BEIRUT: A Turkish diplomatic source confirmed Tuesday that Ankara has deported suspected Al-Qaeda-affiliated militants seeking to fight in Syria, urging more foreign assistance in tackling the issue.
Turkish newspaper Today’s Zaman reported over the weekend, citing an article in local paper Haberturk, that 1,100 European citizens have been sent home after arriving in Turkey with the hope of joining Al-Qaeda-linked groups operating in Syria.
Ankara has been under growing European and American pressure to crack down on foreign jihadists entering Syria through its borders to fight alongside rebels seeking to topple President Bashar Assad.
The source told The Daily Star that while there had been arrests, detentions and deportations of foreign jihadists, the precise figures could not be confirmed.
“No such report has been shared with any third country, so we cannot comment on these figures,” he said.
However, Turkish media sources said the report was circulated to all foreign embassies in Ankara, detailing how many jihadis had been deported.
Soli Ozel, a lecturer of international relations at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University and a columnist with Haberturk, said the report came as “no surprise.”
“Turkey has been under tremendous pressure over the help they have been providing to the jihadists,” Ozel said.
“It has been trying to give the impression that they are dealing with them and deporting them.”
But, Ozel indicated Turkey was in a difficult position, trying to balance allies’ demands that it tackles the jihadist problem with threats by Islamists if it were to completely cut off support.
“We haven’t seen the last of them [the jihadists],” Ozel said. “Turkey will have a very hard time getting rid of them.”
The initial report said that intelligence sharing between Turkey and European countries had been facilitated by Interpol.
The diplomatic source said that while Ankara had been “cooperating with European countries, through Interpol and other bilateral means,” which included operations against Al-Qaeda operatives, Turkey was not fully satisfied with the level of collaboration and support.
“We have been suffering from terrorism for more than 30 years, so we have established detailed and diverse channels of cooperation and communication with European countries and others,” the source said.
“But this particular aspect, related to the fight in Syria and the Al-Qaeda elements, is something else. There is a level of cooperation in this regard, but it is not yet fully satisfactory.”
Aaron Zelin, from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the number of 1,100 appeared high, since he believed there were likely only around 1,200 Europeans fighting in Syria in total.
But, “Turkish authorities are finally starting to deal with the issue, because the Europeans are really beginning to freak out,” Zelin added.