Turkey Tightens Jihadi Highway Near Syria Border, Pressuring ISIS
Dominique Soguel, Aya Batrawy, AP, Jul 6 2016
Along the border near the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep, a wall of giant concrete blocks is going up as Turkey tries to seal off a region that for years was a Jihadi highway through which thousands of extremist fighters flowed to join ISIS in neighbouring Syria. Turkey has always denied permitting the movement of ISIS militants into Syria and insists it has been doing its best to stop the transit, even before construction on the massive wall began late last year. Documents leaked to a Syrian opposition news site, Zaman al-Wasl, tell a different story, showing a pattern of porousness along Turkey’s 566-mile-long border with Syria that has been vital for the extremist group’s expansion as it built its self-declared “caliphate.” The AP analyzed 4,037 “entry documents” logged by ISIS for its fighters entering from Turkey into Syria between Sep 2013 and Dec 2014. Around three-quarters of them entered through three particular crossing areas. Those fighters alone would make up between 25% to 40% of the estimated total of ISIS’s foreign recruits, and they likely do not represent all fighters that entered through Turkey during that period. According to CIA estimates, ISIS had 20,000 to 31,500 fighters by the end of 2014, around half of them foreigners (“20,000 to 30,000” would sound too much like a guesstimate – RB).
A deadly bombing of Istanbul’s international airport on Jun 28 that killed 44 people raised fears that Turkey is paying a price for the free movement of ISIS through its territory. Some analysts believe ISIS struck in revenge for Turkey’s support for the Pindo-led coalition against ISIS, its tighter border controls and its backing for rebels working to recapture the last stretch of the border that it still holds on the Syrian side. The ease with which militants crossed into Syria from Turkey has long brought accusations that Ankara’s determination to oust Assad by backing Syrian rebels trumped any concerns over fuelling the Jihadi movement. The relatively open border was crucial for rebels, including ones backed by Pindostan, and the fighters used Turkish territory as a crucial rear base and supply route. It was also a life-saving escape route for some 2.75 million refugees who fled into Turkey and an avenue for humanitarian aid to opposition-held areas of Syria. Turkish analyst Soner Cagaptay of WINEP said:
Until the rise of ISIS in 2014, Turkey was basically turning a blind eye to radical foreign fighters who were crossing into Syria. Not because Turkey was in favor of radicals or supported radicals … but because they thought they were war-hardened fighters who could accelerate the demise of the Assad regime, helping Turkey toward its final objective.
ISIS has not claimed responsibility in the triple suicide attack at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, but they have boasted in the past about having cells in Turkey. Security forces have been busy rounding up ISIS suspects in the wake of the bombing. Partly under Pindosi and EU pressure, Turkey tightened its border controls, starting late last year. Government authorities began overseeing construction of the wall, which will cover more than a third of the border when complete and include watchtowers and infrared thermal cameras. Turkish guards began to push back Syrians too, trapping tens of thousands fleeing the conflict. The documents obtained by Zaman al-Wasl were compiled by the ISIS “border authority” for fighters entering from Turkey. Of the 4,037 entry documents, around 3,900 list the entry points. They show 19 different areas used as crossings. But the majority of fighters, some 2,930, entered through three Syrian areas of Tal Abyad, Jarablus or Azaz. Those crossings correspond with Akcakale, Karkamis and Oncupinar on the Turkish side. The documents, which also list the nationalities of the entering fighters, show they come from all over the world, including Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, the Caucasus region and South Asia. German intelligence authorities have said that similar ISIS registration documents they have seen appear to be genuine. The documents don’t specify if the fighters used the official crossings or smuggling routes nearby, but witnesses told the AP they used both. A Syrian smuggler who works in the Syrian border area of al-Rai says that until November, the area, including the Jarablus crossing, was heavily trafficked by ISIS fighters. He says the group would bring in 30 to 40 people daily at the border at his village. The ISIS entry documents list 190 fighters who crossed through al-Rai in 2014. He said:
Until eight months ago, we could see how ISIS would approach the border with their cars and then cross over by foot or motorcycle. Sometimes the soldiers would tell the villagers and smugglers to just make sure people don’t have weapons if they were going from Syria into Turkey, but from Turkey to Syria you could bring as much as you can.
Further east, the divided town of Tal Abyad, known on the Turkish side as Akcakale, was another important entry point for ISIS, opening to a road leading directly south to Raqqa. A former Syrian rebel who helped man the border gate on the Syrian side when ISIS was in control of Tal Abyad recalls:
ISIS would go in and out of Turkey with greater ease than the civilians. Turkish authorities photographed everyone going through the crossing. The foreign fighters were obvious from their look and from the language. When the crossing was closed on weekends, foreign fighters used known smuggling routes. The Turks knew. They went right past them.
That route, however, was shut down when Kurdish led-forces took Tal Abyad in Jun 2015. One of the most notorious ISIS fighters to cross from Turkey into Syria was Mohammed Emwazi, the British militant shown beheading Western hostages in ISIS videos. In summer 2013, he and a friend used the Bab al-Hawa crossing into north-western Syria, according to a posthumous account he supposedly wrote, published in April in the ISIS French-language publication, Dar al-Islam. The account of his journey details the difficulties the pair encountered at each international crossing, from hiding in the back of a truck from England to France to the $2k he claimed was stolen by a Turkish guard on the crossing from Greece. But at Bab al-Hawa, reads the account, “we entered Sham with no problems.” Cagaptay says Ankara’s relationship with the ISIS group gradually soured, starting in Jun 2014 when the extremists took 49 Turkish diplomats and their families hostage after overrunning the Iraqi city of Mosul. It wasn’t until September of that year that Ankara was able to secure their release. Since the spring, Turkey has been backing Syrian rebels pressing to take back the last 45-mile stretch of the border still controlled by ISIS, including Jarablus and the al-Rai area. At the same time, Pindosi-backed fighters from the mainly Kurdish “Syrian Democratic Forces” have been waging their own offensive from the east trying to take the border area. Cagaptay said:
The corridor is crucial to ISIS’ survival. It’s the main conduit of what was once a large smuggling area for ISIS to get fighters in and out, weapons in, funding in, oil and antiquities out. If ISIS loses that corridor it will basically be stifled. I think this is the tactical reason, in my view, why ISIS decided to respond in Istanbul.
Still, some Turks blame Ankara’s policies for the airport attack. About 200 protesters shouted against the ruling Justice and Development Party last week, accusing it of supporting ISIS. Protester Berivan Tanriverdi said:
The government supports ISIS, and innocent people are killed.