Al-Qaeda elements in Syria significant terror threat for Turkey
The twin car bombings on May 11 in Reyhanlı claimed the lives of 51 people, injured as many as 100 people and caused significant damage. (Photo: Today's Zaman, Hüseyin Sarı)
When reading about Turkey's Syria policy in the international media, the perception seems to be that Turkey supports al-Qaeda-affiliated groups along with the opposition in Syria, although Turkey is also threatened by potential terrorist attacks from those al-Qaeda-linked elements.
"Turkey has never supported al-Qaeda or its affiliates in the past, and it is not supporting them in Syria or anywhere else today," President of the Ankara Strategy Institute Mehmet Özcan has told Today's Zaman.
Turkey has not successfully demonstrated its distance from the al-Qaeda groups in Syria in the past while supporting legitimate opposition groups in Syria, and this has caused a belief in the international press that Turkey supports al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria, Özcan claimed.
"Unfortunately, Turkey could not erase this image of supporting terrorist groups in Syria from the international media while it was supporting the Syrian opposition against Bashar al-Assad's regime. It has not been possible to prove the existence of a link between those al-Qaeda affiliated groups and Turkey. The problem is that if Turkey creates more distance between itself and these radical elements in Syria, they will be a threat to Turkey, and we may see terrorist attacks in Turkey from those groups," he stressed.
The al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) had threatened Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with a series of “suicide attacks” in İstanbul and Ankara. Today's Zaman reported in November that ISIL had sent two bomb-laden vehicles to the southeastern province of Şanlıurfa for an attack on Turkey's major cities, including Ankara, İstanbul and İzmir, with information based on a confidential intelligence source. The National Police Department, the Gendarmerie General Command and the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) issued red alerts after the intelligence reports of a planned attack.
A Western official based in Ankara, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that Turkey's Western allies are greatly concerned by the threat of ISIL.
"When you look at al-Qaeda groups in Syria, they are getting stronger, gaining more ground and threatening neighboring Turkey. If we say there are no problems between al-Qaeda-affiliated groups and Turkey, that is wrong," said Özcan.
It is difficult to determine the influence of al-Qaeda-affiliated groups. "To the extent that I am concerned about al-Qaeda the brand, it's that it is clearly expanding its affiliates, both in number and in some cases in capability,” said Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as reported by The New York Times on Dec. 3. "We've got to watch and determine which ones are local, which ones are regional, and which ones are global, and each requires a different approach," he added.
"Afghanistan in the making" has started to become a common phrase among international terror experts when talking about Syria.
An ambassador in Ankara who asked not to be named told Today's Zaman that the 9/11 attacks in the US had shaken the world in an unprecedented way, but one of its most important results was the empowerment of the tribal belt in Afghanistan. "It has become too easy to sell jihad," said the ambassador.
"We are concerned. Some say, 'Syria is not Afghanistan.' If you look at Iraq, polarization has sunk very deep. There is a sectarian clash in Syria. When you look at Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu's logic, you cannot find anything wrong. Yes, Assad killed his people. But should Turkey go as far as taking sides? No," the ambassador stated.
When asked whether Turkey has made mistakes in its Syrian policy, Özcan said: "Turkey has made a mistake in trusting the West and trusting the US to get rid of Assad. In the beginning there was that kind of atmosphere, but it has changed, and Turkey was slow to comprehend this change in the West."
"The most important tool in the prevention of terror attacks from Syria is intelligence," said Özcan, adding: "I think the most effective way to prevent such attacks is to source that intelligence from inside Syria when an attack is being prepared against Turkey. If you cannot do that, you will be defenseless."
Commenting on Turkey's border security issues, Özcan said that Turkey finds itself in a difficult position. On the one hand, the country wants to help refugees who have fled the war in Syria, but on the other hand Turkey needs to protect its borders and prevent terrorist elements from entering.
"It is not easy to protect a 910-kilometer-long border, even if you are very determined. Can Europe prevent illegal immigration? The US has problems with its Mexican border. They are not successful either in protecting the border. It is a long border with Syria. If you are committed, you will definitely find a way to enter Turkey through such a long border," said Özcan.
Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri gave repeated messages this year that he views Syria as a promising staging ground, as the number of jihadist rebels and foreign fighters in the country is constantly increasing.
Ryan C. Crocker, a US diplomat with a long history of service in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, said, "We need to start talking to the Assad regime again," according to The New York Times. "It will have to be done very, very quietly. But bad as Assad is, he is not as bad as the jihadis who would take over in his absence," Crocker added.