Turkey's support to IS continues to linger

Turkey's support to IS continues to linger

Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria and seizure of Islamic State-held Jarablus on the Turkey-Syria border, pre-empted the town's fall to advancing US-backed Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighters of the US-ba-cked Syrian Democratic Forces.

However, suspicions about Ankara’s lingering support for Islamic State (IS) have been raised over this development. Turkey’s tanks, elite troops and allied Syrian militiamen swept into Jarablus without a fight as IS fighters, who had been warned ahead of the operation, fled, taking with them several hundred civilian hostages. The jihadis lived to fight another day – perhaps on behalf of Turkey.

Having occupied Jarablus, Turkey's forces did not immediately tackle scores of IS-held villages to the west and south of Jarablus. Instead, they  attacked the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces who have been the most dependable and effective fighters battling IS. Turkey followed up by capturing the town of Rai, west of Jarablus, effectively closing the border to the two-way flow of IS fighters, weapons and funds. 

While Turkey belongs to the US-led coalition and the Western Nato alliance led by the US, Ankara does not share Washington’s primary aim of eliminating IS but gives priority to containing the Kurds and preventing them from establishing an autonomous zone along the Turkish frontier.

Turkey has made the push into Syria alongside insurgents from the defunct Free Syrian Army (FSA), Turkmen (ethnic Turk) Sultan Murat brigades, Ahrar al-sham, Faylaq al-Sham, and Nour al-Din al-Zenki whose fighters beheaded a child on video in Aleppo province.

The FSA, formed in July 2011 by Turkey, became an umbrella organisation for diverse anti-government groups. Like its political arm, the Syrian National Council, the FSA, established in August 2011, had strong representation by the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood which had ties to Turkey’s ruling fundamentalist Development and Justice Party. In 2013, the FSA was gradually marginalised by al-Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra (now Jabhat Fatah al-Sham) and IS.  The FSA fighters defected to these better financed and better armed hardline factions.

The Sultan Murat Brigades, a combination of jihadi and other Turkmen groups, was another of Ankara’s creations. Ahrar al-Sham, a radical jihadi group, openly allied with Nusra, seeks to impose its deeply conservative version of an “Islamic State” on Greater Syria (Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine). Faylaq al-Sham and Nour al-Din al-Zenki are US-supported fundamentalist factions but cooperate with Nusra.

The overwhelming majority of fighters belonging to the groups Turkey has chosen as its partners in the invasion of Syria are not “jihadis,” (holy warriors), but “taqfiris,” Muslims of a radical persuasion who accuse Muslims who disagree with them of apostasy and people of other faiths of heresy. The black flags of Nusra and IS are taqfiri flags.

Turkey’s aim is to use surrogate Syrian taqfiris to establish a Kurd-free, anti-government zone in northern Syria. This is a dangerous plan on both Turk-ey’s domestic front and for Syria. Turkey has already alienated the Syrian Kurdish forces by harassing and bombing fighters and could antagonise the Kurds’ non-Kurdish (Arab, Circassian and Turkomen) local allies too. Indeed, some now accuse Turk-ey of being an enemy “occupier” and could take up arms against Turkey and its surrogates as long as they remain in Syria and could even mount cross-border operations in Turkey itself.

On the Syrian front, the dominant paramilitary force is now Nusra. Rebranded as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, it renounced ties to al-Qaeda while remaining intimately connected with the Afghan-Pakistan-based parent movement that mounted the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.

Installing surrogates
Turkey would like to install these surrogates in the 107 km stretch of territory along the Turkish-Syrian border between Jarablus and the Kurdish-held Afrin enclave and create a de facto buffer zone where Syrian refugees could be housed and a corridor for anti-government forces could be opened to the besieged insurgent-held eastern Aleppo.

Ultimately, Turkey would like to force the Kurds to withdraw from Afrin. This would give Turkey control of the western sector of the border from Jara-blus through Nusra-dominated Idlib province to the Mediterranean where the ‘taqfiris’ black flags would fly to mark their territory. However, the Kurds will fight for Afrin, which has been incorporated into their self-proclaimed autonomous region of Rojava. Turkey seeks to erase this entity as it would encourage Turkish Kurds to continue their struggle for self-determination.

Ankara is certain to expand its 400 sqkm foothold in Syria with the aim of deploying its aircraft, tanks and surrogates in the battle to take Raqqa from IS. The participation by Turkish -backed forces would strengthen Ankara’s political clout at negotiations on ending the Syrian war, if and when they resume.

On the regional front, Turkey’s seizure of territory in Syria follows a Turkish incursion into Iraq’s northern Nineveh province and deployment of 150 troops and tanks, positioning Turkey for the coming battle against IS in Mosul, once Iraq’s second city.

Mosul was claimed by but denied to Turkey following World War I. Arabs, Kurds and Iraqi minority groups will also go to war to prevent Ankara from realising its century-old dream.

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