ISTANBUL—Al-Qaeda could emerge as the unlikely winner as supplies for more moderate rebels crossing the long border from Turkey into war-torn Syria come under increased scrutiny.
Several arms shipments from Turkey to rebel groups in Syria have been stopped in recent months. In one case, 1,200 Turkish-made mortar shells were discovered inside a Syria-bound truck in November. As fighting between al-Qaeda linked groups and other rebel factions in Syria intensifies, opposition politicians in Ankara are accusing the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of sending arms into the war zone, a charge that the government denies.
But an incident on January 1 challenged that denial and put a new spotlight on cross-border supplies from Turkey into Syria. The publicity could make further arms shipments for moderate rebel groups more difficult, making al-Qaeda stronger in the process, analysts say.
In Turkey, the debate about suspected weapons shipments to Syria has become part of an ongoing confrontation between the government and the judiciary. Erdogan’s government, which is reeling from a major corruption scandal, says anti-government factions in the judiciary are bent on bringing down the prime minister by launching slanderous investigations designed to embarrass his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
In the border incident of January 1, prosecutors tried to search a Syria-bound truck in the border province of Hatay after police received a tip-off saying the vehicle was carrying weapons. When two prosecutors went to search the truck, they were told by agents of Turkey’s intelligence service MIT, who were riding along, that the cargo was a “state secret,” according to a report written by the prosecutors and leaked to the Hurriyet newspaper.
Interior minister Efkan Ala rebuked the prosecutors, saying everybody should mind their own business. One of the prosecutors was transferred to another province several days later, in what was widely seen as a move to punish him. Yasin Aktay, a leading member of the AKP, said the prosecutors in Hatay deliberately created a public incident and “put Turkey in a difficult position.”
Ala said the truck, which continued its journey to Syria, was carrying aid for Syrian Turkmen, an ethnic group with links to Turkey. But Huseyin El-Abdullah, a Turkmen leader, told Turkish media there had been no truck from Turkey for his people. Some news reports said the truck was heading towards a region in Syria that does not have a Turkmen population.
That is no surprise, the opposition in Turkey says. It insists the truck incident was the latest example of the government trying to keep arms shipments to Syrian rebels hidden.
Hasan Akgol, a lawmaker for the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), said he was “a hundred percent sure” the truck had weapons on board. Another CHP lawmaker, Mehmet Ali Ediboglu, said everybody in Hatay knew that weapons were being shipped into Syria all the time.
The public debate about the suspected arms deliveries into Syria could have serious repercussions for rebel groups relying on military supplies from Turkey.
“After the truck, it will become more difficult [to bring weapons to Syria from Turkey], and these difficulties could benefit al-Qaeda,” Veysel Ayhan, director of the International Middle East Peace Research Center (IMPR), a think tank in Ankara, told The Daily Beast.
Turkey, which shares a 900-kilometer land border with Syria, is supporting the Syrian opposition and calling for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to resign. The main non-Islamist rebel force, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), was created on Turkish territory. Because Syrian and foreign rebels use the Turkish side of the border as a base to bring men and supplies into Syria, Ankara has been accused of helping radicals.
The FSA, the military arm of the Western-backed umbrella group the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), lost ground in Syria in recent months as jihadist factions have gathered strength in the rebel-held north of the country. While the jihadists were initially welcomed by other rebels, allegations of brutal abuses against civilians as well as against rival opposition fighters sparked a backlash, and even accusations that they are serving the interests of the regime.
At present, the SNC is supporting an offensive by a new alliance of more moderate rebel groups, including the FSA, against the al-Qaeda affiliate Islamist State of Iraq and Shams (ISIS). Nearly 700 people have been killed in the fighting in recent days, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The rebel infighting has strengthened Assad’s position ahead of peace talks scheduled for January 22 in Geneva.
As the battle rages, military supply lines are crucial. IMPR director Ayhan said al-Qaeda groups in Syria did not need arms shipments via Turkey because they could rely on deliveries from Iraq.
Oytun Orhan, a Syria specialist at the think tank Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM) in Ankara, also told The Daily Beast that the public debate surrounding the suspected Turkish arms shipments to Syria would make it harder for moderate groups inside Syria to get their hands on supplies.
“Weapons coming in from Turkey mostly go to the FSA or the Islamic Front,” he said. The Islamic Front is an alliance of seven Islamist rebel groups that does not belong to al-Qaeda and is fighting with ISIS. “If those supplies are stopped, al-Qaeda will become stronger.”
It is unclear whether the developments in Turkey are already hurting moderate rebels in Syria. The FSA’s central command did not respond to several requests for a comment.