Revisiting Turkey’s Border Security Overshadowed by Syrian Crisis

Revisiting Turkey’s Border Security Overshadowed by Syrian Crisis

In spite of coming to prominence afforded by its unique geopolitical position and regional strategic significance, Turkey could actually be deemed unfortunate in terms of its neighbors. Political instabilities, economic problems, anti-democratic regimes, and related human right abuses along Turkey’s southeastern border – particularly in Syria, Iran, and Iraq – constitute direct and indirect threats to Turkey’s border security. The Syrian refugee crisis, the smuggling activities against which Turkish armed forces have repeatedly taken action, the explosion in Reyhanlı, and the military equipment crossing the border reveal how insecure Turkey’s borders are.

Beyond all these, however, is the ability for PKK forces to cross into Syria, obtain new weapons, and use those weapons for large attacks in Turkey. Last week, the DHKP/C attacked the Ankara police station with rocket launchers – a weapon generally used by terrorist groups in Syria. This raised questions about whether the PKK had brought these rocket launchers from Syria. Suspicions where reinforced when one of the perpetrators of the attack fled to Syria. Similar suspicions were raised when a piece of metal resembling a missile warhead, a kind of chemical, and a Syrian suspect were found in a car in Kayseri.

Undoubtedly the foremost threat to Turkey’s border security from the Syrian civil war is the conflict between the PYD and al-Nusra in regions near Turkey. Clashes have erupted between the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra and the PKK’s Syrian extension, the PYD, in the territories the Assad regime has withdrawn from. Turkey is getting its share of the violence. Pieces of military equipment, howitzers and bullets used in the clashes have landed on Turkey’s side of the border and many Turkish citizen have been killed or injured. Houses, schools, business offices have been damaged and daily life interrupted. The bloodiest attack of the Turkish Republic’s history, the Reyhanlı attacks, should also be considered in regard to border security. The explosion of two trucks full of bombs led to the deaths of 52 people and the injury of 146 more. Following the explosions, Interior Minister Muammer Güler stated that the perpetrators had connections with terrorist and intelligence organizations in Syria. Additionally, it was asserted that the main targets of the attack were Syrian refugees hosted by Turkey. In response to those explosions, Turkey, in congruence with its rights as a state under international law, opened fire on the regions threatening its security. The reciprocal volley did not provide border security, but was rather a punitive action.

Another element that has imperiled Turkey’s border security throughout the Syrian crisis is smuggling. Due to its bridge-like location, people from Asia, the Middle East, and Africa view Turkey as an opportunity to cross into EU countries and engage in smuggling. In a 2011 report issued to EU member countries, the bloc’s border protection agency, Frontex, warned Turkey about its border control as 67% of illegal entrances were staged from its territory. Illegal entrances due to weaknesses in border security were, in other words, already an existent problem in Turkey. The Syrian crisis, however, has noticeably deepened the problem. Just between the 16th and 22nd of August 2013 the number of people attempting to illegally cross from Syria into Turkey was 881. Clashes have broken out between smugglers, who come by car, horse, and occasionally by foot, and security forces. While the main reasons bringing smugglers to the Turkish border are the civil war and sales of bootleg oil and other goods, the encouraging effect of weak border security must also be taken into account.

*Reyhan Güner is a researcher at the International Strategic Research Organization (USAK) and editor of the Journal of Turkish Weekly.