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August 24, 2012

Turkish Opposition Says Government Ignoring Presence of al-Qaida

by Dorian Jones

ISTANBUL — Turkish political opposition members are claiming that Turkish authorities are turning a blind eye to Islamic militants based in Turkey who are crossing over the border to join the opposition fighting the Assad government in Syria.

Mehmet Ali Edipoglu is parliamentary deputy for the main opposition Peoples Republic Party, for Hatay -- the main city in the Antakya province that borders Syria.

While he says he has no complaints about the Syrian rebels operating from the region, the past few months there has been a worrying change in the influx of new fighters.

Edipoglu says militants who are coming from Libya, Chechnya, Afghanistan, and from various countries in Africa are placed in Hatay and they say they are here to fight for Syria, to make a Jihad and bring Sharia, he says.   He says they all openly say that they are al-Qaida and there have been incidents of small fights between these people and Hatay locals. Edipoglu says many are now getting to guns to protect themselves and he says he spoke to the governor and police many times and they tell him they are keeping these people under control.

The population of the  Antakya region is a complex mix of Sunnis , Christians and Alawites. The region also has a strong secular population.  

During a visit to Istanbul earlier this month,  U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton voiced concern over the presence of radical islamic elements amongst the Syrian rebels. and in particular potential links to al-Qaida.  

"We worry about terrorists, PKK and Al-Qaida and others taking advantage of the legitimate fight of the Syrian people," Clinton said.

Despite that concern being discussed during meetings this week between Turkish and U.S. officials in Ankara,  Edipoglu says Turkish authorities are turning a blind eye to radical Islamic groups within the Syrian rebels who are basing themselves in Turkey.

Edipoglu says the recent big clashes are taking place around the Turkish border with Syria and he says  every day, what he calls al-Qaida militants are picked up from their homes and put on the buses in Antakya.  He says every day and night, 40 or 50 mini buses leave for Syria and they fight there and come back and this happens every day and he says state authorities are providing the buses, even escorting them.

But the Turkish foreign ministry spokesman Selcuk Unal denies that any such support is being given to any of the Syrian rebel groups.  He says there is concern about the threat of al-Qaida elements entering Syria, but says there is not too much Turkey can do.

"We don't have any hard evidence about any kind of passage from Turkey or any other countries, otherwise we would of course be willing to take the necessary steps to avoid any kind of escalation.  But its a 900 kilometer border, of course our border authorities are doing their best," Unal said.

Turkey has had a bitter experience with al-Qaida in the past.

In 2003, an al-Qaida faction set off four van bombs across the city of Istanbul targeting synagogues, the British consulate and the headquarters of a bank.  67 people were killed and more than 700 injured.

Experts point out that many of these al-Qaida members had fled to Turkish border cities after being defeated in battle against U.S.-led forces in !raq.

International relations expert Soli Ozel of Kadir Has University fears a repeat of the events in Iraq, for both Syria and Turkey.

"We don't know if we are going to have a repeat of Iraq in terms of al-Qaida involvement in Syria. But given the fact that  things are reverting back to a civil war conditions again in Iraq between Sunni and Shia and al-Qaida appears to be back. To have this radical elements on two of our southern borders, I don't think it bodes well for Turkey -- a country which has a serious ethnic problem and a sectarian one," Ozel said.
 
For now observers say Ankara's priority appears to be the growing Syrian refugee crisis its facing in the east and the bringing down of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. But over the past few years, with Turkish security forces having detained scores of al-Qaida suspects, concerns are growing in Turkey that another crisis is brewing that will cause even bigger problems.