Western governments are expressing growing alarm at the rise of hard-line jihad groups in Syria and their recruitment of volunteers from Europe and the US, who could present a future security threat if and when the survivors return home.
This has put a spotlight on Turkey, a NATO ally that has sided against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Turkey, which shares a land border with Syria, has become a key transit route and staging area for antigovernment forces, including Al Qaeda-linked militants. Despite intensifying Western pressure, questions linger over Turkey’s willingness to crack down on these groups.
Belgium’s Interior Minister told reporters at a recent security summit in Brussels that up to 2,000 European citizens have fought in Syria. US intelligence reports have suggested that between 10 and 60 American citizens have fought there. And officials in Europe and Washington have voiced fears over the blowback effect from returning jihadis.
Last weekend, the BBC reported that foreign fighters are using safe houses in the border town of Reyhanli as a base from which to enter Syria, citing interviews with a French jihadist and a man running a safe house.
One Western diplomat expressed doubt that the Turkish government was fully cooperating with Western efforts to staunch the flow of fighters. "We are still experiencing operational difficulties, although we have seen signs that it is improving. As to whether a ‘shift’ ever occurred, that is still an open question,” the diplomat says.
Analysts and journalists familiar with the situation say Turkey has long been facilitating the arming and support of these groups by third parties as part of a policy of indiscriminately assisting rebels groups fighting in the Syrian civil war regardless of ideology.
One of the staunchest opponents of Syria’s Assad regime, Ankara has in recent weeks insisted that it takes the issue seriously.
“It is out of the question that organizations like Al-Qaeda or Al-Nusra [an Al Qaeda-linked group] could take shelter in our country,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters in Sweden last month. “On the contrary, we have taken the necessary steps against them and will continue to do so.”
One reason why Turkish officials are so insistent is that they also fear blowback themselves. Local newspapers have suggested that these groups are setting their sights on Turkey, a Muslim-majority democracy that has been grappling with its own social and cultural fissures.
Late last month a report by the country’s Interior Ministry, leaked to the media, said that 3,000 foreign nationals suspected of seeking to fight jihad in Syria had been banned from entering Turkey. On Nov. 6, Turkish anti-terror police detained 16 Al Qaeda suspects in raids in four provinces.
Reports from Turkish intelligence agencies last month suggested that Al Qaeda linked groups are planning car bomb attacks in Turkey. One leaked report by the intelligence wing of the gendarmerie, a branch of the military responsible for security in rural areas, claimed that 300 cars stolen from Turkey and smuggled across the border to Syria could be used for this purpose.
Early supporter of Syrian rebels
When Syrian antigovernment protests erupted in early 2011, Turkey seized on the revolt. Its open-border policies were based on an assumption that the Assad regime would fall quickly and, failing that, that the US would intervene, says Aaron Stein, a fellow at the Royal United Service Institute in London.
“This led them to make a number of short-sighted policy decisions intended to put as much pressure on the regime as possible, including opening the border,” he says. “As the foreign fighter problem became more acute, they did nothing to prevent it, and were an active participant in the transfer of arms and money to rebel groups.”
Soli Ozel, a professor of international relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul believes some in the Turkish administration are still conflicted over their policy. “I think there are enough people in Ankara who realize that they have really got themselves into big trouble with these jihadists, but then there are others who think that these are the black sheep of the family, but they’re family nonetheless.”
Fehim Tastekin, a Turkish journalist who has written extensively on Turkey's foreign policy, says that while there are signs Ankara is hardening its stance there is still a lack of political will. “These guys are continuing to use…houses in border areas and they receive especially nonlethal help from charities in Turkey,” he says.
While Ankara denies facilitating the operations of rebel groups in Syria, activists, fighters, and journalists in the region have offered a starkly different picture.
One British jihadi currently fighting in Syria described in a blog post an encounter with Turkish soldiers while crossing the border into the country about a month ago. It was not possible to independently verify if the post,written in vernacular British English, was fact or fiction.
Asked if they were fighting with the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, “we replied no we are here for sadaqah [charitable work] and we weren’t lying as we had no intentions of being anything to do with jaysh al-hur (free Syrian army) as many among them are murtadūn (apostates)…”
“The commander was debating between whether to send us back or let us through the border but as soon as our driver told them we was British, they smiled and were inspired by our presence… After searching our luggage and taking a pair of our gloves as a gift (they gave us no choice) they let us go on our way.”