Turkey’s imposition on Syrian opposition?
Last Thursday, heavy clashes broke out between pro-Assad forces and al-Qaeda-linked groups on the Akçakale gate on the Turkish-Syrian border in southeastern Turkey. By coincidence, on the very same day I was at the Akçakale refugee camp, which is one of the four camps for Syrian refugees based in Urfa province. The camp usually hosts about 30,000 refugees. But that day 10,000 refugees rushed across the border gate, which must have raised the number of the refugees in the camp considerably.
The refugees are all against al-Assad. They fiercely support the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the military wing of the Syrian National Council that is officially supported by Turkey. An FSA soldier who was briefly at the camp to visit his family brought up an interesting claim, alleging that the FSA and the Islamic Front (IF) became united two months ago. There is no need to mention that the IF is an anti-Assad umbrella group made up of moderate Islamist units. He even claimed that the FSA had adopted the “Islamic Front” as its name. His most interesting allegation, however, was that this decision had been taken by the Syrian National Council, upon Turkey’s imposition, and that the FSA’s military headquarters are based in Turkey.
As these allegations needed confirmation, I first spoke to Halit Hoca, the Turkey Representative of the Syrian National Council. He denied the “unification” claim but added an important detail: The IF is composed of five main Islamist units, three of which - namely Liwa al-Haqq, Liwa al-Tawhid and Suqour al-Sham - were earlier under the FSA. So there is a wide common base between these two groups. This is why some members happen to switch from one group to another.
Oubai Shahbandar, the chief advisor of the FSA, also denied that the IF and the FSA had united. However, he added that the two groups cooperated on the ground. He also argued that their headquarters were not based in Turkey and that they only had an office in Reyhanlı, a town in the southern province of Hatay.
A top official at the Turkish Foreign Ministry also denied the claim but agreed that the two groups collaborated on the ground from time to time.
Initially, the IF stood halfway between the al-Qaeda-linked groups and the FSA. In the early phases of the war, it was even accused of cooperating with radical Islamists in Syria. Hence, both the FSA and radical Islamists tried to pull the group toward itself. This is mainly due to the fact that the IF is the opposition group with the broadest base in Syria. The Foreign Ministry official admitted that they were also aiming to bring the IF closer to the FSA.
The only conclusion I drew from my conversations, both with the refugees and the officials, was that nothing is either black or white in Syria. There are transactions as well as clashes between various opposition groups. This context forces ideologically different groups to form tactical coalitions with each other.
Turkey, as the worst-hit country by this war, is closely following the changing dynamics. But it is almost impossible to steer the developments on such a slippery ground. So it looks like Turkey will have to content itself with adjusting itself to the changing facts on the ground for a while yet.