Turkey and Saudi Arabia are actively supporting a hardline coalition of Islamist rebels against Bashar al-Assad’s regime that includes al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, in a move that has alarmed Western governments.
The two countries are focusing their backing for the Syrian rebels on the combined Jaish al-Fatah, or the Army of Conquest, a command structure for jihadist groups in Syria that includes Jabhat al-Nusra, an extremist rival to Isis which shares many of its aspirations for a fundamentalist caliphate.
The decision by the two leading allies of the West to back a group in which al-Nusra plays a leading role has alarmed Western governments and is at odds with the US, which is firmly opposed to arming and funding jihadist extremists in Syria’s long-running civil war.
It threatens to trump Washington’s own attempt to train pro-Western opposition fighters, announced by President Barack Obama a year ago but finally launched only last week. The number of fighters involved is small and, crucially, the State Department insists that they would take the field against Isis and not against the regime.
The new joint approach follows an agreement reached in early March when Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited the recently crowned Saudi King Salman in Riyadh, diplomats have told The Independent.
Relations had been fraught between the Turkish president and the late King Abdullah, primarily because of Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Saudi monarchy considers a threat. But Mr Erdogan stressed to Saudi officials that the lack of Western action in Syria, especially the failure to impose a “no-fly zone”, meant that regional powers now needed to come together and take the lead to help the opposition.
The Army of Conquest – which also numbers the extremist groups Ahrar al-Sham and Jund al-Aqsa among its seven members – has a command centre in Idlib, northern Syria. Turkish officials admit giving logistical and intelligence support to the command headquarters. Although they deny giving direct help to al-Nusra, they acknowledge that the group would be beneficiaries.
They also acknowledge links with Ahrar al-Sham, which is held to be extremist by the US, but has fought against Isis, as has al-Nusra in some parts of Syria. Turkish officials claim that bolstering Ahrar al-Sham will weaken the influence of al-Nusra.
Material support – arms and money – have been coming from the Saudis, say rebels and officials, with the Turks facilitating its passage. The border villages of Guvecci, Kuyubasi, Hacipasa, Besaslan, Kusakli and Bukulmez are the favoured routes, according to rebel sources.
The joint approach by Turkey and Saudi Arabia graphically illustrates how the interests of the Sunni regional powers are diverging from those of the US in Syria. Washington firmly opposes arming and funding jihadist extremists in Syria’s civil war. It conducted air strikes against al-Nusra positions in Aleppo – claiming the group was plotting terrorist attacks on the West – on the first day of the current bombing campaign against Isis.
Read more: independent.co.uk