Turkish troops fire on Al Qaeda-affiliated militants in Syria
BEIRUT — Turkish troops opened fire this week on a convoy of Al Qaeda-linked militants across the border from Turkey in northern Syria, Turkish news media reported Wednesday.
Various Turkish accounts indicated that the military destroyed several vehicles belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a powerful Al Qaeda affiliate operating in rebel-held parts of Syria.
The attack was apparently in retaliation for shelling or gunfire from Syria that landed in Turkish territory. Turkey's military has a longtime policy of retaliating for cross-border strikes that hit Turkish soil, even in cases of errant fire.
There were no confirmed reports of casualties from the Turkish fire, which apparently took place Tuesday. It was unclear from the news accounts if the military responded with shelling or gunfire. It was also unclear exactly where along the border the incident took place.
It marks at least the second time that Turkish forces have opened fire on Al Qaeda-linked forces inside Syria. Last year, Turkey reported that its military shelled militant positions in the town of Azaz, about 3 miles from the border.
The Turkish government has been criticized at home and abroad for allowing thousands of Islamic militants from around the world to traverse Turkey en route to joining Al Qaeda factions and other radical rebel groups fighting the Syrian government. Turkey, which shares a 500-mile-plus border with Syria, has long been a key logistics and political base for the Syrian opposition.
This week’s Turkish strikes inside Syria come as intra-rebel fighting in northern Syria has pitted Al Qaeda-linked forces against non-Al Qaeda-affiliated rebels backed by the United States and its allies. The infighting has allowed the Syrian military to make strategic gains in the area, analysts say.
Meanwhile, negotiators from the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and the U.S.-backed opposition bloc held a fifth day of face-to-face talks Wednesday in Geneva. Participants reported no breakthroughs but a somewhat more cordial atmosphere after the previous two days of talks resulted in an impasse on several points, including the critical issue of transfer of power.
The opposition views the talks as a means to force Assad from power. The Syrian government says Assad's future is not up for discussion.
Organizers of the long-awaited peace conference view the session's major achievement as the fact that the two sides are finally talking — and that the negotiations have yet to collapse — after almost three years of war.
“To be blunt, I do not expect that we will achieve anything substantive,” the chief United Nations negotiator, Lakhdar Brahimi, told reporters in Geneva on Wednesday. “I am very happy that we are still talking, that the ice is breaking slowly, but it is breaking.”
The talks are expected to end Friday, Brahimi said, and a second round will probably be convened in a week or so.