October was a month of dizzying developments in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) in northern Syria. First, Turkey launched Operation Peace Spring against Kurdish forces Oct. 9, as a result of which US President Donald Trump foisted the problem of imprisoned foreign IS fighters and their families on Ankara. On Oct. 27, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi perished in a US raid in northern Idlib, a stone’s throw from the Turkish border. On the following day, his possible successor, Abu al-Hassan al-Muhajir, was killed in a drone strike near Jarablus, a border town controlled by the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army. Then, on Nov. 3, Turkish intelligence captured Baghdadi’s elder sister, Rasmiya Awad, and her husband in a raid near the Turkish-controlled town of Azaz.
An oft-asked question over Baghdadi’s death concerns Turkey: Was Turkey not aware that Baghdadi was hiding right under its nose, apparently for many days? It is a pertinent question indeed. The answers “no” and “yes” would both be a problem for Ankara for different reasons.
Some say it is impossible for Turkey to have been unaware of Baghdadi’s presence across the border, arguing that Ankara has never truly fought the group and has even offered it protection and safe haven due to ideological affinities.
In my opinion, however, Ankara was really unaware, and its inadequate efforts against IS both inside Turkey and Syria stem from capacity problems rather than unwillingness.
In Ankara’s perception of threats — inside Turkey as well as Syria and Iraq — the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its Syrian affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), have top priority. Second comes the Gulenist network, which Ankara has designated a terrorist group and holds responsible for the deadly coup attempt in July 2016. This leaves the fight against IS-linked networks in third place at best. In this context, the likely answer to why Ankara failed to get wind of Baghdadi’s presence in a village a few kilometers from its border appears to lie in its overstretched military and intelligence capabilities in northwestern Syria, with the bulk of surveillance drones, human intelligence, electronic and signal intelligence efforts employed in the campaign against the YPG to the east of the Euphrates.
In sum, as long as the conflict between Ankara and the PKK-YPG pair drags on, the two groups will remain Turkey’s top threat priority, to which the bulk of its resources will go.
Nevertheless, Ankara has recently stepped up its efforts against IS, especially inside Turkey, rounding up some 500 suspects — most of them Syrians and Iraqis — in operations in more than 20 cities in the past two weeks. Most of those suspects intended to make it to Europe rather than stay in Turkey, security sources in Ankara told Al-Monitor.
Furthermore, as of Nov. 4, Turkish forces have recaptured some 300 IS militants released by the YPG in northern Syria since the start of Operation Peace Spring, putting them in a prison in Azaz, according to sources in Ankara. Fifty of them were Turkish nationals who were brought to Turkey, while the others were of 19 different nationalities, mostly from the Middle East, North Africa and Russia. Around 80 were from European countries such as Belgium, Britain, Germany, France and the Netherlands.
Turkey appears to be bracing for a rapid increase in the number of IS militants in its custody. A large prison and a detention center are already under construction in the border town of Akcakale. The facility is expected to be ready in eight months. Besides those captured in Syria, about 800 foreign IS fighters remain in custody in Turkey.
On Nov. 2, the Turkish media reported the detention of two Dutch female IS sympathizers who were trying to go to the Netherlands after fleeing the al-Hol camp in northern Syria. According to local sources, the women and their three children managed to reach Ankara in late October after paying about $4,000 per person to human traffickers but were turned down by the Dutch Embassy. One of the women had her citizenship revoked by the Dutch government Oct. 29, soon after the pair applied to the embassy for assistance. The Turkish police had detained them with a view of deporting them to Morocco as they held dual citizenship. Both women and their children are now in prison, awaiting prosecution in Turkey or deportation to either the Netherlands or Morocco.
The group’s journey from al-Hol to Ankara puts the spotlight on two crucial facts. First, the human-smuggling networks between Syria, Turkey and Europe, which IS frequently uses, remain active and efficient despite all security measures along the route. Second, a new crisis is brewing between Turkey and Europe over IS militants and their relatives in Turkish custody who have been stripped of their citizenships by European governments.
Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu lashed out at European governments, saying Turkey “is not a hotel for anyone’s [IS] members.” In a further warning Nov. 4, he said, “We will send back those in our custody, but the world has come up with a new method — revoking their citizenships. … They are saying [the militants] should be tried in the countries where they are. This must be some new form of international law, I guess. … This is unacceptable. We will send the [IS] members in our custody back to their countries, no matter whether their citizenships are revoked or not.”
Despite such warnings, however, it remains unclear whether Ankara could succeed in deporting stateless detainees. Under the 1961 UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, leaving an individual stateless is illegal, but several countries — including Britain and France — have not ratified the convention, and some recent cases in those countries have resulted in prolonged legal battles.
Similar legal battles appear to be looming between Ankara and European governments over militants held by Turkey. The IS detainees in Turkish custody are mostly from Belgium, Britain, Germany, France and the Netherlands, a Turkish security official told Al-Monitor, adding that there were a few from Balkan countries as well. Roughly a third of European nationals who joined IS in Syria have died there, while another third have returned to their countries. This would leave the remaining third in Turkish custody, as few Europeans would like to stay in Syria or Iraq knowing they have no future there. Just like the two Dutch women, they would be ready to give the rest of their money to human traffickers to make it to Turkey or their home countries.
Before Operation Peace Spring, Syrian Kurdish officials spoke of some 12,000 suspected IS fighters in their prisons, among them about 800 from Europe. Excluding minors, the total number of European IS militants under YPG control could be estimated at about 1,200, with more than half of them left stateless. This bunch of up to 700 stateless people will soon grow into another thick file of problems fanning tension between Ankara and European capitals.