Intense fighting and strategic ramifications make the Jarablus area in northern Syria one of the hottest spots in the world right now. In my May 5 column, I had wondered whether clashes between Turkey and the Islamic State (IS) were about to become an undeclared war, as the signs on the ground suggest.
To break out of the crunch it is feeling in the Azaz-Manbij-Bab triangle and to continue to boast, “We are still strong,” IS is trying to expand its clashes to Turkey’s Kilis-Nizip-Gaziantep triangle. Ankara’s aim is to block this expansion at Turkey’s border. Police have been busy raiding locations identified as IS safe houses in Gaziantep and elsewhere and conducting mass detentions of people suspected of links to IS.
Belatedly, Ankara now appears determined to control the phenomenon of foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs). These IS militants, recruited from foreign countries, are currently living in Turkey or trying to reach another country via Turkey.
The United Nations Security Council broadly defines FTFs as those who leave their home countries to perpetuate, plan, prepare or otherwise participate in terrorist acts, or to provide or receive terrorist training. The definition goes far beyond the obvious "committing acts of terror." This is why Turkey is able to easily detain and interrogate foreign nationals it believes to be linked to IS.
Soufan Group’s December report on foreign fighters offers some dramatic revelations. The report says in Iraq and Syria there are 6,000 FTFs from Tunisia, 2,500 from Saudi Arabia, 2,400 from Russia, 2,100 from Turkey and 2,000 from Jordan. According to an International Center for Counter-Terrorism report issued in April, of 4,000 FTFs from European Union countries, 900 are believed to be from France, 720 from Germany, 700 from Britain and 420 from Belgium.
Turkey’s Foreign Ministry believes there are now FTFs from 120 countries in Syria and Iraq.
According to Nesip Ogun, dean of political sciences at Girne American University in Kyrenia, Cyprus, most militants of European origin in IS ranks are trying to go back home, and several hundred already have.
Security sources in Ankara, who didn’t want to be identified, said this "reverse migration" will continue as IS comes under more pressure in Iraq and Syria.
‘‘Ankara's biggest effort now is to curb the stepped-up FTF activities in Turkey and to sever their transit through Turkey. Ankara may be having some success, but it is not at the level desired,” Ogun said.
Unfortunately, there isn't enough global awareness of the FTF threat, according to Ali Serdar Erdurmaz, chairman of the International Relations Department of Hasan Kalyoncu University of Gaziantep.
“At the outset, the home countries of FTFs did not object to their departures, hoping that they would either get killed or get lost in Iraq or Syria. That is why [those countries] refrained from cooperating with Turkey at the beginning. Only after these FTFs began returning home and IS launched terror acts in different countries were they recognized as terror threats. These dedicated FTFs, well-trained and equipped with new skills, were able to recruit volunteers back home and train them, thus creating a major terror threat. Only then [did other countries] — especially Western countries — become aware of the threat they were facing and began cooperating with Turkey to monitor the movement of these FTFs,” he said.
Asked if this cooperation was enough, Erdurmaz said: “Absolutely not. We know well from their Gaziantep activities IS is determined to be seen in incessant struggle, to give the impression of their undiminished power. That is why they are trying to make an impact wherever they are. That is why I believe that even if you cleanse Syria of IS, they still have the potential of putting down roots in other countries, surely in Europe.”
The questions Turkey has to deal with now are how to deal with the increased pace of FTF activities and how to curtail the reverse immigration. For this, more decisiveness in combating IS and closer cooperation are required.
Yes, there are now more than 60 countries in the anti-IS coalition, but given the lack of a comprehensive and integrated global strategy, all of them approach the problem from the perspective of their national interests. That's like dumping your garbage in your neighbor's backyard.
Let’s imagine such a scenario: A Kazakh mother with four children is living in Istanbul. After her Kazakh husband died fighting in Syria (where they had traveled together), she remarried, only for the scenario to repeat itself, with her ending up thrice-widowed with four children from three different men — one Kazakh, one Russian-Chechen and one Uighur. After her third husband’s death she found a way to return to Turkey. This woman with four sons, whose Kazakh citizenship was annulled, is now in Istanbul, desperately dependent on social programs to live. Because she and her children don’t have refugee status, they can’t benefit from basic services such as education and health. Her goal became to find a way to go to Europe, but nobody helped her.
Now we are faced with some critical questions that should concern the international community:
- Are this woman and her four sons, between 2 and 8 years of age, potential terrorists? Or are they people who should be assimilated into society? How should the international community take care of her and her boys?
- Who is this mother blaming for her trauma: Kazakhstan, Russia, the United States, Turkey, China or Europe? When she is bringing up her children, which country will she name as the one responsible for their hardships? If these children one day join IS, which capital city will they most want to blow up?
One hopes those thinking of how to deal with IS from the safety and comfort of their air-conditioned offices in world capitals will spend some time thinking about these questions beyond their own national interests.
Here's a concluding reminder: Today, there are thousands of real-life FTF widows and orphans just in Istanbul alone.
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