The Turkish army’s firing of four artillery rounds at positions of the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham [ISIS] in the Aazaz area in northern Syria signals a major readjustment of Ankara’s regional strategy.
At first glance it might appear as a routine reaction to any firing of artillery and mortars into Turkish territory. But the naming of the al-Qaeda-linked ISIS in the statement by the Turkish military command is significant. This is the first time an open warning has been served to the radical Islamist organization that has deployed along the border. Actually, for some time now Ankara has been concerned of the growing presence of ISIS forces including those of Jabhat al-Nusra in the border region. These forces have severed their ties to the Syrian opposition — which Turkey supports — and its military wing, the Free Syrian Army [FSA]. Radicals are now striving to gain the military upper hand and eliminate the opposition to achieve their own agenda.
This situation poses a dilemma for Turkey, which has been supporting the forces struggling against the Assad regime. When Turkey, together with the West, began supporting the FSA and the opposition coalition, radical groups were marginal. But with jihadists coming from other countries they soon became major autonomous forces.
When the United States saw the danger, it placed Jabhat al-Nusra on its terror list and ceased assistance to it. Washington also warned all its allies, including Turkey, of the situation.
To be honest, at that time Ankara did not take Jabhat al-Nusra and similar radical groups seriously. Turkish officials kept up their ‘’open border’’ policy and turned a blind eye to free movement of militants and logistical support to the FSA over its border.
This eventually led to criticism and complaints from inside and outside the country. Government officials denied allegations of Turkey’s support to radical groups and preferred to put the blame on the UN Security Council for the radicalization in Syria. But developments over the last few weeks — domination of the border region by the ISIS and emergence of pro-al-Qaeda local administrations, thus making them Turkey’s’ new neighbors — began to disturb and worry the government in Ankara.
In addition to security threats, the new status that posed reactions from inside and outside the country compelled Ankara to readjust its northern Syria strategy.
Turkish officials are now more careful and sensitive about tighter border control and which Syrian groups to support. Border defenses are being improved and efforts are made to prevent Turkish youth from crossing to Syria, to join radical Islamist groups.
The significance of Turkey’s open identification of the ISIS as the target of artillery fire will be better understood in this framework.