What will Turkey do with Jabhat al-Nusra?
In a speech President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave in 2016, he had approached Jabhat Al-Nusra with empathy: “We have seen the recent developments. In the halls of the European Parliament, [pictures of] terrorist scraps from the YPG are hung up with people, who were pushed into the parliament with the support of the divisive terrorist organization in our country, posing in front of them.
When we tell this to the West, they all say, ‘Oh, but they’re against [ISIS].’ If those who oppose [ISIS] do not qualify as terrorists, then why do you call [Jabhat al-Nusra] a terrorist organization? Al-Nusra also wages a significant fight against [ISIS].”
Such straightforward thinking sometimes has dangerous results: ISIS is a terrorist organization, al-Nusra fights against ISIS. Therefore, al-Nusra is fighting against terrorism. Contrary to his statements at the time, Erdogan could also have asked, “If al-Nusra is not a terrorist organization because it fights against ISIS, does that mean YPG is also not a terrorist organization?” But this is beside the point.
The point is Turkey’s habit of turning a blind eye to terrorist groups that serve its own agenda. Unfortunately, this indulgence sooner or later causes us trouble.
DIRECTLY LINKED TO AL-QAIDA
Jabhat al-Nusra, also known as Front of the Supporters of the People of the Levant, was formed in 2011 by Abu Mohammad al-Julani and seven of his friends who moved to Syria from Iraq.
Al-Julani had previously worked with al-Zarqawi, the al-Qaida leader killed by US forces in 2006.
In 2000, al-Zarqawi had dispatched Syrians near him to Syria and Lebanon in order to form cells there.
After his death in 2006, al-Julani briefly moved to Lebanon. He formed an association with Jund al-Sham which was fighting against the Syrian regime at the time. That same year, he was arrested by Americans in Iraq and held at Camp Bucca.
Released in 2008, al-Julani this time began to work with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq (al-Qaida in Iraq). In short time, he was brought to the head of al-Qaida operations in Mosul.
When the rebellion began in Syria, he relocated to Damascus with the support of al-Baghdadi, where he formed Jabhat al-Nusra.
Al-Nusra was responsible for attacks in Syria that garnered attention after the end of 2011.
In the twin terror attacks realized in Damascus on December 23, 2011, an intelligence building was targeted. This also constituted the first bomb attack in the Syrian rebellion period.
Al-Nusra, which officially announced its establishment in early 2012, continued to target military, intelligence, and government buildings, and was responsible for 70 large-scale attacks, most of which were suicide bombings.
With these attacks, al-Nusra was able to increase its influence among the groups fighting against the regime.
In April 2013 Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State in Iraq with whom al-Julani had been associated, decided to expand the field of the group’s struggle towards Syrian territory and decided to change the name of the organization to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
One of the first things al-Baghdadi did was to ask al-Nusra leader al-Julani to pledge allegiance to him. Al-Julani, however, refused this call and the two organizations fought.
In other words, during the time that Erdogan alludes to, al-Nusra was fighting with the Islamic State not because it was a terrorist group but because al-Nusra wanted its share of the cake. Put simply, the events were nothing but a power struggle between al-Baghdadi and al-Julani who would not accept the former’s authority.
During the war that lasted for two years between 2013 and 2015, both sides killed a considerable number of each other’s militants.
Afterwards, each retreated to their own territory. While al-Raqqa had been controlled by al-Nusra, the Islamic State took control of it after the clashes and declared it the capital of the emirate. Al-Nusra, which had previously been active in various parts of Syria and had refreshed its makeup by declaring that it had parted ways with al-Qaida in 2016, made its way to Idlib and continues to exist today.
QATAR, THE BIGGEST SUPPORTER
Al-Nusra’s largest supporter was Qatar, with whom Turkey maintains close relations. In the 2014 interview he gave to CNN, the Emir of Qatar did not use language much different from Erdogan’s: “I know that in America and some countries they look at some movements as terrorist movements. ... But there are differences. There are differences that some countries and some people that any group which comes from Islamic background are terrorists. And we don't accept that.”
On the other hand, one of al-Nusra’s largest supporters had been Israel, to the point that militants wounded in clashes near the Golan were treated in Israeli hospitals.
Al-Nusra, which had previously been supported by Turkey, Qatar, and Israel, has now been left solely in Turkey’s hands. Will Erdogan continue to indulge al-Nusra?
During the normalization process, he probably would not protest the elimination of al-Nusra.
CAN THE AL-NUSRA THREAT BE EVADED?
This is the question: What will the current administration, which alongside Qatar and Israel has allowed al-Nusra to survive to date with its policies, do with the organization now? How will al-Nusra react to the notion that it has been betrayed? Can it organize attacks against Turkey on Turkey’s own land? Does it have sleeper cells in Turkey? Or is everything under our “control?”
*Musa Ozugurlu worked as an editor, reporter, and program presenter in the newsrooms of many radio and TV channels. In 2010, he worked as the Syria representative of TRT Turk. He is one of the few foreign journalists who documented the process on the ground that started in Syria in 2011 until 2016. His field of expertise is Syria, first and foremost, but also the Middle East. Currently, he presents the "Day Begins" program on ARTI TV every weekday between 08:00 - 11:00 AM.