Turkish crackdown on Syrian rebel network
Ankara carries out counterterrorism operations against alleged members of Syria’s Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham
Over the weekend, Turkey carried out counterterrorism operations against the alleged members of Syria’s former Al- Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) in cities throughout the country.
With HTS taking control of more strategic towns in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib from Turkish-backed fighters, experts said the group represented an increasing terror threat inside Turkey due to its geographical proximity and Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian conflict.
In Istanbul, in southern city of Adana and in capital city Ankara, 13 HTS officials were arrested in the first operation against the terror group, which was carried out by 300 police officials.
In Adana, Turkish police arrested a cell of financial supporters of HTS, including the president of a humanitarian aid NGO named Fukara Der whose financial operations had already attracted the attention of Turkish Financial Crimes Investigation Board (MASAK). The suspects, who also fought during the Syrian civil war, are accused of sending money, clothes and providing logistics to HTS members in Syria.
Kyle Orton, a researcher on the Syrian war, thinks that it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that the timing of this anti-HTS raid is political.
“Turkey switched to targeting HTS/AQ cells in the way it did the PKK and Daesh infrastructure some time ago. There is clearly a significant HTS network in Turkey, which is tied into the broader Al- Qaeda network for legacy reasons,” he told Arab News.
According to Orton, Turkey’s intentions in Idlib remain deeply murky, at least in part because the capture of territory in the east of Syria that allowed for the return of refugees and broke up the PKK cantons, which would diminish Ankara’s interest, in terms of its security, in holding on to Idlib. Therefore the Turks might do a deal that allows the pro-Assad coalition to have Idlib back.
Turkey has listed HTS as terror group associated with Al-Nusra and Al- Qaeda since last August.
Nihat Ali Ozcan, a security analyst at the Ankara-based think tank TEPAV, said Turkey faces a domestic security risk when intervening in a civil war in its neighbor, and added that this terror threat might increase if the power struggle between HTS and pro-Turkey rebels ever turn into conflict.
“These counter-terrorism operations across the country are therefore of a pre-emptive character,” he told Arab News.
According to Ozcan, HTS has a more established support network in Turkey compared to Daesh, and its membership base is more mixed in nationality, making it more open to the recruitment of foreign fighters.
Sertac Canalp Korkmaz, a researcher in security studies at ORSAM, a think tank in Ankara, said the threat posed by HTS in Turkey is as great as that posed by Daesh and Al- Qaeda.
According to Korkmaz, HTS opposed the Sochi de-escalation agreement from the beginning, as it didn’t agree on laying down its arms.
Escalating clashes between HTS and the Ankara-backed National Front for Liberation in Idlib have also raised concerns about the sustainability of other clauses of the Sochi agreement, in which Article 5 stipulates that all radical terrorist groups should be removed from the demilitarised zone.
“The prospect of Ankara taking part of a limited operation in Idlib increases the potential of a terror act inside Turkey through its cells,” Korkmaz told Arab News.
“The southern city of Adana is geographically close to the conflict zone, while Istanbul and Ankara, as cities, provide opportunities for terror cells to hide themselves and recruit members,” he added.