In the past month, the Islamic State, the militant group that has beheaded at least three hostages and has taken over large parts of Iraq and Syria to establish a caliphate, has recruited thousands of fighters from abroad. It is estimated more than 3,000 foreigners are in Syria and Iraq with the Sunni militant group, traveling from countries such as Britain, Canada and the United States through the southern border crossings in Turkey to join the fighting. And without the Turkish government's help in closing those crossings, the flow may not stop.
Eastern Turkey, including the cities of Antakya and Kilis, has become a main transport hub not only for foreign fighters into Syria, but also for weapons, money and supplies. Turkey provides the main and easiest pathway into Syria, and, therefore, Iraq. ISIS has demolished the border fence between the two countries.
Currently there are no commercial flights to civil war-torn Syria (nor do international airlines fly over it) and there are limited flights to Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan. Foreign fighters are more likely to fly into bordering countries and cross by foot or caravan into the war zone. Jordan and Lebanon are too difficult to use as throughways because many of the border crossings are controlled by the Jordanian and Lebanese militaries, and on the other side, the Syrian military. That leaves Turkey's southern border.
Last week, President Obama said the U.S. would fight the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, “wherever they exist” and his administration was gathering a group of allies to form a coalition to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the group. One of the coalition’s main strategies, Obama said, would be to cut off the stream of foreign fighters and money flowing to the group through bordering countries.
But to do that, Obama said, the U.S. would need to first seek the support of regional partners.
Secretary of State John Kerry, who traveled to the region following Obama’s speech, met with Middle Eastern leaders last week in Saudi Arabia, and had difficulty gaining the support of one key ally: Turkey. At the meeting in Jeddah, Turkey refused to sign a joint declaration of regional states outlining the fight against ISIS.
Turkey, the only NATO member to border Syria and Iraq, has been reluctant to commit its full support to the coalition because ISIS is currently thought to be holding 49 Turkish nationals, including diplomats and children, and any military action taken against it could endanger their lives. The country is also already supporting nearly 850,000 refugees displaced by the Syrian civil war, and the government is wary of military action that might add more to that number.
Turning Eastern Turkey Into An Extremist Hub
As early as the fall of 2011, many Syrian opposition fighters, who were then part of the umbrella organization known as the Free Syrian Army, or FSA, fled Syria to Turkey to settle their families in refugee camps in Reyhanli and Yaladaggi, and to strategize with other opposition fighters.
Cities such as Antakya, Antalya and Kilis became de facto headquarters for the Syrian opposition. Fighters would frequently travel through the border to purchase new weapons, equipment and medicine, but also found safe houses to stay in before heading back to Syria. The safe houses, most of them in Antakya, served as operation centers where FSA commanders would coordinate the fighting in Syria.
“Almost every officer has an area in Syria that they are helping organize,” Riad al-Ahmed, a former FSA commander, said in an interview in Antakya in 2012, adding that he traveled to camps in Turkey to meet with other commanders, and relied on Skype to communicate with fighters in Syria. Ahmed, the leader of one of the largest and most organized rebel groups in northern Syria, known as the Peace Soldiers, was killed in the spring of 2013 after a rival opposition group kidnapped him.
Without the ability to cross into Turkey, Ahmed had said, the FSA would not be able to function in Syria.
Since that time, other, more extremist opposition groups formed in Syria, such as Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS itself. Eastern Turkey, especially Antakya, has seen an increase in the amount of those fighters.
The Journey: Turkey to Syria
Foreign fighters looking to join ISIS in Syria cross into the country much like journalists, aid workers and moderate rebels have done for more than three years: through the Bab al-Salama or Bab al-Hawa border crossing in southeastern Turkey.
Most fly into Istanbul before catching a flight to Hatay or Gazientep where they meet with the group or individual whom they have contacted to take them into Syria. Journalists call this local contact who helps them on the ground a "fixer." For ISIS, the process and terminology is similar. ISIS foreign fighters, via connections with those they know in the militant group, connect with a fixer to drive them from Hatay province to the Syria border.
If they pass through the Bab al-Salama border crossing, which is currently controlled by the FSA, the fighters can get through with relative ease, thanks to their Western passports or under the guise of entering Syria as aid workers. If they cross through Bab al-Hawa, which is currently controlled by Jabhat al-Nusra, they are likely to face questioning, or even kidnapping.
There is a third option, though: Crossing into Syria illegally, through a part of the border that does not have an official checkpoint. In this case, they would need to hire a smuggler.
When the Syrian conflict started in March 2011, hundreds of thousands of Syrians fled the country to Turkey, but enlisted the help of smugglers to help them navigate the cold, rugged mountains between the two countries.
Eventually, the business grew even bigger and more lucrative as the opposition began paying smugglers, then described as "safe guiders," to help their soldiers, and their weapons and supplies, cross from Turkey to Syria. Even aid organizations were paying smugglers to help them get medicine and other resources into the war zone. Eventually, the smuggling business grew so profitable that some were making nearly $5,000 per trip depending on the size of the group they were leading through.
The Turkish soldiers on the border, FSA soldiers said in 2012, even helped in this process. According to Ahmed, the former FSA commander, Turkish soldiers themselves would walk those trying to re-enter Syria to the border, where they would meet the smugglers before heading out on the 8- to 9-hour hike back to northern Syria.
Once would-be ISIS fighters have crossed into Syria, they are most likely driven to an ISIS stronghold. The details about what happens when the fighter enters the war zone are less known, because the group does not disclose, at least on social media, how its fighters are trained militarily.
Turkey's Role In Fighting ISIS
While Turkey has said that it will not take military action against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, Kerry is trying to get the Ankara government to at least help stop the flow of people by better controlling its borders.
But Turkey has its hands full managing the flow of people out of Syria, and may have trouble managing the flow of those who are going the other way. With nearly a million displaced Syrians in camps near the border, it already faces chaos at the border. Unlike other countries, such as Jordan, where the refugee camps are managed by international aid organizations like the United Nations' UNHCR, all refugee camps in Turkey are under the control of the government.
But without Turkey's cooperation, the U.S. could lose out on the only partner that can efficiently contribute to the "degrade" portion of Obama's strategy.