Center for Strategic Communication

Today, the world’s largest recipient of refugees is Turkey, with over 1.5 million. The war in Syria has led to an estimated 9 million people fleeing the country. But Turkey’s borders are not only subject to the pressures of immigration. Hundreds of foreign fighters have crossed the Turkish border into Syria, many going to join ISIS. Turkish border policy is an important issue in the US offensive against ISIS. In order to fully understand where ISIS is getting its troops, it is necessary to look at past, present, and future issues facing the southeast of Turkey.

In the past, the Turkish position on ISIS has been mixed. While they did not outright support ISIS, hundreds of fighters crossed the Turkish border to join ISIS troops. The majority of the 20,000 foreigners who have joined the Islamic State travelled through Turkey. The reluctance of Turkey to secure its borders, as well as possibly purposefully helping to flood Syria with rebel fighters stems from the Turkish conflict with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over his support of the Kurds and Armenian terrorists which operated in Turkey, as well as water and land disputes between the two countries. It is possible that they hoped that ISIS would overthrow the regime.

However, in June 2014 ISIS’s assault on Mosul included breaking into the Turkish consulate and kidnapping 48 Turkish workers. Since then, Turkey has faced a growing number of terrorist acts by ISIS within its own country, as well as multiple assaults and kidnappings on workers abroad. In March 2015, Turkey moved to shut the border gates to Syria and itself. They created a military zone along the border where citizens are forbidden to go, and cracked down on arresting those suspected as militants, in an effort to secure the area. The new struggle for the Turkish government is the legality of arresting and holding people without definite evidence of them being foreign fighters. It can take up to three months to acquire the data needed to prosecute them. There are hundreds of IS militants in detention centers & prisons waiting to appear in court. Despite these issues, Turkey continually refused to cooperate with the US offensive against ISIS unless they would also fight Assad, something America was not willing to pursue.

In July 2015 Turkey changed its previous policy and agreed to cooperate with the United States and create a 60-mile “buffer zone” in northern Syria, with a plan to remove ISIS from the area. A large part of this decision came from the US arming the Kurdish movement, which has long been fighting with Turkey to take over parts of their land for a Kurdish homeland. Turkey classifies them as terrorists. In cooperating with the US on border security and an offensive against ISIS, they will replace the Kurds as America’s strongest ally in the fight, keeping the Kurds from retaining land or power in the region.

Moving forward, Turkey would like to use this buffer as a “safe-zone”, with a no fly zone over it, citing that it could be used as an area for Syrian refugees to flee. The US has yet to agree to this plan, but it could be the next step taken on the Turkish border.

Turkey’s border strategy has been an important part in both strengthening and fighting ISIS. Because of the lack of security, and even compliance with these terror groups, ISIS was able to form an army to take over parts of Syria and Iraq, including Mosul. With Turkey’s new stronger policy, ISIS will have more trouble bringing in foreign recruits, and face an offensive in the north, forcing them away from Turkey’s border entirely. Turkey’s cooperation in this matter has been extremely important to American security and regional stabilization; any future steps on the Turkish border will hopefully be taken with those two goals in mind.

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