BACKGROUND: From the eruption of peaceful protests in March 2011, Turkey has struggled with its response to the Syrian crisis. As the crisis escalated, Turkey moved to demanding the ouster of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but has been forced to watch while the situation has degenerated into a civil war that threatens to Balkanize Syria. Turkey’s policies have centered on supporting the Syrian opposition, including the Free Syrian Army, which largely operated from Turkish territory until it was able to move its operations into northern Syria..
Turkey’s policies have centered on averting three scenarios deemed highly detrimental to it. These are: first, an intervention without international consensus; second, a spillover of the conflict into Turkey’s territory, triggering the anger of Turkey’s estimated half-million Arab Alawites who have strong kinship and ties with Syria’s Alawites, to whose family al-Assad belongs; and third, any escalation of the Kurdish question, as Turkey has a historically fraught relationship with its own Kurdish population and has fought for years against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The conflict has at times raged very close to Turkey’s border. In July 2012, Syrian opposition fighters took control of Bab el-Hava and three other border gates between Turkey and Syria in July 2012; Turkey did not act. At that time, al-Assad conducted a coordinated withdrawal from the Kurdish-populated areas of northeastern Syria, leaving the area mostly in the hands of the Kurdish Democratic Union party (PYD), which is closely tied with the PKK. In November 2012, Sunni Muslim Arab fighters—including jihadists—flowed to Ras al-Ain, which was subsequently bombed by Assad’s air force in the following days. At this time, Kurdish fighters affiliated with the PYD battled to drive out the insurgents.
Turkey has extended support to Syrian opposition fighters struggling against al-Assad’s army across Syria, but in Ras al-Ain, the conflict is playing out between the Sunni insurgents and the Kurdish nationalists of the PYD. When clashes in Ras al-Ain threatened spilling over into Turkish territory, Turkey appears to have directly sided with the Sunni insurgents in Ras al-Ain fighting against the Kurdish militia – information that is corroborated by this author’s interview with a Syrian fighter from Ras al-Ain itself. What makes this episode particularly important is the involvement of jihadist groups in the clashes with the PYD.
There are various groups of Syrian opposition fighters, ranging from groups affiliated with the Free Syrian Army to jihadists, who can in turn be divided into two categories: Locally rooted jihadist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham and Ghorbaa al-Sham, and the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham (Front for the Support of the Syrian People, commonly known as “Al-Nusra”). Al-Nusra is believed to be the largest jihadist group in Syria. It announced its formation in late January 2012, and the group’s statements have found their way into major jihadist web forums ever since. In the audio message in which he proclaimed the formation of the group, the group’s leader, using the nom de guerre of Abu Muhammad al-Jolani (in reference to Golan in Arabic), stated that he and his colleagues came to Syria “a few months after the revolution, from one of the jihadist battlefields to help the people of Levant against the [Assad] regime.” Citing the refusal of Western countries to help topple Assad’s rule, al-Jolani declared a jihad against the Syrian regime. Al-Nusra is closely connected to the remnants of Al Qaeda in Iraq, and has pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Al-Nusra is gradually becoming the most influential group in Syria, gaining support from locals in various areas of Syria.
IMPLICATIONS: Turkey is the main route of entry to Syria for jihadists, aided by the fact that the border stretches for 900 kilometers. Since the flow of Jihadists began to accelerate in 2012, the Turkish government appears largely to have turned a blind eye toward foreign jihadists’ movement into Syria.
Turkish officials deny that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government is favoring Islamist parties in Syria or anywhere else in the region. However, in its efforts to combat the influence of the PKK and of the PYD in Syria, Turkey appears to have supported local jihadist groups in Ras al-Ain, while it proved unable to control or open links with Al-Nusra itself.
According to local Syrian opposition fighters, that coordinate closely with local jihadist groups in Ras al-Ain, Turkey extended support to a local jihadist group known as the Ahfad al-Rasoul Brigade (Grandchildren of the Prophet), specifically through its “Amir” in Ras al-Ain, Abu Jamal. Ahfad al-Rasoul is affiliated with the FSA. In July 2012, the group claimed responsibility for planting a bomb in a government building that killed three top figures in Syria's defense establishment – Assad’s brother-in-law, defense minister, and the head of his crisis team. Abu Jamal, the leader of the group in Ras al-Ain, appears to be the facilitator of Turkey’s support, and to be responsible for distributing the funds to other local groups such as Ghorabba al-Sham.
The FSA and its affiliates appear to be manipulating Turkish fears concerning the Kurdish question in order to ensure continued support, which they are using to fund other fronts inside Syria. According to a Syrian fighter in Ras al-Ain interviewed by this author who took part in the fight against the Kurdish militia, the FSA and its affiliates are keen not to end the battle with Kurds, even by stopping the flow of ammunitions from their own local allies on the ground if they are advancing over Kurdish fighters in order to keep the battle, and as a result Turkish support, ongoing.
As for the Al-Nusra Front, it had maintained neutrality in the fight in Ras al-Ain, as it is aiming to create alliances with Kurds in order to secure their help to advance in other areas dominated by Kurds, such as Qamishli. The leader of al-Nusra in Ras Al-Ain, Abu Layth –who was reportedly killed last February – was an ethnic Kurd himself. Turkey does not appear to have opened a channel to al-Nusra’s jihadists. The main reason seems to be that al-Nusra members remain suspicious of opening such a channel to an American ally and NATO member. The leader of al-Nusra, al-Jolani, made the following comments in an audio message posted on jihadist forums in December 2012: “In the past year and half, Jabhat Al-Nusra became a difficult formula that the West cannot solve, and understand its nature, and get the required information about it….after repeated failed attempts to drag al-Nusra to the arenas of trusteeship in Turkey through mediators, and after attempts to pressure it and prevent arms from reaching it by various means, and after al-Nusra refused to sit in a single conference held abroad or even in a single meeting with official figures belonging to any state or organization, and after al-Nusra refused any financial offer from abroad by any official party despite suffering from harsh conditions…[al-Nusra is capable of carrying out its jihad against the regime].”
CONCLUSIONS: In turning a blind eye toward jihadists’ movement into Syria, Turkey is reminiscent of al-Assad’s role during the American invasion of Iraq between 2003 and 2007. Then, the Syrian-Iraqi border was the main gateway for jihadists flowing into Iraq to fight Americans. At that time, jihadists had successfully created local networks in the area, which has played a significant role in the current Syrian crisis. This could be repeated along the Turkish border with Syria.
Although Turkey does not seem to have open channels to the influential al-Nusra jihadists inside Syria, it is still perceived positively among other factions of Syrian armed opposition, especially the FSA and local jihadists. This could play in Turkey’s favor if the international community decides to arm Syrian opposition in future. Having said that, Turkey might start to concentrate its support on armed groups inside Syria that operate along the border. In doing this, it will aim to keep the Kurdish question from escalating and to protect itself from any expected spillover from Syria. Al-Nusra jihadists do not yet seem to want to take the battle outside Syria’s borders, but this is no guarantee for the longer term for America’s allies in Syria’s neighborhood, such as Jordan, Israel, and of course Turkey itself.
Murad Batal Al-Shishani is a London-based analyst. He holds an M.A degree in Political Science, specializing in Islamic Movements in the Middle East and the North Caucasus. He is author of the book Islamic Movement in Chechnya and the Chechen-Russian Conflict 1990-2000, Amman 2001, and Al-Qaeda: Geopolitical, Strategic Outlook and Social Composition, Abu Dhabi 2012 (both in Arabic).