News / Middle East

Ankara Reconsiders Backing for Islamist Syrian Rebels

FILE - Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan addresses the media in Ankara, Aug. 15, 2013.
FILE - Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan addresses the media in Ankara, Aug. 15, 2013.
Dorian Jones
Earlier this month, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan openly criticized al-Qaida-linked terrorist groups operating in Syria.  Previously, Turkey's government had been reluctant to criticize such groups, and has been frequently accused of supporting them tacitly, if not openly. But Ankara now appears to be distancing itself from them.

Answering reporters' questions on August 8 about his telephone conversation with U.S. President Barack Obama the previous day, Erdogan condemned al-Qaida groups in Syria for being responsible for civilian deaths. The Turkish prime minister's comments followed similar ones made by his foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, who attacked the presence of al-Qaida groups among those fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces.

Sinan Ulgen, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, says the comments could indicate a change in Turkish policy towards Syria.
"This is the first time that the Turkish foreign minister himself made such a strong statement against the radical Islamic groups in Syria. There were concerns on the U.S. side that Turkey had not categorically taken a stand against these radical Islamic groups and that Turkey’s logistical support ended up in the hands of these groups," Ulgen said. "So this is the concern Turkey is trying to overcome by making this very clear statement against these groups."

The Turkish government has denied it has provided any armed support to radical Islamic groups in Syria.  But Ankara has until now been critical of the stance taken by its Western allies towards these groups.  Observers claim the Turkish government sees such groups among the most effective in fighting the Syrian regime.

Ankara criticized the decision by Washington and the United Nations to designate Jahbat al-Nusra, a prominent Islamist rebel group in Syria that is affiliated with al-Qaida, as a terrorist organization.  The Turkish government claimed the move was counterproductive and said the international community should focus on the Syrian regime’s crimes.

But analyst Ulgen says the key factor behind the shift in Ankara’s stance is the realization that its policy was increasingly undermining its cooperation with Washington over Syria.

"Unless Turkey was able satisfy the U.S. in regard to the end customer of the supplies of weapons to the Syrian opposition, Turkey would not be the partner of choice," he said. "And what is happening on the ground is that, increasingly, the U.S. aid especially has been moving south, and using Jordan as a logistical base rather than Turkey."

Ankara’s stance towards radical Islamic groups, in particular al-Nusra, was reportedly a key issue for discussion during Erdogan’s visit to Washington in May. Amberin Zaman, a columnist for the Turkish newspaper Taraf, claims since that visit, Ankara has taken steps against groups like al-Nusra, but that it remains unclear whether there has been a real change of policy.
"There was raid on an alleged al-Nusra cell in Adana, so clearly the Turks were taking some action. But we also need to see what real action Turkey is taking against these groups," she said. "There are some suggestions that Turkey is leaning on its allies in the Free Syrian Army to do more curb al-Nusra, but whether in fact this is really having an impact ... is obviously very questionable when we see how they are very present just south of Turkey’s borders."

Allegations that Ankara is supporting al-Nusra have also come from the Democratic Union Party, or PYD - the Syrian Kurdish group that has been fighting with al-Nusra for weeks. Al-Nusra accuses the PYD of supporting President Assad, a charge it denies. The Turkish government is also deeply suspicious of the PYD, which it fears could fuel secessionists demands among Turkey's own Kurdish population.

But analyst Ulgen argues that Ankara realizes the risks of supporting al-Nusra outweigh any possible policy benefits.

"Al-Nusra could be a part of policy to react against the PYD, but nonetheless there is now an increasing awareness about what those risks would entail in terms of the shifting relationship with the U.S., the perception among Kurds that Turkey is against them categorically," he said. "So that’s the type of assessment that’s being carried out in Ankara."

Observers also point out the Turkish government will be aware that persistent allegations in the Turkish media that it supports groups like al-Nusra are likely only to add to growing unease among Turks over the policy of supporting the Syrian rebels - which, according to opinion polls, remains deeply unpopular.

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