ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu claimed in a Wednesday-released interview with national media that “some countries within” the US-led anti-Islamic State Coalition were financially supporting the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) group, an al-Qaida affiliate operating in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province.
“For the HTS to get strong, it needs men. But there are no more men [joining the group]. And there are no more crossings there [through Turkey’s border into Idlib]. And now it is not getting anything from countries it once was receiving resources. They need weapons,” Cavusoglu said.
“I know for a fact that some Western countries are inciting the HTS to break apart the Idlib agreement. They give them money. There are even countries in the [anti-ISIS] Coalition working hard to prevent a [Syrian] constitutional commission because we are engaged in that,” Cavusoglu continued in the interview with the privately-owned Hurriyet newspaper.
Journalists interviewing him for the paper owned by a businessman close to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not ask him to specify which countries he accused of backing al-Qaida affiliates in the immediate south of Turkey’s border with Syria.
Cavusoglu did not provide any proof for his claim, apparently targeting the United States or its two other coalition allies France and the United Kingdom.
HTS rules over much of Idlib where Turkey keeps at least 12 observation posts per a 2017 deal with Russia to de-escalate violence between the armed Syrian Islamist opposition and the Ba’ath regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Last year, the group escorted a convoy of Turkish military vehicles into Idlib’s Maarrat al-Numan city where the latter set up yet another outpost.
Russia has made it clear it wants all Syrian lands to come back under the rule of Damascus and to that end, it prepared for an assault to recapture the wayward province late last year. However, a last-minute request by Erdogan to Putin put the planned operation on hold.
HTS, previously known as al-Nusra Front, has in the past been the target of US airstrikes. However, in early 2017, it sought to distance itself from the mainstream al-Qaida under the leadership of the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri.
In recent weeks, it has also taken more territory and scores of population centers from rival militias in Idlib, causing unease in Moscow which expects Ankara to disarm the group per the deal they signed in Kazakstan’s Astana.
Cavusoglu’s remarks come as Turkey finds itself in a difficult position between maintaining its backing of Syrian Islamist rebel militias and its growing cooperation with Russia which went to the rescue of the Syrian regime in 2015 by mobilizing its airpower.
Turkey actively supported many rebel factions by opening its borders to them and providing money and weapons for the overthrow of Assad’s regime in Damascus since an initially civil uprising began in 2011.
Editing by Karzan Sulaivany