ISTANBUL/BEIRUT: As ISIS insurgents threaten the Turkish border from Syria, Turkey is struggling to staunch the flow of foreign jihadists to the group, having not so long ago allowed free access to those who would join its neighbor’s civil war.
Thousands of foreign fighters from countries including Turkey, Britain, parts of Europe and the U.S. are believed to have joined the militants in their self-proclaimed caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq, according to diplomats and Turkish officials.
The militants, who seized an air base in northeast Syria Sunday as they surged northward, are trying to secure control of the area bordering Turkey above the city of Raqqa, their major stronghold, in a bid to further ease the passage of foreign fighters and supplies, sources close to ISIS said.
Some of the foreign fighters in their midst reached Syria via Turkey, entering the region on flights to Istanbul or Turkey’s Mediterranean resorts, their Western passports giving them cover among the millions of tourists arriving each month in one of the world’s most visited countries.
From Turkey, crossing the 900 kilometer frontier into northern Syria was relatively straightforward, as the Turkish authorities maintained an open border policy in the early stages of the Syrian uprising to allow refugees out and support to the moderate Syrian opposition in.
That policy now appears to have been a miscalculation and has drawn accusations, strongly denied by Ankara, that it has supported militant Islamists, inadvertently or otherwise, in its enthusiasm to help Syrian rebels topple President Bashar Assad.
The rapid and brutal advance of ISIS, bent on establishing a hub of jihadism in the center of the Arab world and on Turkey’s southern fringe, has alarmed Ankara and its Western allies, forcing them to step up intelligence sharing and tighten security cooperation.
“Thousands of Europeans have entered Turkey en route to Syria, and a large number of them we believe have joined extremist groups,” said one European diplomat in Ankara, describing Turkey as a “top security priority” for the EU.
“In recent months especially we’ve seen a real hardening in Turkey’s attitude, a recognition that this is a potential threat to their national security and a desire to take more practical steps through intelligence channels, police channels,” the diplomat said, declining to be identified so as to speak more freely.
That cooperation includes tighter screening of passengers on flights into Turkey in collaboration with EU member states, and the beefing up of border patrols on the frontier with Syria, the diplomat and other officials said.
Turkey already kept a “no-entry” list of thousands of people suspected of seeking to join “extremists in Syria” based on information from foreign intelligence agencies, a Turkish official said, and barred more than 4,000 people from entering the country last year alone as a result.
Only three of 13 border gates between Syria and Turkey were now fully open, the official said, with foreign nationals only allowed to pass through two of them. Close to 70 people were detained in Turkey last year on suspicion of links with extremist groups in Syria.
“Security measures were increased a while ago as a result of the latest developments ... The Turkish armed forces believe the current precautions are sufficient,” a second senior government official told Reuters.
One non-Syrian Islamist fighter who joined the Syrian rebel ranks in 2012 said he had crossed the border several times in the early stages of the conflict, though he said it had since become much more difficult.
“The borders were wide open. We used to get in and out of Turkey very easily. No questions were asked. Arms shipments were smuggled easily into Syria,” he told Reuters from outside Syria.
Sources close to ISIS in Syria say the group wants to take control of the border crossing at Jarablus, northwest of Raqqa. Earlier this year, it pushed out rival Islamist militants from the village to try to do so, but the Turkish authorities closed the passage.
ISIS also controls the area around the tomb of Suleiman Shah, grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, in northern Syria. The group has destroyed several shrines and tombs sacred to Shiites and other sects, stirring fears in Turkey that their next target might be Suleyman Shah.
Ankara regards the tomb as sovereign Turkish territory under a treaty signed with France in 1921, when Syria was under French rule, and has said it will defend the mausoleum.
But Turkey, along with its Western allies, could also face the threat of militant attacks on its own soil.
“I think they’re waking up to the severity of the situation, particularly as the internal threat is getting higher and higher,” said a second European diplomat, adding coastal resorts popular with European holidaymakers could become a soft target.
“It’s a danger for Turkey because if [ISIS] decides that Turkey is an enemy [and launches an attack] then Turkey becomes like Egypt ... That’s the end of tourism,” he said.
Officials in Ankara estimate there are foreigners from more than 80 nations fighting in Syria and Iraq and say it is unreasonable for Turkey to act as “lone gatekeeper,” stopping individuals who have travelled freely from their countries of residence after being radicalized at home.
“I don’t think anyone has to worry about capabilities, but it’s the scale of the threat and the speed it’s evolving that any country would struggle with,” said the first European diplomat. “And Turkey finds itself right on the front line.”