Turkey wakes up to blowback threat from Al Qaeda-linked fighters in Syria

Turkey is increasingly concerned about the proliferation of Al Qaeda-linked fighters along its border with Syria. This week its military fired on jihadist targets in Syria.

Amer Alfaj/Reuters
A man stands near a burning motorbike at the site of a car bomb attack at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing between Syria and Turkey, in Idlib, Syria, January 20, 2014. Concern about a spillover of Syria’s three-year-old conflict into Turkey has grown as Al Qaeda-linked fighters in Syria take greater control of rebel areas.

News that hasn’t hit the headlines – yet

Turkey may have reason to brace for retaliatory attacks from Al Qaeda-linked fighters in Syria after striking jihadist targets across the border for the first time this week. 

Turkey fired tank and artillery shells on a convoy of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), destroying a bus and two trucks, in response to small-arms fire on a Turkish border post on Tuesday, according to state-run Anadolu news agency. Until now, any Turkish military action has been aimed at Syrian government forces in the form of retaliatory strikes only when shells or bullets strayed across the porous 511 miles of shared border.

The incident came just days after Turkish authorities issued a warning about bombings in Istanbul, Ankara, and the southern border province of Hatay based on a tip that ISIS planned attacks to disrupt the Syria peace talks that wrap up in Geneva today. 

Concern about a spillover of Syria’s three-year-old conflict into Turkey has grown as Al Qaeda-linked fighters in Syria – among the estimated 10,000 foreign jihadists now inside the country – take greater control of rebel areas, pushing out Islamist brigades considered more moderate, as well as the Western-backed Free Syrian Army.

The Turkish strike against the ISIS convoy came amid fighting this week at Al Raai, where the Islamist Tawheed brigade is trying to fend off an ISIS attempt to seize the border village, which is north of Al Bab, the rebel staging post northeast of Aleppo (see map). 

“There is a change, a shift of Turkish policy now because they discovered they are really in a dangerous place after Al Qaeda took control of the longest border with Turkey,” says a Syrian observer in Antakya, the provincial capital of Hatay, who has studied border events closely since mid-2012. “They didn’t expect that to happen.” 

On Wednesday, at a security conference in Tel Aviv Israel’s military intelligence chief showed a global map of Al Qaeda fighters that showed three Al Qaeda bases inside Turkey itself. Turkey has denied that any such bases exist. 

“Syria is projecting its conflict to the whole region,” said Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, reports Reuters. “Those blotches (on the map) in Turkey are no mistake by the graphic artist and it is a short way from there into Europe.”

NATO-ally Turkey was one of the earliest backers of the Syrian opposition, and has been at the forefront of efforts to unseat President Bashar al-Assad. It denies that it has turned a blind eye to Al Qaeda-linked operatives that are widely reported to have set up networks in Turkey to channel jihadists into Syria. Last month, police raided the offices of a Turkish aid agency doing cross-border operations, accusing them of funneling fighters and weapons into Syria.

Yet a Jordanian who helps manage the flow of fighters to Syria through Turkey, was quoted last October as telling The Telegraph: “Every day there are mujahideen coming here from all different nationalities,” said Abu Abdulrahman. 

Threat to US homeland

And earlier this month, a Syrian defector from ISIS, told the Telegraph that Western jihadists in Syria expected to return to Britain, Europe, and the US, and were being trained to make car bombs and suicide vests.

James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, testified on Wednesday that Syria posed a “potential threat… to the homeland” because of its “attraction as a growing center of radical extremism.”

While it remains only a potential danger for the US, the influence of Al Qaeda-linked fighters makes the border feel increasingly like ground zero. 

“Now they are too close to Turkey,” says the Syrian observer in Antakya. “You can easily expect any kind of crossing the border, especially since ISIS considers that Turkey is led by an infidel or secular government, which is really the big issue.… It means [they] can target this area.”

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