ANKARA // The Syrian rebel groups that Turkey has allowed to proliferate near its border include many who have said they have no problem fighting alongside Al Qaeda against the president, Bashar Al Assad.
“Al Qaeda is helping us, while foreign countries are not,” said Besil Abu Arab, 20, a member of the Ahrar Al Sham militia, as he received treatment in a makeshift hospital in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli.
Mr Abu Arab has lost movement in his left arm since he was shot near Aleppo a month ago.
Abu Imar Halebi, a fighter with the Aleppo-based movement Abu Amara, agreed that Al Qaeda fighters were an asset. He said he did not oppose their goal of establishing Islamic law in Syria, though his own group prefers to explain its benefits and win popular assent rather than impose it by force.
The spread of such groups in Nato-member Turkey, as well as recent signals of impatience from Saudi Arabia, highlight the different priorities between the US and its Muslim allies over Syria.
Concerns that Islamist militants may benefit played a part in the decision by the administration of the US president, Barack Obama, to step back from using force against Mr Al Assad’s government in September. For its allies, the calculation may be different.
“Turkey should try to reduce the influence of the Al Qaeda-affiliated groups,” said Stephen Larrabee of Rand Corp, a policy institute in the US. “The longer this goes on, the more they are likely to be strengthened.”
He said Turkey initially downplayed the risk from Islamist radicals because it was more concerned about Kurdish separatists in northern Syria, who have fought against the groups. “But after a while, they began to see the danger.”
Turkey is a sponsor of the Free Syrian Army, the West’s preferred opposition group in Syria, and denies it has ever permitted the more extreme groups fighting in Syria to operate from Turkish territory.
“Organisations like Nusra or Al Qaeda can’t find shelter in our country,” said the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose government has Islamist roots. He was referring to Jabhat Al Nusra, one of the biggest Islamist groups in Syria and classified by the US as terrorists linked to Al Qaeda.
In mid-October, Turkey’s army said it fired at fighters from Al Qaeda’s Iraq wing, Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, across the border after a mortar round landed near a Turkish frontier post. Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant has emerged as one of the fiercest of the rebel groups.
Salih Muslim, the leader of the main Kurdish party in Syria, told Istanbul’s Taraf newspaper that Turkey had been supporting Al Nusra and Al Qaeda and has now stopped, “or at least that’s how it looks”.
Mr Al Assad’s government also charges Turkey and Saudi Arabia with supporting Islamic extremists fighting against him.
Saudi Arabia indicated last month that it doesn’t consider the US-backed rebels effective and that confining assistance to them would handicap the fight against Mr Al Assad. Saudi Arabia’s main regional rival, Shiite-ruled Iran, is Mr Al Assad’s closest ally.
Among the refugees in Turkey, many are uncomfortable with the gains that the extremists have made.
Nasir Hackasim, who runs a restaurant near a refugee camp at the Turkish border post of Oncupinar, said he had a glimpse of what Islamist rule in Syria would look like.
Mr Hackasim escaped from his hometown, Azaz in northern Syria, last year with his wife and nine sons when Mr Al Assad’s forces stormed the area and came looking for him as a rebel collaborator. He went back a month ago after Al Qaeda drove Mr Al Assad’s forces out and found the town under the control of militants who order women to cover up and stay indoors, force men to attend mosques and have set up Sharia courts.
“They are even beating smokers with sticks,” the kebab chef said, puffing on his cigarette. “It’s my hometown, I’ll eventually go back, but I can’t live under such radicals.”
Mr Hackasim said he realised during his trip home that extremist groups are supported by many Syrians, not just for religious reasons. He said the Islamists won over many poor people by distributing aid equally and punishing looters with death.
Mr Larrabee said gains by Islamists had raised the prospect of a Syria that “would be as bad as if not worse than one dominated by Assad”.
Nearer the front-line, the priorities often look different.
Salahaddin Marasli is a 56-year-old refugee in Reyhanli who supports the western-backed rebels and wants the militants reined in. Yet he understands why that’s unlikely to happen while they’re both fighting Assad, and maybe afterwards too.
“The Free Syrian Army can’t afford to fight on two fronts,” Mr Marasli said at his juice shop. “It’s a big problem. When the war is over, it will be very difficult to force Al Qaeda out of Syria.”