Turkish government co-operated with al-Qaeda in Syria, says former US ambassador
Officials supported the extremist group’s Syrian wing in a failed attempt to moderate extremists, according to Francis Ricciardone.
U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone with former CIA Director Leon Panetta in Ankara in 2011.
By Richard Spencer, Middle East Correspondent, and Raf Sanchez in Washington
7:43PM BST 12 Sep 2014, Telegraph
Turkey has directly supported al-Qaeda’s wing in Syria in defiance of the United States, the former American ambassador to Ankara has said.
The Turkish authorities thought they could work with extremist Islamist groups in the Syrian civil war and at the same time push them to become more moderate, Francis Ricciardone, who was until late June the US ambassador to Ankara, told journalists in a briefing.
That led them to work with Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s branch, as well as hardline Salafi Islamist groups like Ahrar al-Sham. Mr Ricciardone said that he tried to persuade the Turkish government to close its borders to the groups, but to no avail.
“We ultimately had no choice but to agree to disagree,” he said. “The Turks frankly worked with groups for a period, including al Nusra, whom we finally designated as we’re not willing to work with.”
Turkey allowed its borders to be used as a conduit for aid, weapons and volunteers heading for the Syrian rebel cause from the start of the uprising, and there have long been accusations that it did not do enough to distinguish between “moderate” groups and extremists.
But this is the first time a senior American official – albeit one no longer in service – has said openly that Turkey was working with al-Qaeda.
Ironically, the Turkish policy has been effective in one way – Jabhat al-Nusra is now seen as relatively moderate compared to its splinter group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil). But in other respects, it has backfired.
President Barack Obama repeatedly stalled on providing more support to the rebel cause, fearing weapons would get into the hands of extremists.
Then Isil split from Jabhat al-Nusra in the summer of last year, taking thousands of its recruits and their weapons with it, along with territory the group controlled in the east of the country.
Turkish officials yesterday cited the fact that Isil are holding hostage 49 Turks sized from the country’s consulate in Mosul in northern Iraq as a reason not to take part in the US-led military coalition to take on the group.
Turkish analysts say the government is also worried about a wider backlash by Isil, which now has recruiting stations and supporters entrenched in the country.
“For a long time the Islamic State militants have operated under the policy of ‘benign neglect’,” said Sinan Ulgen, a former diplomat and head of the Istanbul foreign policy think-tank Edam.
He said that the authorities would now start to move against Isil inside the country and support the American coalition, but without advertising the fact.
John Kerry, the US secretary of state, met Turkish leaders yesterday but noticeably held back from publicly asking Turkey to alter its insistence that American forces could not launch military raids on Isil positions from its territory.
Turkey is a key Nato ally and host to a major US base at Incirlik, in the south of the country.
President Barack Obama’s new determination to intervene in the multi-pronged civil war in Syria, attacking Isil from the air and supporting “moderate” rebels on the ground, continued to come under fire.
In particular, doubt has been cast on the potential effectiveness of the non-militant rebels, fighting on two fronts against both Isil and the regime. A new CIA estimate revised the figure for the number of fighters for Isil in Syria and Iraq as 20,000-31,500.
Another critic of President Obama was the mother of James Foley, one of two journalists beheaded by Isil in retaliation for US bombing raids on their positions.
Diane Foley told CNN that the family’s efforts to get her son freed had seemed like an “annoyance” to the government, and that at one stage they were warned that they could be arrested and prosecuted if they tried to raise a ransom for him, as that was illegal.
“We were just told to trust that he would be freed somehow and he wasn’t, was he?” she said.