What Turkey Wants in Syria by Burak Bekdil • July 31, 2015 at 5:00 am

  • Members of the Free Syrian Army’s Al-Tawhid Brigade pose for a photo in Aleppo, in 2012. (Image source: Vice video screenshot)
  • Turkey says that it, together with the US, wants an IS-free zone in northern Syria. That is fine. But who will fill the vacuum in areas cleared of IS?

  • Turkey simply finds joining the international campaign against the Islamic State an opportunity to install pro-Sunni Islamist rule in areas now controlled by IS.
  • In all reality, Prime Minister Davutoglu wants to replace extreme Islamists with less extreme Islamists. Turkey is trying, with U.S. help, to make Syria an extension of Turkey for Muslim Brotherhood Sunni Islam.

After several months of reluctant negotiations, Turkey has anxiously decided to join the allied battle against the radical Islamists who fight under the flag of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (or Islamic State, ISIS, IS). Turkish jets bombed IS strongholds inside Syria, and police detained hundreds of IS supporters operating in Turkey, including two leaders. Moreover, Turkish ministers hastily signed a decree that would allow the U.S. military to use the critical Incirlik air base for strikes against IS targets. Incirlik, in southern Turkey near the Syrian border, is close to many IS strongholds and will cut response times for U.S. aircraft, increasing the efficiency of anti-militant operations.

Almost invariably, the groups fighting in Syria, with varying degrees of violence, are Islamists. If Davutoglu can market the FSA to his American allies, he will be nurturing, on his private agenda, another Islamist group that can potentially become another band of jihadists. Davutoglu is trying to make Syria an extension of Turkey for Muslim Brotherhood Sunni Islam.

In 2012, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued an open letter to opposition groups in Syria, including the FSA, accusing them of carrying out kidnappings, torture and executions. A United Nations-sponsored inquiry commission documented war crimes committed by these groups.

Some FSA-aligned groups have been criticized for having an affiliation with radical Islamists. The group itself was accused of summarily executing innumerable prisoners it held. Furthermore, the UN offered credible allegations against opposition groups, including the FSA, that they were recruiting children as soldiers. The FSA was mentioned in a 2014 HRW reportdetailing the widespread practice of using child soldiers — just as the IS is doing. All that is reasonable when you recall that some FSA-aligned brigades are working with hardline Islamist groups, including al-Qaeda and Ahrar Al-Sham.

Such is the profile of the “moderate” rebel group that Turkey supports and tells the U.S. is the “good guys” fighting for democracy in Syria.

In other words, with U.S. help, Turkey wants to build, in parts of Syria, a Sunni Islamist rule, which it hopes will expand into other Syrian regions, finally reaching Damascus.

This may not be a realistic scenario, but even its progress can potentially create new Frankenstein monsters in Syria, with, most likely, “moderate” Islamists taking off their masks and becoming the radicals they in fact are.

Burak Bekdil, based in Ankara, is a Turkish columnist for the Hürriyet Daily and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.

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