Turk­ish crack­down on Syr­ian rebel net­work

Ankara car­ries out coun­tert­er­ror­ism op­er­a­tions against al­leged mem­bers of Syria’s Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham

Arab News - - News International - Menekse Tokyay Ankara AFP

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.

Turk­ish po­lice of­fi­cers es­cort de­tainees after their ar­rest for al­leged links with US-based cleric Fethul­lah Gulen in the cen­tral city of Kay­seri.

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