On June 3, Turkish official gazette announced the blacklisting of Jabhat al Nusra a terror organization. It was stated that the Cabinet had decided to make amendments to its decree concerning the United Nation Security Council’s (UNSC) resolution on the freezing of assets owned by individuals, organizations and institutions affiliated with terrorist organizations, adding the al-Nusra under the chapter of individuals, organizations, and institutions affiliated with al-Qaeda operating in Syria. Although there has been serious concern in top echelons of AKP since mid-2013, this announcement still came as a surprise to some actors in the region. The surprise can be attributed to the abrupt oscillations of Turkish rhetoric on al Nusra and other factions fighting against the Syrian regime since March 2011.
The US blacklisted al Nusra as a terror organization on December 11, 2012. Yet, Turkey’s rhetoric on Al Qaida affiliated groups was rather shortsighted and reactionary. For example, on July 2012 Ufuk Ulutas’ of SETA (Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research) –a pro-AKP think tank— wrote, “The exaggeration of Al Qaida is to try to sell a reality denying Syrian socio-economic conditions. Syria has one of the most moderate populations of the Middle East. There are few Syrian salafiyya and they are moderate salafiyya” On July 24, 2013 Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu had commented that all groups regardless of ethnicity or religious orientation are “friends of Turkey.” As unverified yet persistent suspicions started circulating about possible Turkish support for al Nusra in the international media, Turkey was under considerable pressure to act. In another mind boggling statement on January 17, 2014 Davutoglu announced that it was not Turkey, but rather “Assad is the one supporting Al Qaida because it benefits his regime.”
As soon as the al Nusra’s terrorism designation was heard, a swarm of tweets started flowing with the hashtag #HepimizNusretCephesiyiz (We are all al Nusra Front) in Turkish. Al Nusra’s webpage in Turkish struggled with the decision. It is noteworthy that executive editor of al Nusra’s Turkish newspaper has sent several tweets emphasizing how much Turkey owes its national security to Al Nusra.
In the meantime, the daily Today’s Zaman reported that sources from the Foreign Ministry have argued they have not necessarily declared any organization terrorist, as Turkey does not have such lists, but simply have complied with the United Nations Security Council’s decision on the group.
Alptekin Dursunoglu, executive editor of Yakin Dogu Haber, a news portal on Middle Eastern politics, told me “After the US and Saudi decisions to declare al Nusra a terror organization, the fact that Turkey followed suit informs us that Turkey wants to signal to Islamic Front “distance yourself from al Qaida affiliated groups.” In addition, this is a good public relations move considering the international suspicion about Turkish relations with armed groups in Syria.” I have spoken with more ten pundits from the US, Turkey and Syria who have rather different approaches to the Syrian conflict, and they have all agreed this was good public relations move for Turkey. Max Abrahams, Council on Foreign Relations Member, expressed the common understanding in a succinct way to us: “The more countries that designate a group as a terrorist organization, the harder it becomes for it to secure funding and thus thrive.”
An AKP official, speaking on the condition of unanimity, told me “The decision should not be seen as belated or taken under pressure. To the contrary, if anything, Turkey deserves credit for not caving under pressure and analyzing the facts and complicated relations of these groups diligently. To this end, now the time is right to separate the Islamists from the Jihadists. For us, there still seems a good possibility to work with Islamists in Syria along with our allies in the region.” In addition, a Kurdish politics expert and analyst, Aliza Marcus told us: “This is good news for the Kurds of the region who have made clear their opposition for such radical and violent Islamist groups.”
The official Turkish rhetoric has gone through serious updating on Syria based Al Qaida linked groups. First was denial –” jihadists are foreign to Syria and will never survive”– second was “jihadists are tools of Assad government “and now came the acceptance that even Nusra which was known as “acceptable” by AKP elites is on the blacklist. This acceptance has multiple motives. The most important can be summed as: mending bridges with other countries involved in Syria, most importantly the US; appeasing the Kurdish voices that have been fighting against al Nusra; and the understanding that the Islamic Front, particularly Ahrar al-Sham, should be the main group to support.
Andrew Terrill, research professor at the US Army War College, told me: “I think that Washington is extremely pleased that Turkey has declared al Nusra Front to be a terrorist organization. The United States has been irritated with Ankara for some time over what it views as a relaxed Turkish outlook on the dangers of the al Nusra. The question of how pro-active Turkey will be in opposing this group remains uncertain, but at a minimum the United States expects that the Turkish government will make a real effort to dry up supplies of money and weapons flowing from Turkey to al Nusra.”
Following Terrill’s words, it is worth asking how credible is this blacklisting, that what can we expect in real terms from Turkish decision to blacklist al Nusra? Jonathan Schanzer, Vice President of Research Foundation for Defense of Democracies, explained to us: “The problem is that Turkey lacks the ability to enforce this designation. This has been made abundantly clear by the fact that Turkey has been out of compliance with the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) for the last seven years. FATF continues to underscore that Turkey has failed to address, through legal and technical means, the terrorism finance challenges it faces today.” Schanzer also questioned, “Has Ankara made Jabhat al-Nusra off-limits to particularly Islamic NGOs such as IHH which have prided themselves on their ability to work with all of the various groups that are fighting in Syria?”
Not everyone would agree with Schanzer on Turkey’s ability to curtail Al Nusra’s financial assets and power, as Aaron Stein, an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, (RUSI) told us: “Turkey has a capable bureaucracy that is able to implement decisions. However, I am not sure that the government is ready to seriously crack down on the Khaleeji [Gulf] financiers and facilitators that work on the border with near impunity.”
It is fair to conclude the end of the Syrian conflict is out of sight. The situation on the ground is fluid, and multiple fronts exist for each actor. It is no longer the government forces vs freedom fighters. As opposition diversified and got divided amongst itself, Turkish foreign policy had to adopt. However, the change is difficult to grasp, let alone explain for foreign policy experts. The most poignant example comes from the use of the word: “swamp.” On August 25, 2012, Taha Ozhan, director of SETA penned a searing piece condemning all that warn against adventurism in Syria, by referring to the Middle East as a swamp. Ozhan wrote, “Swamp rhetoric definition of the region is a sign of ignorance.” While on November 22, 2013 Davutoglu went on the record: “Syria is turned into a swamp, all kinds of crawlers (referring to Al Nusra and Al Qaida affiliated organizations) are then reproduced in that swamp.” We see a government that is unsure of its own choice of words concerning a serious security threat that is well within its borders now. It is a smart move to declare al Nusra a terror organization, with the excuse of complying with the UNSC’s decision; yet it is too soon to expect pro-government media to celebrate this decision to its domestic audiences. Given this observation, the decision of enlisting al Nusra as a terror organization might not amount to a significant change in real terms.