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Turkey recasts approach to armed groups in Syria

Intelligence reports of al-Qaeda threats against Turkey are causing concern.
Weapons are seen in the sand near Adra, east of Damascus, in this handout photograph distributed by Syria's national news agency SANA August 7, 2013. Sixty-two rebel fighters were killed in a Syrian army ambush at dawn on Wednesday near the town of Adra, east of Damascus, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group opposed to President Bashar al-Assad. The state news agency SANA did not give a death toll for the ambush but said the rebels were from the al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front. It

Will Turkey’s cutting off logistical support to al-Qaeda in Syria, and discriminating between al-Qaeda-affiliated organizations and moderate groups under the Free Syrian Army banner, be enough to extricate the country from the Syrian morass? Reports leaked from the Turkish National Intelligence Service and other security agencies are instilling fears of a boomerang effect in Turkey, which is trying to give the impression that it has intensified border security. Illegal activities by armed groups who, until September, appeared to be enjoying impunity, are now finding their way to police and judicial records, indicating there may be some changes.

Some revelations and confessions are causing confusion regarding what Turkey is trying to achieve. For example, on Nov. 8 Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan described the seizure of a truckload of ammunition as "showing Turkey’s sensitivity," and therefore an indication of Turkey’s anti-al-Qaeda operations. But the police were hoping to find narcotics in the truck, not guns, since they had received a tip on narcotics smuggling. If the tip had been related to weapons, perhaps the truck would not have been stopped. We gather this much from the court statement of L.K. the truck driver.

Weapons delivery under gendarmerie supervision

According to court documents presented to parliament on Nov. 26 by Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition Republican People's Party, the truck driver L.K. told the court: “Twice before, I delivered cargo to Reyhanli. The place of delivery was an enclosure guarded by the gendarmerie outpost. I had to go through the gendarmerie check before driving in, but they didn’t check the truck. They only spoke to people in the car that were escorting my truck. Then I unloaded my cargo at an enclosure 200 meters from the outpost.” Based on security reports, the court declared that the destination of the mortar ammunition was an al-Qaeda camp and arrested the suspects on charges of “supplying weapons to a terror organization.” 

Syrian national Haisam Topalca was earlier implicated in the car-bomb attack in Reyhanli. When he wasn’t called in, even as a witness, claims surfaced that he was working for intelligence services. The latest information on the mysterious Topalca suggests that he was kidnapped in the Latakia region of Syria or had gone underground. According to court records, Topalca had procured 20,000 ammunition rounds from Konya in October.

Increasing al-Qaeda threats

The official admission regarding the weapons in the truck raises doubts on Turkey's declarations of ceasing support to armed groups. But then came a series of developments indicating that al-Qaeda may be turning its guns on Turkey:

  • According to a Nov. 15 police report, "Vehicles stolen from Istanbul were taken to Hatay. The police have gone on alert fearing 25 vehicles could be used in car-bomb attacks."
  • The news of Nov. 28 was scary: “Gendarmerie intelligence has tracked down 300 vehicles stolen from Turkey and taken to Syria with cloned license plates. ... Seventeen such vehicles were seized and 16 suspects detained. Thirteen of them were arrested by the court on Nov. 17.  ... Suspects were identified as being affiliated with al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). ... In its report, the gendarmerie intelligence warned of car bombs prepared against Turkey. The report sent to all 81 provinces and national services emphasized that the destinations of the stolen vehicles were radical terror organizations such as al-Qaeda and ISIS.”
  • On Dec. 2, newspapers reported that military maps of the Malatya province were found in possession of a Syrian national apprehended in the prohibited military zone of Kilis.
  • On Dec. 3, the following report shook Turkey: "Turkish intelligence services have gone on alert following reports of 47 organizations affiliated with al-Qaeda in Syria preparing for actions in Turkey. Security measures are in place in cities."

What about native al-Qaeda?

There is also news of increasing vigilance in Turkey. According to a Turkish Interior Ministry report leaked to the media, Turkey, acting on information from foreign intelligence services, has added another 3,000 foreign nationals to its list of people banned from entering Turkey. According to the lists, which were sent to all points of entry, the foreign nationals originate from 30 countries, including Germany, France, Britain, Sweden, Norway, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Pakistan. It is estimated that 300 British nationals and 200 French nationals have joined jihadists in Syria. These countries, which fear fighters returning to carry out operations in their own countries, hope Turkey can take appropriate measures.

Another reality as equally worrisome as al-Qaeda fighters in Syria turning their guns on Turkey, is militants from Turkey who have joined al-Qaeda in Syria and gained combat experience. According to the Turkish Ministry of Interior report, about 500 people have gone from Turkey to Syria to fight in the ranks of Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. Some were trained in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan. According to official figures, 13 Turks have died in Syria clashes, but the total is believed to be 75.

Turkish officials, who resent being questioned, hope that if these jihadists return home, and moderate groups in Syria eliminate the al-Qaeda trouble as was done in Iraq by the Awakening groups, then Turkey won’t be threatened. But, as learned in Pakistan, which was recruiting militants for the Afghanistan front, there is a price to pay for being a launching pad for war with another country. Turkey's new approach of mobilizing moderate groups of the Free Syrian Army and even some Salafist groups against al-Qaeda not only magnifies the threat against Turkey's borders but also endangers local elements in Syria, such as the Turkmen.

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