more viewed under those terms," he said. "Al-Nusra, on the other hand, is also one of the extremist groups, but we have not seen the type of direct threat from al-Nusra to Turkish interests and the Turkish state."

Observers say Ankara has become alarmed at ISIS's growing strength along the Syrian border and its attacks other opposition groups. During a visit to Tehran last month, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemned terrorist acts in Syria, and his comments were widely interpreted as being aimed at ISIS.

During a press conference last month, Bulent Yildirim, the head of the Turkish aid charity Humanitarian Relief Foundation, or IHH, which has close ties to Turkey’s ruling AK Party, strongly criticized ISIS for interfering in its relief efforts in Syria.

He said, "We can’t deliver aid to areas controlled by ISIS, he said. They have kidnapped two of our workers and executed one of them. If they saw a picture of this press conference with Western journalists, they would condemn us as heretics."

According to analyst Ulgen, Ankara’s hardening stance towards ISIS comes from its realization that the group poses now a direct threat to Turkey.

"Once they perceived that Turkey has shifted its position and is not willing to support ISIS, that is the reason why they are bound to be more reactionary to Turkey and threaten Turkey. ISIS is one of those groups that allegedly has threatened the Turkish government with suicide attacks within Turkey," he said.

Citing Turkish security forces, local media have reported that as many as 50 ISIS suicide bombers could be in Turkey. The Syrian opposition based in Turkey is suspected of being potential targets.

Kadri Gursel, a diplomatic columnist for the Turkish newspaper Milliyet and Al Monitor website, says the specter of suicide attacks in Turkey puts the spotlight on the consequences of the AK Party’s Syria policy.

According to opinion polls, Prime Minister Erdogan’s policy of strongly backing the Syrian opposition is deeply unpopular even among his own supporters. With the country entering an 18-month election cycle, starting with key local elections next month, observers warn the prime minister could pay a high price for his Syria policy.

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