Turkey Faces Security Challenges and Political Dilemmas in the Syrian Conflict

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 22

One of the nine Lebanese Shia pilgrims abducted by rebels in Syria is greeted upon arrival in Bir al-Abed in the southern suburbs of Beirut on October 19 (Source al-Jazeera)

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalk?nma Partisi – AKP) is experiencing political stalemate as a consequence of its support for armed Islamist terrorist groups in the Syria. The party’s policy is becoming dangerous and ambiguous. The primary concerns are related to two key issues: a possible rebound of the Kurdish problem and the increasing role of al-Qaeda and its affiliates in the Syrian conflict. Both issues represent possible policy failures as Turkey’s tacit approval of the use of its territory by international Islamist jihadists appears to have backfired. 

A recent prisoner exchange in October demonstrated the close contacts between the Turkish government and Islamist groups in Syria and the influence Ankara has on the latter. With Turkish mediation, nine Lebanese Shiite prisoners (kidnapped by Sunni Islamists on their way to visit the religious shrines in Iran via Turkey and Syria) were swapped after a year of captivity for two Turkish pilots who had been kidnapped in Lebanon by militants demanding the release of the Shiite hostages (al-Jazeera, October 20). 

Foreign jihadis are increasingly using Turkish territory to join their “brothers-in-arms” in Syria. Because of the easy access to Syria from the Turkish side of the border, the foreign jihadis prefer to travel to Turkey by air and then cross into Syria. Their passage through Turkish territory shows the tacit approval of the AKP government; though not sponsoring the jihadists, the AKP still enables and cooperates with them. The highways near the Turkish-Syrian border areas are controlled by Islamist terrorist groups affiliated with al-Qaeda. A complete network is now in place for their boarding and lodging, administration, safe houses and transportation. 

The goal of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS – an al-Qaeda affiliate) is to establish an Islamic state that combines the Sunni regions of Iraq and Syria under the Shari’a. Because of certain apocalyptic prophecies related to Syria, the jihadists are only too eager to join the fight against the Assad regime. Al-Qaeda’s media wings have been capitalizing on these prophecies and articulately boasting such scenarios since the beginning of the conflict (al-Quds [Tunis], November 3). 

For over a year, it appears that the Turkish government has turned a blind eye to the passage of jihadists through its territory, allowing thousands to cross into Syria to swell the ranks of al-Qaeda-associated groups. The situation is grave and raises concerns about Islamist extremist groups taking over regions of northern Syria. The AKP’s Syrian policy has created the dilemma of a NATO member country allowing the quasi-official presence of al-Qaeda operatives within NATO boundaries, raising the possibility of such operatives penetrating the neighboring Balkans before moving on into central Europe. For its part, Turkey strongly denies providing any facilities to the flow of extremists into Syria. 

The militant Islamists have also clashed with Syrian Kurds in northern Syria and fought battles over territories currently under Kurdish control. The Syrian Kurd militias managed to defeat the Islamist militants, carving out more land from regions formerly under Islamist control in northern Syria. Leaders of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat PYD) have accused Ankara of training and arming radical Islamist Kurds to fight against the fellow Kurds in Syria (al-Sharq al-Awsat, November 18).   

The Kurds have asserted themselves as key players in the conflict, presenting another serious dilemma for Ankara, which seeks to bring the Kurdistan Workers Party (Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan- PKK) to the negotiating table. The Turkish fears could encourage Kurdish militias to take more power in Syria. At the same time, Ankara does not feel comfortable with the fall of tracts of land on its borders to al-Qaeda-related groups. Turkey has expressed concerns Syrian Kurds may be trying to establish an autonomous region in northern Syria after the PYD raised its flag over the border town of Ras al-Ain on November 17 (Today’s Zaman [Istanbul], November 18). The town was seized by the Kurdish militia last July. 

Turkish authorities recently announced the seizure in southeast Turkey of a large quantity of chemicals that could be used in the manufacture of chemical weapons. The chemicals were en route to Syria in three trucks and were captured by Turkish security forces near the Syrian border. The spokesperson of the Turkish General Staff said in a November 4 statement that the seizure of chemicals took place in the town of Rihaniyya, near the Syrian border. Three suspects managed to flee but one of their accomplices was arrested (Russia Today, November 4; Middle East Monitor, November 5). Turkish police were warned in May that some Syrian rebels were looking to obtain materials needed for the manufacture of chemical weapons. 

These events paved the way for harsh criticism of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s policies by Turkish opposition parties and media on the grounds they pose a substantial threat to the internal security of the nation. Turkish newspapers such as Radikal have accused the AKP government of using tacit sponsorship of Islamist terrorists in Syria as an instrument of security policy (Radikal [Istanbul], November 8). The Turkish government also appears to be divided on the issue; on the one hand, Prime Minister Erdogan desires the continuation of policies vis-à-vis the Syrian conflict by providing “support and aid to the Free Syrian Army and the [opposition] Syrian National Coalition”; on the other hand, Turkish President Abdullah Gul has expressed his concerns regarding the presence of al-Qaeda-associated groups “spreading across Syria and posing a growing risk to its neighbors and the countries of Europe,” adding “I don’t think anybody would tolerate the presence of something like Afghanistan on the shores of the Mediterranean” (al-Quds al-Arabi, November 7; Guardian, November 3). Gul had brought up the issue during a September visit to the UN in New York, saying “the extremist groups are a source of great concern to our security… I warned all the related authorities in Turkey on this important issue” (Thawra Alwehda [Damascus] September 24). 

The current scenario reflects a shift in Turkish policy-makers’ frame of reference. Admitting “concerns” about the al-Qaeda presence and its growing influence along the border represents a political awakening. In the recent past, many states have repented their role as sponsors and enablers of terrorist groups. It’s usually only a matter of time until such armed non-state actors become too difficult to control and transform into violent threats to the state. It is a positive development that Turkish authorities, both civil and military, have started to realize and envision the role of Islamist insurgents in the future. Regardless of the conflict result in Syria, the remaining Islamist insurgents will look to find new grounds to advance their agenda. Consolidation of Kurdish control in the northern Syrian territories as a result of the conflict could heighten Turkish worries. This could pave the way for another wave of conflict with PKK and other Kurdish militant parties that are currently agreeable to the pursuit of a negotiated settlement to the 30-year-old conflict. 

Mohammad Salman is Ph.D research fellow at the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies (BICCS), Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB). 

Farhan Zahid is doing his PhD in Counter Terrorism (Topic: Al-Qaeda-linked Islamist violent Non-State Actors in Pakistan and their relationship with Islamist Parties) at Vrije University Brussels, Belgium.