The Turkish government Tuesday denied accusations by Syrian rebels that its intelligence service had tipped off an al Qaida-linked group that then abducted the commander and 20 members of a U.S.-trained group of Syrian fighters about to confront the Islamic State.
In a statement to McClatchy, which first reported on Monday the allegations from multiple Syrian rebel groups that the Nusra Front had been alerted by the Turkish government, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s office said it denied “the allegations in the strongest terms possible. The idea that Turkey, a key supporter of the Train and Equip Program, would seek to undermine its own interests in Syria is ludicrous.”
The statement was attributed to a senior member of the prime minister’s office.
The dispute centers around the arrival into Syria of the first 54 members of a program by a coalition of anti-Islamic State members – including the U.S., Jordan, the United Kingdom and Turkey – to train and equip carefully vetted Syrian rebels for the fight against the Islamic State in Syria. The so called “T&E” group is part of a moderate Syrian rebel group known as Division 30, which has drawn members from a variety of units that were once under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army. The FSA led the initial military uprising against the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad before being eclipsed by a number of jihadist and Islamist groups, including the Islamic State.
On July 29, the 54 fighters and their commander, Col. Nadim Hassan, arrived in Azaz, along the Turkish border, where they were immediately abducted or attacked by the Nusra Front. Hassan and about 20 of his men remain held by Nusra, which has declared the group an American front designed to target Islamists, despite the group’s repeated insistence that it would only participate in operations against the Islamic State, which Nusra, despite sharing a common ideology and origins in al Qaida in Iraq, also fights.
U.S. airstrikes have mostly concentrated on the Islamic State but at times have targeted Nusra Front facilities because of the group’s open allegiance to al Qaida.
The idea that Turkey, a key supporter of the Train and Equip Program, would seek to undermine its own interests in Syria is ludicrous.
Statement from the office of Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu
The United States has frequently clashed with both the Syrian opposition and Turkey over the role of Islamist groups in the Syrian civil war. But many of America’s allies in the region and inside Syria have been loath to cut ties to the groups and continue to cooperate with them both politically and on the battlefield.
The Turkish prime minister’s statement added that – despite a widespread belief among other Syrian rebel groups and many regional analysts that it has cooperated with Nusra in the past – it considers Nusra a terrorist organization and has no official contact.
“We regard the claims as part of a defamation campaign against Turkey,” the statement said. “In the past, we have repeatedly stated that the government of Turkey designates and treats al Nusra Front as a terrorist organization. There has been absolutely no change in our policy toward the organization.”
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a Turkish intelligence official said that the breakdown in security, which left the future of the $500 million training program in grave doubt, was the result of members of Division 30 openly advertising their movements on social media.
“Everyone was talking about that (deployment,)” the official said. “Many groups on the ground, the (Islamist) opposition all were talking about when and how (the T&E) might enter Syria. There might be resentment because the incoming forces had good money, education and training. No one wanted them to be successful.”
But Turkey itself has long criticized the T&E program for not only being too small in scale but for only focusing on the Islamic State, an argument repeated by Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in a televised statement Tuesday evening, who said the abduction of the group proved that Turkey’s concerns were justified.
“Now it is seen that Turkey’s (thesis) appears justified on T&E,” he told reporters. “We have been saying for a long period that in order to fight against (the Islamic State), the T&E program alone will not be enough, but can be a supportive element.”
Mitchell Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent.