Turkey vows to stop foreign fighters to Syria

11/07/2014

The government is taking additional steps to try to stop the flow of foreign fighters through Turkey into Syria.

By Menekse Tokyay for SES Türkiye in Istanbul -- 11/07/14

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A notebook allegedly found by Syrian government troops on an armed rebel and displayed in Aleppo shows a list of names of foreign fighters from Libya, Turkmenistan, Yemen and Turkey. [AFP]

At a dinner meeting with the ambassadors of European Union countries in Ankara last month, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that Turkey has been taking all necessary measures against third country nationals who are planning to join radical groups in Syria.

"Turkey has banned 5,300 people from entering Turkish territories," Erdogan said.

In parallel with the escalating civil war in Syria, easy visa policies for EU citizens to travel to Turkey are considered as a facilitating factor in making Turkey a transit point for foreign fighters, especially for those coming from EU countries.

For foreign fighters coming from the Balkans, the picture is much simpler considering that Turkey has already lifted visa requirements for Balkan citizens. Hundreds of people from the Balkans have joined the fighting in Syria, despite pleas from their governments and many religious leaders not to fight.

Foreign fighters go to Syria to fight for radical Islamic groups like al-Nusra or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The militants return to their countries of origin often via Turkey, posing security threats to Turkey and Europe.

In a recent report published by Ankara-based think-tank USAK, ISIL is considered as the main attractor of foreign fighters in the Middle East.

"Having carried the global terrorism bar to another level, ISIL has added many foreign fighters to its ranks, especially from Arab lands. The Syrian war has exceeded the Afghanistan war in terms of numbers of foreign fighters, scope of their origins, fighting capabilities and regional effects," the report stated.

According to Mehmet Akif Okur, a security analyst at Ankara's Gazi University, it is of utmost importance that Turkey co-operates with the European countries in technical and security terms.

However, Turkey can also have a significant contribution to transform the ideological climate that feeds into the radical organisations in Europe who are sending their fighters to the region.

"The rapprochement between Turkey and the EU has the capacity to decrease the radicalisation trend among the Muslims in Europe," Okur said.

Seda Altug, of the Ataturk Institute for Modern Turkish History at Bogazici University, said Turkey was slow to address the border issue.

"The government's hostile policy towards Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava), short-sightedness vis-a-vis the regime change in Syria and the fact that they aspired for a pro-Sunni Syria following the regime change and thus sponsored such groups both in the Syrian National Coalition and in Syria were the three main factors that turned the Turko-Syrian border into a porous one," Altug told SES Türkiye.

AKP deputies Mehmet Ali Sahin and Mehmet Metiner did not respond to SES Türkiye's requests for interviews.

Altug said the Turkish state, similar to its allies, has become more alert towards the extremists operating under its southern borders, and tightened its border controls since the beginning of this year.

Bilgay Duman, security analyst at the Ankara-based Centre for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM), agreed that Turkey has been increasing its efforts to better manage the borders and to decrease uncontrolled crossings.

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"However, it is also important to control some unregistered Syrians living in Turkey who may also suddenly decide to join the rebel groups or establish criminal networks with the foreign fighters. The obligation that was brought for those people to get an identity card to benefit from health services on a free-of-charge basis is therefore an important step towards registering them," Duman told SES Türkiye.

According to Duman, there is also a need to increase aerial surveillance of the region.

"It seems that foreign fighters have malevolently used Turkey's open door policy during the crisis in Syria, which made Turkey the main transit country for their passages," he added.

What steps can the government take to tighten its borders to prevent foreign fighters from entering the country? Share your thoughts below.

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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