ISTANBUL — Turkey has designated the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaida-affiliated radical Islamist group that is fighting in Syria, as a terrorist organization. The decision is being seen as a marked change in Ankara's policy towards the Syrian conflict.
The Turkish government's decision to designate the al-Nusra Front as a terrorist organization is in line with the policy of the United States and other Western countries: in December 2010, Washington designated the front as a terrorist group.
Semih Idiz, a diplomatic columnist for the Al Monitor website and the Turkish newspaper Taraf, says until now Ankara viewed al-Nusra very differently from its Western allies.
"Turkey was a bit cool towards that, assuming at the time it was a force that was effective against Bashar al-Assad’s army; it should be given more flexibility in its operations. But banning it goes to show there is pressure on Turkey both from its Western allies but also in terms of the threat these groups have started posing for Turkey itself," he said.
Observers say Ankara provided at least tacit support to al-Nusra, treating its wounded and providing logistic support, as well as allowing its forces to use Turkish territory to regroup.
Turkey's main opposition Republican People’s Party accused the ruling AK Party of going as far as providing arms to the radical Islamic group, following an incident last year when Turkish paramilitary police intercepted trucks carrying arms close to the Syrian border that were escorted by Turkish intelligence officers.
The government strongly denied the charges, saying the cargo was for ethnic Turks living in Syria. But analyst Sinan Ulgen of the Carnegie Institute in Brussels says Turkey’s Western allies were also concerned about Ankara’s relationship with al-Nusra, and that designating it as a terrorist group opens the door to greater cooperation between Turkey and its Western allies over Syria.
"Going forward this is going to make it easier to have a policy dialogue with Turkey’s partners on the issue how to manage the aid to some of these rebel groups in Syria," he said. "Because now Ankara has shown that it shares now the same concerns as some of its partners the nature of these groups."
Ankara’s decision will likely also lead to greater cooperation with its Western allies to stem the flow of European jihadists crossing through Turkey to join the fight in Syria. Observers say it is not only international pressure, but also growing Turkish concern over the presence of al-Nusra on its own territory. A wall is already being built along parts of Turkey’s 900-kilometer border with Syria amid growing security concerns.
Diplomatic columnist Idiz says Turkish security forces will be now targeting al-Nusra.
"There will be more controls of cross-border crossing of elements of this group," he said. "Now that Turkey has official banned the group, it would be incumbent on the security forces to try prevent any infiltrations of weapons going back and forth. No doubt Turkey’s allies in the West will be watching this, too."
Turkish security forces are experienced in tracking radical Islamic groups operating in Turkey and breaking up numerous al-Qaida cells.
Analyst Ulgen says such steps will need to be taken quickly.
"Now Turkey will be viewed by al-Nusra as an enemy, as opposed to a country that until now has rather been a supporter in its fight against Assad. So now there is an increasing risk on the Turkish side [of] al-Nusra trying to hit Turkish interests and Turkish targets," said Ulgen.
Citing security sources, Turkish media have reported that al-Nusra has suicide bombers already based in Turkey and is planning to target Syrian opposition figures living in Turkey. In 2003, an al-Qaida cell carried out a series of suicide bombings across Istanbul. Turkish security forces will be working hard to prevent a repeat of such attacks.