Syria’s foreign fighters in Turkey’s target, too
Members of French national police intervention groups patrol in a suburb of Strasbourg, eastern France, on May 13, 2014. Several jihadists suspected of having traveled to Syria were arrested in May in Strasbourg. AFP Photo“How could we understand that some tourists from Europe are jihadists,” a Turkish security official complained to the Hürriyet Daily News on June 6. “It is not written on their foreheads. Now, since we have an intelligence flow from European countries, we are able to stop them at our gates and send them back.”
My source did not give any figures but a recent AFP story estimated the number at around 1,000.
The security official who asked not to be named is talking about “foreign fighters in Syria,” a growing “national security” problem for Western countries.
It is easier to call them European jihadists, but they are not only from Europe; they can be from the U.S. or Russia as well. “Syria is attracting them like a magnet,” another source complains. “Even Afghanistan could not be compared with the Syrian training ground for terrorists.”
They carry passports of American or European Union, or Russian countries. They are either North African, Arab origin, or radical Muslims from the North Caucasus and the Balkan countries, or natives of Western countries who converted to Islam through radical organizations. They travel to Syria – a bit via Jordan, but mostly – via Turkey, mostly using their legal tourist passports. Turkey does not impose advance visas on American or European countries to attract more tourists. They arrive – mostly – at Istanbul airports, pay their cheap visa duty there, make sure no one follows their trail, find their ways to the 910-kilometer-long Turkish-Syrian border and cross over covertly or even legally. They go to Syria to fight in the ranks of radical Islamic groups like al-Nusra, the Syria branch of al-Qaeda or the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), a hardcore terrorist group, notorious for videos showing them cutting heads off.
The “foreign fighters” get their military training there and engage in fighting. Some of them get killed, some of them prefer to stay but some of them return to their origin of passport, again mostly via Turkey posing as European or American tourists, which worries Western governments most.
A North African-origin French citizen attacked the Jewish Museum in Brussels on May 24 on behalf of ISIL, after returning from Syria. There are reports of estimates of such “returned” fighters; 200 in Britain and 300 hundred in France. The overall number of such mujahidin finding their way to Syria is estimated by security agencies at around 8,000.
The flow of intelligence the Turkish security official was talking about is after a stepping up of joint Western measures against Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, which is backed by Russia, China and Iran.
Following a speech by U.S. President Barack Obama on May 28 at the West Point Military Academy, where he pledged to ramp up support for the Syrian opposition, the Tayyip Erdoğan government in Turkey added al-Nusra to its “terrorist organization” list, something that Western countries had desired for some time. So we can talk about a convergence and a common ground after three years of civil war in Syria. It seems that the convergence has started with an intelligence summit among the 11 countries which are members of the Core Group of Friends of Syrian People: Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United States, United Arab Emirates and United Kingdom.
The question now is to which opposition groups in Syria the military assistance should go so that it does not boomerang on Western targets in the future like it did with Afghanistan. The most likely coalition is the Islamic Front, a coalition of 11 groups which issued a “Revolutionary Covenant” on May 17 and said they would fight against the al-Assad regime as well as radical Islamist groups and would not let foreign fighters in themselves, that their target was only to topple al-Assad, not to declare a Sunni shariah state in Syria.
It seems a new page is being opened regarding anti-al-Assad efforts in Syria, following the confrontation with Russia in Ukraine. If this is not Cold War II, what is it?