Ankara had bet on Islamist rebels taking down the Assad regime. Now they may have helped create a monster right across the border.
ISTANBUL — Earlier in the Syrian war, Turkish officials backed the Islamist rebel group al-Nusra, seeing it as one of the most effective forces fighting against the regime in Damascus.
But that’s over.
Indeed much has changed in Turkey vis-a-vis the Syria issue, with it being mentioned less and less by both the government in Ankara and various national media outlets. We do not hear a statement about Syria every morning and evening like we once did.
There are some very basic reasons for this. While Turkey still wants to influence Syria, it understands that the regime cannot be toppled by its so-called “authentic” policy that risks leading to isolation.
More importantly, Turkey recognizes the potential “boomerang” effect when certain elements are set loose from its borders, including organizations with links to al-Qaeda such as al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Experience shows that these organizations “bite the hand that feeds” them: there was, most notably, the way the U.S., Pakistan and Saudi Arabia eventually became victims of al-Qaeda despite their roles in its foundation.
Turkey avoided making a clear statement about these organizations for a long time. But things have changed since al-Qaeda-related organizations started to clash with other elements of the Syrian opposition.
Shutting the border
Clearly, not every method is viable to strengthen the Syrian opposition. The ISIL took control over the Syrian town of Azaz, across Ceylanpinar at the border with Turkey. Only 30 kilometers away from Aleppo, Azaz is a strategically important location for the opposition since it is on the route used to provide logistic support from Turkey. But then Turkey was forced to shut down the border gates after Azaz fell to al-Qaeda control.
The coinciding al-Qaeda attacks in Nigeria and Peshawar, Pakistan, which attracted world attention and put pro-al-Qaeda organizations in Syria in the spotlight, raised the stakes. Eventually, Egyptian Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan offered the first statement on the matter since the Syrian civil war began, when he said recently: “Unfortunately, organizations like al-Qaeda put the name of Islam next to terrorism. They have inflicted the greatest harm to Islam.”
Knowingly or not, Turkey has supported al-Qaeda. But distancing itself from the terror network, as it is now, can also come with a price. With the closing of the border, Ankara made a statement acknowledging that Turkey could be targeted by suicide bombers. The boomerang may be coming back around.