"It is out of the question that groups like al-Nusra and al-Qaeda can take shelter in our country," Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters on November 7 at a press conference during an official visit to Stockholm. "On the contrary," he said, "any such structures would be subject to the same fight we carry out against separatist terrorist groups. We have taken the necessary steps against them and we will continue to do so."
Erdogan's comments come shortly after accusations that Turkey has been supporting radical factions of the Syrian opposition and al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria, specifically Al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham. The two groups have gained prominence throughout the course of the Syrian conflict, emerging as part of the resistance against Syrian President Bashir al-Assad. Over the past several months, the groups have gained ground in the northern part of Syria and along the Turkish-Syrian border.
At the beginning of the Syrian conflict, Erdogan's government was one of the strongest supporters of the Syrian opposition and repeatedly called on Al-Assad to step down. The Turkish government has openly declared its support for the Free Syrian Army, which is affiliated with the Istanbul-based Syrian National Coalition.
Ankara also kept an open-door policy throughout the more than two year-long Syrian conflict, providing a lifeline to rebel-controlled areas. However, in the past two years the Turkish government has repeatedly denied supporting any Syrian groups that are radical in nature.
Still, news reports have claimed that Turkey provides support to radical Islamist groups. In an August interview with Turkish publication Taraf, Saleh Muslim, the leader of the Kurdish Syrian group known as the Democratic Union Party, said that his group had intelligence confirming transfers of ammunition between Turkish and Syrian borders.
Muslim added that the al-Nusra group picked up the weapons in preparation for an attack on Kurdish villages just over the border in northern Syria. "It is impossible to understand how Turkey lets this happen," he said. "If the al-Nusra Front is the enemy, then this should be prevented."
While Muslim's comments did not directly implicate the Turkish government in supporting the radical groups, his frustration seemed to stem from the Erdogan government's turning a blind eye towards al-Qaeda affiliated groups and allowing them to conduct operations on Turkish soil largely uninhibited.
Recently, Turkey seems to have changed its diplomatic tone towards Syria. This change comes following a series of incidents that occurred over the last few months around the Turkish-Syrian border, namely the bombing in Ryhanli, Turkey this past May.
The attack, allegedly carried out by those linked to the Syrian intelligence agency, left more than 50 people dead and drew verbal outcry from the Turkish public and opposition parties, who blamed the bombing partially on the Turkish government for its weak diplomacy with Syria.
The Turkish people also expressed frustration at what they saw as a passive attitude from the United States on the Turkish-Syrian conflict. A recent deal between the United States and Russia that will dismantle Syria's chemical weapons instead of pursuing military action against Al-Assad has left Turkey isolated in its efforts to forcefully intervene in Syrian politics and oust Al-Assad.
In a positive development, Hassan Rouhani's July election to the Iranian presidency presented Ankara with a rare opportunity to collaborate with a moderate political figure unlike his predecessor. A two-pronged approach in Turkey and Iran engaging Syria could prove effective in quelling Syria's violence.
What many consider to be Turkey's relaxed policy toward al-Qaeda affiliates – who have targeted Kurdish villages and Syrian Kurdish groups – has been threatening peaceful talks between Ankara and the outlawed Kurdish Worker's Party. These talks were designed to end the decades-long Kurdish conflict that began in 1984 and has since resulted in the death of more than 40,000 people.
By endangering these talks, the Turkish government is compromising a 10-month ceasefire with the Kurdistan Workers Party, a period during which not a single Turkish soldier died. The ceasefire and the talks have been a highly welcomed development for most of the Turkish public.
Losing these negotiations could, according to both the European Union and the United States, threaten the Justice and Development Party's chances of staying in power following the country's next major elections.
It is likely that with the recent bombing and outcry against the Turkish government, Erdogan's team has been reevaluating its approach to handling the Syrian conflict. On October 15, the Turkish army reported that it had fired at strongholds of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in retaliation for the insurgent group's mortar attacks from hideaways in Syria's mountain ranges.
This marked one of the first retaliations by Turkish forces targeting an al-Qaeda affiliate. On October 10, the Turkish government announced that it had frozen the assets of businessmen with links to al-Qaeda and Taliban groups.
On November 7, Turkish police seized a cargo truck full of rocket heads, bazookas, missiles, bombs and guns near the southern province of Adana. The truck was believed to have been en route to al-Qaeda affiliates based in Syria.
Some argue that the revival of Turkish policies designed to quell radical groups' activities could clear Turkey from allegations that it is assisting them. Analysts warn, however, that this could also lead to Turkey becoming a target for radical groups.
"Turkey's going public with the identity of the target could introduce a new element to recently heightened accusations of Turkey helping radical groups," said writer Nihat Ali Ozcan in an October article for the website Al-Monitor. But this "could also make Turkey a target, especially for al-Qaeda and its affiliates," he added.
Just two weeks after Ozcan's statements, Today's Zaman newspaper published a report suggesting that the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria was planning to target major Turkish cities, citing reports from Turkish intelligence officials. "Their vehicles are being prepared in Syria's northern city of Raqqa," stated the report. "Intelligence units discovered detailed information on Oct. 30 about ISIS's plan to carry out a terrorist attack, and got in contact with local units."
Following the Today's Zaman report, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria allegedly issued a statement from Abu Mohammed Al-Adnani, a spokesperson for the group. In the statement, he denied that the group had any plans to attack Turkey or other countries. Al-Adnani also accused the Syrian regime and its media outlets of fabricating news.
Numerous observers of the Syrian conflict also said an impending attack seemed unlikely. "There is no truth at all to supposed plans to target Turkish cities," said Aymen Jawad Al-Tamimi, a fellow at the Middle East Forum, in an emailed comment to The Atlantic Post. "The alleged statements are fabrications from pro-Assad circles," he said, "who are aiming to cajole Turkey into tightening security on the border and stop the inflow of foreign fighters into Syria."
Al-Tamimi argued that Turkey "does not do anything" to stop the flow of foreign fighters into Syria to join ISIS or al-Nusra. He said Turkey "sees these groups as useful proxies against the [Democratic Union Party] and they have not actually threatened to attack Turkey."
However, according to recent comments by Democratic Union Party leaders, Ankara is believed to have stopped the flow of al-Qaeda fighters crossing into Syria. "The [radical groups] are not attacking us after crossing to [Syria] from Turkey as before," said Saleh Muslim in November, according to Turkish publication Taraf. "This is very good news. We hope that Turkey will continue this stance [towards the extremist groups]."
Aaron Stein, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies and a Ph.D candidate at King's University told The Atlantic Post in an interview this month that "it is still too early to tell, though Saleh Muslim's recent assertion that foreign fighters have not entered from Turkey to fight the [Democratic Union Party] was noteworthy." Turkey's border areas, he said, are still flooded with Syrian and foreign fighters, adding that "it would be unrealistic to assume that Ankara can simply make them go away overnight."
Whether or not Turkey supported radical Syrian rebels or at least provided a lifeline for them in the past, as many believe, Stein agrees that Ankara is definitely rethinking its foreign policy strategy as a result of complications with radical groups in the region.
"I wouldn't say that Turkey has adopted a new Syria policy per se, but rather is taking pragmatic steps to prepare for a future filled with conflict," said Stein. "Ankara's recent moves in Iraq and Iran aren't really a foreign policy reset, but rather a pragmatic and smart step to compartmentalize Turkey's relationship with states in the region."
It is no stretch to say that the Turkish government was overly ambitious in thinking that unrest in Syria could be resolved before radical groups had the chance to cement their place in Turkish and Syrian society. Erdogan's government was also disappointed by other countries like the United States and Russia resorting to a less aggressive, more diplomatic approach with Syria.
What became a diplomatic, and in many ways, a drawn-out solution to solving the crisis in Syria left the country with a mixture of complicated ethnic and sectarian conflicts that have yet to be fully addressed. Syria's civil war also provided a basis for radical and terrorist groups to expand their activities in the country unhindered. Turkey is late in tackling the Syrian conflict, but according to Stein, correcting the problem is not impossible. "Turkey," he said, "will always be an important player in the Syrian conflict."