Al-Qaeda in Syria threatens Turkey
The prospect of al-Qaeda becoming active in Syria has Turkey worried about sectarian conflict and terrorism.
By Alakbar Raufoglu for SES Türkiye -- 23/02/12
Hoping to take advantage of the past year's unrest, al-Qaeda is looking to become more active in Syria, prompting fears the terrorist organisation could provoke sectarian violence and destabilise the region, including Turkey.
The terrorist organisation's leadership broke its silence early this month, urging Syrians "not to rely on the West or Arab governments, and Turkey". In an eight-minute video clip titled "Onward, Lions of Syria" disseminated on the internet February 11th, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's successor, called on militants "to rise up and support their brothers in Syria".
Zawahiri's call has raised concern al-Qaeda and its affiliates are shifting operations from Iraq, where they have been responsible for numerous terrorist attacks.
According to Hikmet Cetin, a former Turkish foreign minister, al-Qaeda seeks to exploit sectarian tensions by using Syrian Sunnis against the Iranian-backed Shia-offshoot Alawite regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
"This is totally against the Western policy, as well as Turkey's role in Syria," he said. Turkey, the Arab League and the West have taken a strong stand behind the demands of Syrian protestors and a peaceful transition to democracy.
"Al-Qaeda has always targeted Turkey," Cetin added, reminding that the organisation was behind several high-profile attacks in Turkey, including the bombing of the HSBC building, two synagogues, and an attack on the British Consulate in Istanbul in 2003, killing 57 people and wounding hundreds.
"Turkey should always keep its eyes open against new possible terror attacks," he said.
Last month, Turkish anti-terror police arrested eight suspected members of al-Qaeda in separate raids carried out in Adana and Izmir.
Sedat Laciner, a terrorism expert and rector of Canakkale Onsekiz Mart University, said that Turkey's Western aligned "Arab Spring policy" could be one reason why al-Qaeda might want to target it again.
"Turkey has become an ideological enemy of terrorists," he said. "Without the support of Turkey, the West and the Arab League can't be successful in Syria," he told SES Türkiye.
Turkey wants to ensure al-Qaeda doesn't hijack the democratic nature of the Syrian uprising, he said, but points out Ankara has few tools to control jihadists entering Syria from Iraq.
Noting that Assad hasn't shied away from supporting terrorist groups in the past -- including the PKK -- he said Assad could use al-Qaeda against Turkey, "even if it might threaten his own regime". Assad is widely believed to have allowed militants into Iraq in the past.
"They did the same with the PKK. Many of the Syrian Kurds, mainly close to the al-Assad regime and its intellegence, have recently joined PKK to fight against Turkey," he said.
With the situation in Syria becoming more violent each day, Yusuf Cinar, founder of Strategic Outlook, a Konya-based think-tank, said that Syria could enter into a prolonged civil war, creating a power vacuum that al-Qaeda could exploit.
"In this context, Turkey's biggest worry is a second Afghanistan right next door," he said, echoing similar warnings made by Assad in October. This could increase the risk of radical Islamic groups like al-Qaeda becoming more active in Syria and Turkey. "If this happens, Turkey could face the risk of becoming a second Pakistan."
However, despite the chaotic situation across the border, the government is confident it can counter any threat from terrorism. Calling al-Qaeda a "black stain on Islam", ruling AKP MP Metin Metiner said Turkish security forces have worked hard to prevent attacks by al-Qaeda.
"We are helping our neighbours on security issues and democratisation without interfering in their domestic issues," he said, underlining that al-Qaeda doesn't represent any community or political movement in Syria.