Al Qaeda has suffered greatly in Syria due to Turkey’s presence in Idlib, Syria, and is seeking to retaliate.
On March 10, a Turkish soldier, Osman Alp, was killed in a attack by Al-Qaeda in Idlib, northern Syria. He and four of his wounded comrades were deployed to the region as part of a force protecting 3.1 million civilians against the Assad regime, Iran and Russia.
Al Qaeda’s offshoots and underground networks have repeatedly attacked Turkish convoys and Turkish bases in Idlib. Most of the attacks were thwarted by Turkish security forces or did not cause major damage, but some resulted in the deaths of several Turkish soldiers.
When the Al Qaeda terrorist group was formed, it claimed to focus on “the distant enemy” – the United States. So why is Al Qaeda explicitly targeting Turkish soldiers in Syria and what are their motivations?
In recent years, Turkey has been the target of various terrorist groups, including Daesh, PKK / YPG, DHKP-C, MLKPD and others. Some of them were so-called jihadists, others were Marxists. However, al-Qaeda had not carried out a terrorist attack in Turkey since Istanbul bombings of 2003.
Especially during the split between Al Qaeda and Daesh, Al Qaeda figures would claim that Turkey has a Muslim population, distancing itself from Daesh terrorist attacks in Turkey. Along with the deterritorialization of Daesh, Al-Qaeda’s largest offshoot, the Al Nusra Front in Syria, has undergone a significant transformation.
The branch officially severed ties with the central leadership of Al Qaeda, united with other armed groups in Idlib, and formed a new entity called Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). After several battles with the Turkish-backed Syrian opposition in Idlib, HTS succeeded in controlling parts of the region.
However, a dogmatic core within HTS rejected severing ties with Al Qaeda, broke up, and founded a new group called Hurras al-Din. The relationship between HTS and Hurras al-Din has remained ambivalent. HTS limited the activities of the former and drew the line for its military operations in Idlib.
In early 2020, the Russian-backed military operation in Idlib risked the lives of 3.1 million civilians and the future of the legitimate Syrian opposition. It was only after the Turkish military operation that a massacre was averted and that in March 2020 Turkey and Russia signed a new ceasefire for Idlib.
With this, the Turkish military presence in Idlib had grown considerably. So much so that the Turkish armed forces have become the largest and most powerful in Idlib. This new force allowed Turkey to transform the internal dynamic in Idlib by moderating the armed groups thanks to a strengthening of the Syrian opposition supported by Turkey and by playing the pragmatic wing within the HTS against the dogmatic wing. This policy proved to be effective as the strengthening of the pragmatic wing inside the HTS prompted a reaction from Hurras al-Din to challenge HTS. HTS responded with war.
In short, Al Qaeda loyalists lost the battle and were forced to disband. This means that the Syrian armed groups in Idlib have moved from a three-axis parameter to a two-axis dynamic in which only the Syrian opposition supported by Turkey and the HTS remain.
An estimated 35 to 45 percent of the 1,000 members of Al Qaeda affiliate Hurras al-Din have deserted Al Qaeda or laid down their arms. The remaining 55 to 65 percent of Al Qaeda in Idlib have been forced into hiding and changing their modus operandi.
Currently, Al Qaeda has several stand-alone underground networks operating in Idlib. Their capacities and resources have diminished considerably. The Ansar Abu Bakr al-Siddiq squadron is one such subgroup of Al Qaeda in Idlib. The group is made up of a former elite unit from Hurras al-Din. Although their operations are secret, it is estimated that they have 20 to 100 active operators with an intelligence network of 100 to 400 people.
Ansar Abu Bakr al-Siddiq squadron led several attacks against Turkish soldiers in Idlib. In every official statement, the Al Qaeda subgroup refers to the Turkish armed forces as “the Turkish NATO army”.
In addition, the group try to legitimize its terrorist acts against the protectors of 3.1 million civilians by arguing that Turkey is a secular state ruled by apostates. The group argues that Turkey’s sole aim is to dismantle the ‘jihad’ in Syria and that Turkey is collaborating with the ‘Russian criminals’ and the’ Majusi [fire worshipper/Zorastrian] Iran ‘.
While Turkey is the only power in the world to use its military to protect innocent civilians in Syria, it is also the only power that strikes al Qaeda where it hurts the most. Turkey’s role in Syria is the antithesis of Al Qaeda – which feeds off the trauma of civilians by portraying itself as the defender of Muslims.
As Turkey filled the protection vacuum for vulnerable Syrians that Al Qaeda exploited for years, the terror group struggled to recruit new members and is shrinking every day. As a result, almost no Syrians remain in their ranks in Syria, and almost all of the members of the Al Qaeda underground network are foreigners. Al Qaeda knows that if the status quo continues, it will lose Syria forever.
To avoid this, Al Qaeda is putting all its resources to target the Turkish armed forces in Idlib. By relying on Russian and Iranian pressure against Turkey, the terrorist group wants to increase the costs of the Turkish deployment in Idlib.
The aim is to force Turkey to withdraw from Idlib and to allow a new Russian-Iranian military operation in Idlib. Al Qaeda would use this to exploit the ensuing humanitarian catastrophe in Idlib and propagate the idea of ââa Turkish betrayal against the Syrian people. If Al Qaeda can achieve this, the terrorist group will not only expand in Syria, but will use this rhetoric to regain support in the Muslim world.
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