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.

You May Like

Syrian Rebels Poised for Anti-Russia Collaboration

Forty-one insurgent groups issue joint statement vowing retaliation for Russian air offensives More

Political Maneuver Revives Export-Import Bank's Chances

Parliamentary tactic gets bill out of committee, but it faces opposition in the Senate More

Beijing Warns US on S. China Sea Patrols

Warning follows news reports Thursday that US military is planning to sail warships close to artificial islands Beijing has been aggressively building More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdrawsi
Jim Malone
October 09, 2015 12:32 AM
The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdraws

The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video German, US Officials Investigate Volkswagen

German officials have taken steps to restore some of the reputation their car industry has lost after a recent Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal. Authorities have searched Volkswagen headquarters and other locations in an effort to identify the culprits in the creation of software that helps cheat on emission tests. Meanwhile, a group of lawmakers in Washington held a hearing to get to the bottom of the cheating strategy that was first discovered in the United States. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Why Are Gun Laws So Hard for Congress to Tackle?

Since taking office, President Barack Obama has spoken out or issued statements about 15 mass shootings. The most recent shooting, in which 10 people were killed at a community college, sparked outrage over the nation's gun laws. But changing those laws isn't as easy as many think. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.

Video Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugees

Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Iraqi-Kurdish Teachers Vow to Continue Protest

Sixteen people were injured when police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse teachers and other public employees who took to the streets in Iraq’s Kurdish north, demanding their salaries from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). VOA’s Dilshad Anwar, in Sulaimaniya, caught up with protesting teachers who say they have not been paid for three months. Parke Brewer narrates his report.

Video Syrian Village Community Faces Double Displacement in Lebanon

Driven by war from their village in southwestern Syria, a group of families found shelter in Lebanon, resettling en masse in a half-built university to form one of the biggest settlements of its kind in Lebanon. Three years later, however, they now face being kicked out and dispersed in a country where finding shelter as a refugee can be especially tough. John Owens has more for VOA from the city of Saida, also known as Sidon.

Video Bat Colony: Unusual Tourist Attraction in Texas

The action hero Batman might be everyone’s favorite but real bats hardly get that kind of adoration. Put more than a million of these creatures of the night together and it only evokes images of horror. Sarah Zaman visited the largest urban bat colony in North America to see just how well bat and human get along with each other.

Video Device Shows Promise of Stopping Motion Sickness

It’s a sickening feeling — the dizziness, nausea and vomiting that comes with motion sickness. But a device now being developed could stop motion sickness by suppressing certain signals in the brain. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Making a Mint

While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Activists Decry Lagos Slum Demolition

Acting on a court order, authorities in Nigeria demolished a slum last month in the commercial capital, Lagos. But human rights activists say the order was illegal, and the community was razed to make way for a government housing project. Chris Stein has more from Lagos.

Video TPP Agreed, But Faces Stiff Opposition

President Barack Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Tuesday, one day after 12 Pacific Rim nations reached the free trade deal in Atlanta. The controversial pact that would involve about 40 percent of global trade still needs approval by lawmakers in respective countries. Zlatica Hoke reports Obama is facing strong opposition to the deal, including from members of his own party.

Video Ukranian Artist Portrays Putin in an Unusual Way

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the United Nations in New York last month, he was also being featured in an art exhibition in Washington. It’s not a flattering exhibit. It’s done by a Ukrainian artist in a unique medium. And its creator says it’s not only a work of art - it’s a political statement. VOA’s Tetiana Kharchenko has more.

VOA Blogs