After so much fuss and ruckus, does Turkey’s open-door policy for Syrians still apply to the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda-linked groups? The question has popped up once again following reports that 11 Sudanese doctors and medical interns of British, American and Canadian nationalities crossed from Turkey to Syria to treat wounded IS fighters.
Such questions have become intolerable for Turkish government officials lately. Even soft-spoken Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu snapped at questions recently over the three British girls who made it to Syria via Turkey. “They keep criticizing Turkey. We strongly reject that,” he said, insisting that Turkey was doing its best and did not deserve criticism.
According to a background note that the Prime Ministry Public Diplomacy Coordination Office sent to Al-Monitor, Turkey has barred 12,500 people from entering the country, with 18% of them from Europe and North America, and 56% from North Africa and the Middle East. Additionally, Turkey has caught and deported 1,160 people, according to the note, which detailed five cases as an example. It recalled that Turkey blacklisted IS as a terrorist group on Oct. 10, 2013, and was enforcing strict border security measures. “Risk assessment centers” set up at airports and bus terminals in 2014 questioned 1,500 people and refused entry to 540 of them. In 2014, physical border security was beefed up with 333 kilometers (207 miles) of trenches, 60 kilometers (37 miles) of embankments, 160 kilometers (99 miles) of barbed wire and a 13-kilometer (8-mile) wall. A 267-kilometer (165-mile) border stretch was illuminated, while cameras and night-vision equipment were bolstered. Some 71,000 people were caught while attempting illegal crossings.
Rejecting criticism that Turkey failed to enforce adequate measures, the Public Diplomacy Office said, “Every year 38 million tourists enter Turkey. Monitoring every tourist who enters the country legally is neither technically possible nor in line with principles of democracy and freedom.”
Figures impressive but …
Looking at those figures, one might conclude that not even a bird can fly across the border. Naturally the objective of public diplomacy is to eliminate negative perceptions. The figures could sound convincing, if one turns a blind eye and gives a deaf ear to what is happening on the ground. Despite all measures, IS seems to still face no difficulty in moving fighters and support elements to the battlefield, barring several exceptions. In Gaziantep, for instance, 19 people were arrested while attempting to sneak to Syria in two separate incidents recently.
Yet, a guide titled “Immigration to the Islamic State-2015” and circulated online provides all the details and tips of how one can reach Syria via Turkey. And there seems to be no end to foreigners who make it across the border using IS’ travel instructions.
Medics’ whereabouts determined
The latest story of the 11 Sudanese medics comes as another indication of the weird and lax situation at the borders. The first reports of the group coming to Istanbul and then traveling by road to one of the border provinces before crossing to Syria were lost in the rough-and-tumble of Turkey’s domestic politics. The story, however, returned with all its gravity when the well-educated families of the medics stepped in.
According to information obtained by Al-Monitor, the families, all doctors who knew each other, had sent their children to Sudan “so that they can avoid cultural erosion and get to know their ancestors’ lands.” Seven of them are said to hold British nationality, two have Canadian and US citizenship, while the remaining two are citizens of Sudan. Eight are doctors and three are students of medicine.
The young people arrived in Istanbul on March 12, 10 of them flying in from Khartoum and another from Toronto. They knew each other, just as their parents did. They were accommodated in Istanbul before taking a bus to a border province. While passing through Hereke, a town near Istanbul, one of the British nationals texted a sibling that they had come to Turkey willingly. Alarmed that their children had joined IS, the parents flew to Istanbul immediately and sought help from Mehmet Ali Ediboglu, a lawmaker from the border province of Hatay for the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).
In an interview with Al-Monitor, Ediboglu said he and the parents had tried to track down the young people in the provinces of Hatay, Sanliurfa and Gaziantep. He provided the following account of how things unfolded: “Presuming that those young people would go to one of these three provinces, I immediately alerted the authorities, but nothing came of it. Logic dictates that the group was still on its way at the time I raised the alert. Then I personally checked with hospitals in Hatay. I mobilized people to investigate in the other provinces. I could get no information from the authorities on the young people’s whereabouts.
"Only one or two wounded people come to Hatay per day. The same goes for Kilis. The fighting is particularly intensive in the Tel Abyad region, so dozens of wounded are brought on a daily basis to hospitals in Sanliurfa via the Tel Abyad-Akcakale crossing point. So, we focused our efforts on Tel Abyad as we thought the young people could have gone to field hospitals in that area. Then, on March 24, I received a tip that three of the medics were working in a field hospital in Jarablus and the other eight in a field hospital on the road to Raqqa. Then I received a tip also about the route they had taken. A teacher who had traveled on the same bus with them called me to say that the group had passed first from Ankara, then Kayseri before reaching Gaziantep. So, it means the organizers drew up a roundabout route to avoid capture.”
When the clashes first erupted in Syria, the wounded used to be brought to state hospitals in Hatay, Kilis, Sanliurfa and Gaziantep. But as the hospitals were overwhelmed and locals began protesting, temporary hospitals for Syrians were only set up along the border. There were complaints again, which resulted in the hospitals moving to the other side of the border. The hospitals in IS-controlled Jarablus and Tel Abyad are said to be working in coordination with Turkish medical establishments. Those seriously injured are brought by IS to the border, where Turkish ambulances then take them across.
According to Ediboglu, hospitals on the Syrian side coordinate with Turkish public institutions such as the Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) and the Red Crescent, as well as charities like the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH).
The CHP lawmaker made the following claims: “AFAD, the Red Crescent and IHH are all involved in this. All those activities are carried out within the knowledge of the intelligence agency. Voluntary doctors have been coming from various countries over the past three years with their knowledge. We inquired about the missing medics at all relevant bodies. All said they had no information. That’s just not possible. They could have found and handed them over to us if they so wished.
"The 112 Emergency Health Service responds to phone calls from hospitals on the other side of the border, crosses there and brings back the wounded to Turkish hospitals. To make such communication possible, the GSM [cell-phone] coverage area was expanded after the Syrian crisis broke. There is constant communication now. They know what’s going on in Tel Abyad and Jarablus. Moreover, most of those who work in the field hospitals [on the Syrian side] are accommodated in rented homes in Turkish cities. They are transported on buses back and forth across the border. It’s all an organized affair. They can’t cross the border without the knowledge of our security forces.”
The families of the Sudanese medics sought to apply pressure on relevant Turkish authorities through their embassies, but to no avail.
To assume that illegal affairs at the border relate to IS alone would be a gross mistake. Other affairs, which the government keeps secret but considers legitimate, are going on and are as perilous as the IS threat.
According to Ediboglu, fighters trained in border regions are routinely bused to Syria through the Cilvegozu (Bab al-Hawa) crossing. They are said to be Syrians, not foreigners. Ediboglu recounted how on March 20 he received a tip that two vans carrying fighters had embarked from Adana to Hatay. He got their license plate numbers and alerted the Hatay governor to stop the vehicles, which by that time had reached the town of Reyhanli in Hatay. The governor promised to take action and called back in half an hour to say this, according to Ediboglu: “We stopped and checked the vehicles. The passengers turned out to be Syrians returning to their villages [in Syria]. Since there was nothing illegal, we let them cross through Cilvegozu.”
Ediboglu argued that the governor was hiding the truth. He said he investigated the issue and came up with a different story. “The Cilvegozu crossing is normally closed. The governor says he can’t stop people returning home. But those are all young men aged between 25 and 30. If the conflict is over and they are returning home, where are their families and children? It’s perfectly obvious they are fighters,” he said. “Let me tell you what’s really going on. Syrians are being grouped in Hatay at certain intervals and then put in the hotel opposite the Adana Police School on the Adana-Ceyhan road. They are being trained in groups of 100 in the police school. Those who complete the training are then put on chartered buses and taken to Syria. The official statements do not reflect the truth.”
Illegal crossings continue before soldiers’ eyes
The Bab al-Hawa crossing facing Cilvegozu and the area beyond are controlled mainly by the al-Qaeda-linked Ahrar ash-Sham and al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, Jabhat al-Nusra. The clandestine passage routes in Hatay also remain operational. Illegal crossings from the border villages of Guvecci, Kuyubasi, Hacipasa, Besaslan, Kusakli and Bukulmez operate before the eyes of the security forces. The areas across those villages are also controlled mainly by Ahrar ash-Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra and their allies.
The activities in this vein are illegal but not discordant with Ankara’s declared policy. Al-Monitor has learned that a military buildup has been underway recently in the rebel-controlled area east of the ethnically Armenian town of Kassab, which faces the Yayladagi crossing in Hatay. According to witnesses, 200 people and large cargo vehicles, believed to carry munitions, crossed from Arfali Farm to Kassab. This activity in the area has raised concern that a large-scale offensive on the Kassab and Latakia regions, similar to the one last year, is in the making.
In sum, along with reports of ongoing passages through the IS-held Tel Abyad and Jarablus crossings, activity continues at border crossings controlled by other Islamist groups and via the clandestine routes mentioned above. Thus, Turkey has a long way to go in terms of enforcing honest measures. What is more, it needs a serious policy overhaul.