By Verda Özer
Turkey is facing the worst possible scenario a country could face: Getting identified with al-Qaeda.
Turkey has recently been accused of helping al-Qaeda and related groups in Syria. On Jan. 1 prosecutors stopped and tried to search a Syria-bound truck in the border province of Hatay on charges that it was carrying weapons to Syrian rebels. On top of that, last Tuesday the police made a raid on a local Humanitarian Relief Foundation (İHH) branch in Kilis, a town bordering Syria, accusing them of helping al-Qaeda. Allegations hit the peak following these incidents, both in the domestic and international media.
The very next day, the police conducted simultaneous operations in six provinces as part of operations against al-Qaeda, probably with the aim of putting an end to the accusations. Only a short while ago, the Foreign Ministry had also announced that Turkey had deported more than 1,000 European jihadists linked to radical Islamist groups in Syria last year. Top officials have also been denying these claims.
Previously they did not mention “al-Qaeda” publicly in their official statements. But following the recent accusations, al-Qaeda is now openly cited by high-state officials, including President Abdullah Gül and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Nowadays, they often and strongly underline the state’s longstanding struggle against the terrorist group.
The Turkish government has sided with the opposition in Syria since the very beginning of the war.
However, even though radical Islamists have gained the upper hand in the country, Ankara has not re-positioned itself according to the new facts on the ground. It has ignored the activities of al-Qaeda by not putting enough effort to prevent the use of its territory as a logistical base for jihadists, in order to maintain its position against Bashar al-Assad.
Yet one needs to distinguish between “not fighting against the group” and “supporting the group.”
Moreover, the AKP does not match up ideologically with al-Qaeda. The government has been supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in the region, which symbolizes moderate Islam, whereas al-Qaeda has been backed by the Gulf countries. There has been a gap between Turkey and the Gulf for a long time. However, this widened once the Gulf sponsored the military takeover against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Turkey’s flirtation with Iran further alienated Ankara from the Sunni bloc headed by the Gulf countries.
Yet the government is in a risky dilemma. Criticizing al-Qaeda loudly and at the high ranks of the state is even more dangerous than getting identified with the group. Standing at the frontline in the front against al-Qaeda would turn Turkey into a tailor-made target. No need to mention that al-Qaeda is as the Turkish border when clashing with other Syrian rebels. And a vital reminder: Ten years ago, al-Qaeda attacked the British consulate, an HSBC bank and two synagogues in Istanbul. Hence it is a dangerous game to push the government to sharpen its rhetoric against the group.
One remembers the famous verses of the Turkish poet Murathan Mungan: “You are either inside the circle, or outside it.” Sometimes in politics, however, you have to keep your body inside the circle and yet your head outside of it. It is vital that this fact be realized by everyone.