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CİHAN ÇELİK > Al-Nusra, Turkey become alone on different Syria path

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The mystery over the recent blast on the Turkish-Syrian border lingers on, but the deadly assault yet again showed that not only is the Syrian Civil War spreading beyond its borders, but also how smart Turkey’s strategy is to support the armed rebels in its neighbor.

For starters, in Turkey’s southern Hatay province an attack at the Cilvegözü border gate, which is rebel-controlled on the Syrian side and reportedly only open for “humanitarian” aid on the Turkish, killed nearly 15 people. Hatay, by the way, hosts quite a large amount of Syrians at refugees-camps-turned-safe havens for rebels. Amid mounting questions on the culprits, their motivations and their target for the attack, Turkish authorities, who’ve in the past often been quick to place blame on the Damascus government for similar incidents, have so far appeared to make very little progress in their probe into the strike.

While leaders of Syrian rebels claimed the attack was aimed at them and branded the assault a “regime crime,” growing hostility stemming from long-standing rifts among the Syrian rebels and the unusual silence of the Turkish authorities has pointed to a shadowy and brutal actor as a possible attacker: al-Nusra. The Islamist al-Qaeda affiliated group has characterized itself as having a huge interest in prolonging conflict against Damascus while trying to liquidate “brainwashed secular” rebel factions. Initially, “befriended with its enemies’ enemy” al-Nusra’s friction with other rebel factions - dubbed as “secular” because its high command defected from secular President Bashar al-Assad’s military - has recently begun to turn violent with several clashes, revenge kidnappings and assassinations.

According to Arabic newspapers, while staging rallies against Syrian opposition umbrella group the Syrian National Council (SNC) and their allies’ military arm, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in its stronghold of northern Syria, al-Nusra has been having confrontations with minority groups, such as Druzes and even attacking pro-opposition towns for supporting “corrupted” secular rebel groups. The discord has been turning increasingly violent because al-Nusra, whose fighters are seen as “most organized and experienced” in the fight against President al-Assad, has been feeling more and more isolated since the main opposition group has been looking to hold talks with Damascus.

Recently shifted in its stance and rhetoric, the SNC leaders now appear to be pinning hopes to a solution via “dialogue,” rather than through conflict after their long-fought attempts failed to woo the global anti-al-Assad camp for support due to huge obstacles placed by the United States-Russian dispute on the Syrian crisis. While SNC leaders have appeared to be adopting a “moderate” line, the anti-al-Assad camp, specifically the U.S. and its allies, seemed to be giving their reluctant blessings to the shift behind closed doors, despite harsh public statements.

On the other hand, it is not only al-Nusra that has been feeling at risk of “betrayal” and isolation. Turning its “dear friend” into “a dire enemy” in Damascus, the Turkish government has long been lobbying for the ouster of al-Assad and the support of rebels. Yet, now it is witnessing that the real owner of a “common” cause is changing strategy and tilting toward negotiations. Still, Ankara’s political support to the SNC is very well-known, but what has been left in the shadow is its relations with al-Nusra. While to U.S. media the group confirmed it was receiving “cash” support from an “unknown source” somewhere in Turkey, the Turkish government has stayed reasonably mum on the issue since the group was branded as “terrorists” by Washington.

Having said that, the attack in Cilvegözü might also be backlash by al-Nusra after seeing Turkey turn off the “cash” flow since the group also confirmed to U.S. media that there “are some who they have scores to settle within an easy reach in Turkey.”

Turning to the realpolitik from would-be plots, in case more baby steps are made in talks between the SNC and Damascus, al-Nusra might be put in a troubled position. One where it could possess security risks to its former rebel allies, to the regime as well as to Turkey. The security risk would not be the only woe for Turkey if the “too-early-to-call” negotiations scenario matures as it would remain among the few who cheer in the by-then-slimmed-chorus against President al-Assad.

February/16/2013

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