ISTANBUL -- A year and a half after the United States designated the al Qaeda-linked Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra a terrorist organization, Turkey has followed suit, signaling what experts say is a shift in its approach to the Syrian civil war.
The country's Official Gazette said in a statement that Turkey will now freeze any assets linked to the group. Turkey, which backs the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad and hosts more than 700,000 Syrian refugees, has been accused of aiding extremist Islamist militants and failing to stop them from crossing the border to join the fight against Assad. The change in policy, experts say, shows that the country wants to put a stop to those claims and is increasingly concerned about the rise of extremists.
“Significant shifts have been underway behind the scenes in recent months within a number of key opposition-supporting states, including Turkey, which have had as their focus the adoption of a dual-track policy of bolstering moderate rebels and isolating extremists," said Charles Lister, a Syria analyst and visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center.
The United States listed Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist organization in December 2012, and the United Nations, United Kingdom and Australia all followed suit last year. Turkey’s rhetoric and actions regarding Syria are beginning to fall into line with the American approach to the conflict, said Aaron Stein, an Istanbul-based Turkey expert and associate fellow with the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies.
“What we’ve seen is a subtle shift in Turkish policy,” he said, adding that changes began after a high-profile meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Washington last year. “Today, the listing of Nusra on the terror list punctuates that. This very much looks like Washington is finally playing a larger role in coordinating the regional response and Turkey is doing its part to help this out. This is a change."
Just last month, Obama announced that the U.S. would increase assistance to the cash-strapped and fractured moderate Syrian opposition battling Assad.
"In helping those who fight for the right of all Syrians to choose their own future, we also push back against the growing number of extremists who find safe-haven in the chaos,” Obama said in a speech at the U.S. Military Academy.
Some Western-backed moderate rebel groups say that their fight for freedom has become tainted by extremists who tout an entirely different agenda for Syria. Human rights organizations have accused Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which is considered a more radical al Qaeda-linked group, of carrying out routine executions and suicide bombings with heavy civilian death tolls.
“Finally, Turkey lists Nusra as terrorist group,” Nadim Houry, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch, tweeted on Tuesday. “Belated decision & question remain re past role in facilitating access," he said, referring to accusations that Turkey has let militants into Syria.
In recent weeks, Turkey has begun constructing a concrete wall along its southeastern border with Syria in hopes that it will curb the smuggling of weapons and the movement of extremist fighters. Bombings at the border crossing are now commonplace, and more than 75 Turkish citizens have been killed as a result of fighting that has moved across the border, according to the International Crisis Group.
“Turkey's approach towards the jihadi elements in Syria, particularly ISIL but also al-Nusra, has gone through a significant adjustment through the course of the past year,” said Didem Collinsworth, a Turkey analyst with the International Crisis Group. “At different levels of Turkish policy-making, including at the top, radical elements from Syria are now very clearly recognized as a main security threat to Turkey.”