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Islamist groups take root on the blurry Syrian-Turkish border

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The opposition armed groups that Turkey has allowed to proliferate near its border include many who say they have no problem fighting alongside Al-Qaeda against the Syrian government.
“Al-Qaeda is helping us, while foreign countries aren’t,” said Basil Abu Arab, a 20-year-old member of the Ahrar al-Sham militia, as he received treatment in a makeshift hospital in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli. Abu Arab hasn’t been able to move his left arm since he was shot near Aleppo a month ago.
Abu Omar Halabi, a fighter with the Aleppo-based movement Abu Amara, agrees that Al-Qaeda fighters are an asset in the battle against the Syrian government. He says he doesn’t oppose their goal of establishing Islamic law in Syria, though his own group prefers to explain its benefits and win popular assent rather than impose it by force.
The spread of such groups in NATO-member Turkey, as well as recent signals of impatience from Saudi Arabia, highlight differing priorities between the U.S. and its Muslim allies over Syria. Concerns that Islamist militants may benefit played a part in the Obama administration’s decision to step back from using force against the Syrian government in September. For its allies, the calculation may be different.
“Turkey should try to reduce the influence of the Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups,” said Stephen Larrabee of Rand Corp., a policy institute in Santa Monica, California.
“The longer this goes on, the more they’re likely to be strengthened.”
He said Turkey initially downplayed the risk from Islamist radicals because it was more concerned about Kurdish separatists in north Syria, who have fought against the jihadist groups. “But after a while, they began to see the danger.”
Turkey is a sponsor of the “Free Army”, the West’s preferred opposition group in Syria, and denies it has ever permitted the more extreme groups fighting in Syria to operate from Turkish territory.
“Organizations like al-Nusra or Al-Qaeda can’t find shelter in our country,” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose government has Islamist roots, said on Nov. 7. He was referring to al-Nusra Front, one of the biggest Islamist groups in Syria and classified by the U.S. as terrorists linked to Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
In mid-October, Turkey’s army said it fired at fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Greater Syria, or ISIS, across the border after a mortar round landed near a Turkish frontier post. ISIS is an Al-Qaeda-linked force that’s emerged as one of the fiercest of the rebel groups.
Salih Muslim, leader of the main Kurdish party in Syria, told Istanbul-based Taraf newspaper in an interview published Nov. 8 that Turkey had been supporting al-Nusra and ISIS, and has now stopped, “or at least that’s how it looks.”
Saudi Arabia indicated last month that it doesn’t consider the U.S.-backed rebels effective, and that confining assistance to them would handicap the fight against the Syria government. Saudi Arabia’s main regional rival, Shiite-ruled Iran, is Assad’s closest ally.
Among the refugees in Turkey, many are uncomfortable with the gains that jihadists have made.
Nasir Hackasim, who runs a restaurant near a refugee camp at the Turkish border post of Oncupinar, said he had a glimpse of what Islamist rule in Syria would look like.
Hackasim escaped from his hometown, Azaz in northern Syria, last year with his wife and nine sons when Syrian government stormed the area and came looking for him as a rebel collaborator. He went back a month ago after ISIS drove Assad’s forces out, and found the town under the control of militants who order women to cover up and stay indoors, force men to attend mosques, and have set up Shariah courts.
“They’re even beating smokers with sticks,” the kebab-chef said, puffing on his cigarette. “It’s my hometown, I’ll eventually go back, but I can’t live under such radicals.”
Hackasim said he realized during his trip home that groups like ISIS are supported by many Syrians, not just for religious reasons. He said the Islamists won over many poor people by distributing aid equally and punishing looters with death.
Turkey and Saudi Arabia have been targeted by militant Islamist groups, and both consider Al-Qaeda a threat. They’re also more directly affected by the war in Syria than their ally the U.S. Turkey says it has spent at least $2 billion caring for Syrian refugees.
Rand’s Larrabee said that gains by Islamists have raised the prospect of a Syria that “would be as bad as if not worse than one dominated by Assad.”
Nearer the front line, the priorities often look different.
Salahaddin Marasli is a 56-year-old refugee in Reyhanli who supports the Western-backed rebels and wants the militants reined in. Yet he understands why that’s unlikely to happen while they’re both fighting Assad, and maybe afterward too.
“The Free Syrian Army can’t afford to fight on two fronts,” Marasli said at his fruit-juice shop. “It’s a big problem. When the war is over, it will be very difficult to force Al-Qaeda out of Syria.”

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