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Is Turkey still a ‘jihadist highway’ to Syria – or is that a bum rap? (+video)

Under pressure from the West, Turkey is reinforcing its long border with Syria, tightening security at its gates, and trumpeting its arrests of foreign jihadists.

Turkey has a reputation, one it doesn't like. Since the rise of the Islamic State and other extremist groups in neighboring Syria and Iraq, the country has been cast as a “jihadist highway” traveled by seasoned militants and naive youth seduced by war and Islamist utopias.

The jihadists' trail through Turkey has become a staple of critical media reports that scrutinize police and family in Europe and the US, as well as Turkey's failure to stem the flow. 

More than 20,000 volunteers from 90 countries have traveled to Syria to join IS or other terror groups, according to the latest tally from the National Counter-Terrorism Center. Most pass through Turkey, which shares a border with the European Union and offers visa-free travel for citizens of 69 countries.

Analysts say Ankara’s border policy has been a delicate balancing act governed by hostility toward Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and the desire to do right by refugees while avoiding attacks and Kurdish unrest at home. Turkey banked on foreign militants to boost the Syrian opposition and initially turned a blind eye to its activities.

But now, pressured by the West and by evolving security concerns, the country appears to be changing tack – steadily ramping up security checks at border gates with Syria and even shutting them. It is also advertising its arrests of foreign jihadists to showcase its newfound toughness.

On Wednesday, nine British citizens and a French national were detained in southern Turkey in transit to Syria to join a militant group, the Anadolu News agency reported.

Turkish officials argue there is a joint responsibility among European countries and Turkey to either stop potential jihadis from leaving their home countries or at least to share intelligence on their movements in a timely manner.

A case in point came in March, when the media spotlight fell on three London school girls and nine British-Sudanese medical students and doctors.

Both groups made it to territory controlled by the self-described Islamic State (IS) in Syria via Turkey. In the case of the girls, who landed in Istanbul and then continued by car to Syria, the Turkish authorities said they received intelligence too late. Acting on a British tip-off, Turkey intercepted three male teens shortly after.

'Being reactive is inadequate'

“The lack of immediate action in the case of [British schoolgirls] Amira Abase, Shamima Begum, and Kadiza Sultana should be seen in contrast with the speed with which police worked to return the three young men from Brent,” said Keith Vaz, a British MP who chairs a committee that oversees domestic security, crime, and border policy. 

“This is evidence of how vital it is to work closely with communities, families, and international partners to tackle this growing threat,” he added, cited in a recent report entitled “Counter-terrorism: foreign fighters.”

The report by the Home Affairs Select Committee concluded that British police need to work faster to alert overseas partners and airlines when it becomes clear that an individual might already have left for Syria. “Being reactive is inadequate: once people reach Syria and Iraq, or even Turkey, it is too late.”

With less fanfare, on March 29, five Dutch citizens were detained while trying to cross from Turkey to Syria illegally, according to a Turkish army statement. A journalist who was briefly detained in Istanbul said he was held alongside members of IS, including an American awaiting deportation to the US.

“Kickbacks,” or deportations based on shared intelligence, happen frequently at Turkey’s international airports, according to observers familiar with the proceedings. But intelligence sharing and consensus building when it comes to Syria and Islamic State remains a broader challenge.

Potential cost to tourism

Turkey says it cannot deport or arrest individuals at a whim and that it needs actionable intelligence or clear criminal indicators. Otherwise it risks being cast as draconian – and losing some of its appeal as a tourist destination.

“Keep in mind Turkey has hosted 38 million tourists in 2014 and is expected to top 40 million this year,” says a public diplomacy officer.

But that doesn’t mean a policy of inaction, officials insist. 

According to data published last month by the border governorship of Gaziantep, judicial proceedings have been carried out against 269 Turks and 27 foreigners, including nine Germans “for being a member of a terrorist organization,” since the start of the crisis in Syria.

In 2014, Turkey introduced risk analysis centers at airports and bus stations, according to the prime minister’s office of public diplomacy. Such centers are also being established in sea ports because foreign fighters are varying their routes, with some starting the journey by boat from Cyprus and Greece.

“Turkey is the preferred route,” says the public diplomacy officer, requesting anonymity in keeping with government protocol. “The units are working 24/7. When foreign countries send us a list of names that they suspect of going to Syria to join IS, our work is much easier.”

Physical border reinforcements

The results of tightened security, the Turkish official adds, are evident in the high number of individuals arrested while trying to cross the border illegally, with 54,000 caught in 2013 and 71,000 in 2014. These numbers exclude an estimated 1.7 million civilians escaping the conflict in Syria since 2011, according to conservative UN figures. 

Last year Turkey reinforced its border with Syria, building 200 miles of trenches, rolling out 100 miles of fence, raising 30 miles of berm, and erecting a 13-mile wall. Lights went up to illuminate 165 miles, and watch towers multiplied.

Still, Turkey is overextended on issues of migration and security. Many here feel that Western countries that have long pushed Turkey to curb migration into, rather than out of, Europe, should share more of the burden for resettling Syrian refugees and strengthening the border.

“On intelligence, they don’t share information. For capacity, the number of Syrian refugees Western countries got is very small. Money-wise, they are not helping to strengthen the physical border. They want change but at this point Turkey needs an equal partner,” says Elif Özmenek Çarmıklı, an analyst at the Ankara-based International Strategic Research Organization.

Changing threat perceptions

Turkey has repeatedly sought the creation of a buffer zone inside Syria, an idea that has gained little traction in the West. Its progressive closure of border gates with Syria suggests that its own policy is shifting, a move that responds to internal security concerns, including a desire for calm during upcoming elections, as much as external pressure.

Last month, Turkey shut down its last two open border gates to traffic from Syria. Syrians familiar with the decision say the move came in response to a terror plot that Turkish officials attributed to the Assad regime and that the border gates will reopen after new monitoring systems are in place. Meanwhile, smugglers are cashing in. 

Tightened border controls, says Mr. Çarmıklı, also reflect a changed perception of the threat posed by the sustained presence of jihadis in the region. In 2012, Turkey believed President Assad would fall quickly and that the bulk of Syrian refugees would eventually return to their home country.

“The policies on the table are dramatically different than in 2012,” he says. “Now the issues are totally different.”

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