Turkey cracks down on charity suspected of arming Al Qaeda affiliates in Syria (+video)
Turkey was an early supporter of Syria's rebellion, keeping its border open for refugees and aid, but has became wary of jihadi groups operating on its turf.
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Turkey was an early supporter of the Syrian opposition, keeping its border open for refugees and aid, allowing the formation of camps along the border, and even allowing the Free Syrian Army to use the border region as an organizing base. But Turkey has also been accused of allowing foreign fighters allied with the opposition, including those from Al Qaeda-linked groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, to set up shop within its borders and is under international pressure to crack down.
Today police raided a satellite office of the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), which came to prominence in 2010 as the organizer of the first Gaza flotilla, which was seeking to break the Israeli naval blockade on Gaza.
Police officials told Reuters that the raid in Kilis was part of an operation in six cities to arrest individuals suspected of links to Al Qaeda. IHH rejected the accusation.
"IHH aid is delivered to Syrian babies, children and those who freeze in the cold ... This is an operation to change perceptions (about IHH) and stop aid from being delivered inside Syria," the group said in a statement, according to Reuters.
Turkish news outlet The Daily Hurriyet reports that 25 people were detained, including those taken in the raid on IHH, and that raids were carried out in Istanbul, Van, Kilis, Adana, Gaziantep, and Kayseri Provinces.
"They are trying to show the İHH as if it is related to terror organizations,” General Secretary Yaşar Kutluay said, calling the operation an "attack" on the NGO, reportedly the biggest organization in Turkey sending aid to Syria.
The Daily Star reports that the group has also been accused of smuggling arms into Syria. On Jan. 1 Turkish media reported that a truck loaded with weapons and ammunition had been stopped at the border and that the drivers said they were transporting for IHH. The group called the claim "slanderous."
Turkey has repeatedly denied any involvement in channelling weapons to the Syrian rebels, but in December local media, citing UN documents, reported it had shipped 47 tons of arms since June 2013, according to The Daily Star. And on Friday, two buses were seized that were carrying weapons and ammunition in the baggage hold.
Turkey has been under pressure to prove that it is monitoring its border closely and not allowing Turkey to become a safe haven for terrorists. The Christian Science Monitor reported in December that Western officials were skeptical that Turkey was willing to take action against such groups.
Last weekend, the BBC reported that foreign fighters are using safe houses in the border town of Reyhanli as a base from which to enter Syria, citing interviews with a French jihadist and a man running a safe house.
One Western diplomat expressed doubt that the Turkish government was fully cooperating with Western efforts to staunch the flow of fighters. "We are still experiencing operational difficulties, although we have seen signs that it is improving. As to whether a ‘shift’ ever occurred, that is still an open question,” the diplomat says.
Analysts and journalists familiar with the situation say Turkey has long been facilitating the arming and support of these groups by third parties as part of a policy of indiscriminately assisting rebels groups fighting in the Syrian civil war regardless of ideology.
Turkey's open-border policies were based on the belief that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would fall quickly, and that if he didn't, the US would intervene, Aaron Stein, a fellow at the Royal United Service Institute in London, told the Monitor.
“This led them to make a number of short-sighted policy decisions intended to put as much pressure on the regime as possible, including opening the border,” Mr. Stein says. “As the foreign fighter problem became more acute, they did nothing to prevent it, and were an active participant in the transfer of arms and money to rebel groups.”