Warnings about Syria from the US to Ankara
Before Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Washington visit next week, reports recently issued by outstanding U.S. think tanks revealed significant differences of opinion between Turkey and the Barack Obama administration about Syria, especially about the support provided for pro-al-Qaeda “jihadist” elements.
One of these reports, the one issued by an institution called the “Washington Near East Institute,” was co-drafted by Ambassador James Jeffrey and the institute’s Turkey director, Soner Çağaptay.
The most prominent aspect of this report is the strong warning for Turkey that the support Turkey provides for the al-Nusra group, which is in league with al-Qaeda and is becoming stronger in the Syrian opposition movement, might in the future backfire against Turkey.
The Çağaptay-Jeffrey duo said Ankara, in order to weaken the Bashar al-Assad regime, allowed insurgents coming from other countries to pass through its own territory to enter Syria. However, the writers assert that while these groups are passing through Turkey, the relationships they will form here will provide a basis for their own organizational activities and logistic infrastructure. The report said, “There is no guarantee that these jihadists one day will not target Turkey.” It also drew attention to the fact that Turkish security forces only had limited experience with these groups.
Another study is a report prepared by the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center studying the future of cooperation between Turkey and the U.S. on Syria. This center has formed a working group with expert individuals. The co-presidents of the group were two former U.S. ambassadors to Turkey, namely Republican Eric Edelman and Democrat Morton Abramowitz.
The significance of this report is that while it emphasizes the consensus between the two countries on the main aim of removing Bashar al-Assad, when it comes to the policies adopted, serious differences emerge. For example, Turkey was conducting a policy prioritizing the Muslim Brotherhood within the Syrian opposition, whereas the U.S. was trying to form a “more inclusive” Syrian opposition. The report assessed this situation as a reflection of the different Syria the two countries envision in the future.
This report also drew attention to the drawbacks of jihadist groups: “In addition, the use of Turkish territory by Islamic extremists seeking to get to Syria – as Jabhat al-Nusra has been doing – could easily lead to such groups establishing a presence in Turkey itself, which would rapidly create tensions, especially if these groups seek to, as they often do, enforce their own religious ideas in Turkey and defy Turkish authorities.”
Meanwhile, similar views can be seen in the International Crisis Group-ICG report on Turkey’s stance on the Syrian crisis, titled, “Blurring the Borders: Syrian Spillover Risks for Turkey.” In the section of the report named, “The Enemy of an Enemy May Be a Dangerous Friend,” it said: “Certainly, bearded young Arabic-speaking men partially clothed in battle fatigues and with large backpacks are a common sight at Hatay airport. Turkey is apparently doing little to stop the inflow of foreign insurgents.”
The ICG warns that the “proxy war” Turkey is currently pursuing in Syria may well leave it face to face “with these wars of its own.” At the end of the report, it is advised that the border crossing of Syrian opposition forces should be minimized and that refugee camps should not be allowed to be used as bases.
Actually, all these views should be evaluated together with prestigious American journalist David Ignatius’ article published in the Washington Post recently. He said commanders of the Free Syria Army wanted to stop cooperating with the extremist al-Nusra front.
“The Syrian jihadist fighters travel daily from Turkey, across the border to receive money and supplies from wealthy Gulf Arabs,” he said. “The United States is hoping that Turkey will crack down harder on this cross-border traffic, and this will be a key topic when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visits Washington in mid-May.”
This dimension of Erdoğan’s visit to Washington next week should be monitored carefully.
Sedat Ergin is a columnist for daily Hürriyet in which this piece was published on May 9. It was translated into English by the Daily News staff.