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Trouble in Turkey, as al-Qaida Becomes a Neighbor

The porous border between Turkey and Syria has become increasingly dangerous. This month, the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria took control of the city of Azaz, near Turkey, and began working its way towards the border.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 2 minutes

And Turkish warplanes shot down a Syrian helicopter it claimed had crossed into Turkish airspace. On top of that, a never-ending stream of refugees continues to flood southern Turkish cities. 

We asked Gokhan Bacik, an analyst and associate professor of international relations at Ankara’s Ipek University, to weigh in on the implications. 

Syria Deeply: What is the Turkish government’s major concern right now as regards Syria?

Gokhan Bacik: If you look at the ground, number one is security. In the last week, the Turkish minister of foreign affairs has been repeating that Turkey is not happy with the radicals, meaning al-Qaida. We also have the refugee problem – half a million people across the border, costing millions of dollars.

The Turkish government has a very strong position – it’s kind of personal [a rivalry of sorts between Assad and Erdogan]. So they are trying their best to convince European and U.S. actors to intervene. It’s part of a symbolic competition between Turkey and Syria, so most probably they’ll keep this track. In terms of material capacity, Turkey lacks the equipment to punish Assad unilaterally, so it is trying to convince its partners to make an initiative. And this has become harder after the Russian [proposal of diplomatic action]. The Turkish foreign minister has said that instead of shaking hands with Assad, he would resign. It’s become more complex for Turkey.

SD: How will the helicopter attack effect the Turkey-Syria dynamic?

GB: Technically there’s a bunch of information from the Turkish army and the official explanation is that it was violating Turkish air space. The helicopter has not become a serious issue in Turkey. People are not talking about that. In a way, some expect that it’s going to help the government to restore its appearance, its image, as regards the Syrian problem.

There is an expectation now that something is going to happen. It’s too much for Turkey, with cross-border firing, the bombing attack this spring in Reyhanli. For Syria, it’s important to follow the U.S.-Russia dialogue. Having the U.S.-Russia deal on the table, I don’t think the Syrians can react too much on the helicopter issue. They will first pursue the deal.

SD: Turkey is now a main gateway for jihad into Syria. What effect is that having?

GB: Al-Qaida made one of its biggest attacks in Turkey, in Istanbul [in 2003]. It’s made more than one here. In the past, al-Qaida has viewed Turkey as a target. It’s different right now because now they are close to the Turkish border. It’s true that Turkey is becoming a neighbor of some al-Qaida groups [in Syria]. It could affect trade, security and hurt terrorist [prevention] coordination. It’s a big problem for Turkey. I’m not sure how Turkey is going to overcome this problem. In the beginning, everyone thought the number one problem  in Syria was Assad, but now, no, we have this problem. At the very least, this could create a very bad image issue for Turkey. They are being talked about, globally, in the same breath as al-Qaida. And that impression will affect trade and other issues.

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