Pipes, ammonium nitrate, and other bomb-making materials are being transported across Turkey’s border into Syria by agents of ISIS while Turkish border guards look the other way, Jamie Dettmer of The Daily Beast reports.
And Ankara doesn’t seem like it’s willing to do much about it.
The relaxed border policies Turkey adopted between 2011-2014 enabled extremists who wished to travel to Syria and join the rebels in their fight against the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
Turkey officially ended its open border policy last year, but not before its southern frontier became a transit point for cheap oil, weapons, foreign fighters, and pillaged antiquities. Smuggling networks all along the nation’s 565-mile border with Syria managed to emerge and flourish while the policy was in place.
“That policy has ended now — but it’s very hard to go back to a nonporous border because you have already allowed all these smuggling networks to be established,” Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The Wall Street Journal in February.
The Turkish town of Akcakale is a quintessential example of Turkey’s still-inconsistent border policies. While some frontier cities have established a marked security presence to address the smuggling problem, with paramilitary forces patrolling the streets and manning checkpoints in armoured vehicles, the town of Akcakale — separated from the ISIS-controlled Syrian town of Tel Abyad by a railway and a fence — is not one of them.
“Turkey is trapped now — it created a monster and doesn’t know how to deal with it,” one Western diplomat told WSJ.
Jonathan Schanzer, a former counterterrorism analyst for the US Treasury Department and vice president of research at the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies, explained that Turkey’s fear of attack from ISIS is a big reason the militants have been able to freely use a Turkish border crossing like Akcakale.
“Absolutely [fear of blowback] is part of the problem,” Schanzer, who warned about this problem in November, told Business Insider on Friday. “Initially the Turks allowed for ISIS to set up shop on the Turkish side of the border and my sense is … the longer this has persisted, the more difficult it is for the Turks to crack down because … there is the risk of a counter strike, of blowback.”
The New York Times reported earlier this month that large carts of ammonium nitrate (a fertiliser that can be used to make deadly explosives) were being transported at regular intervals from Akcakale to Tel Abyad — a problem that hasn’t seemed to phase the few policemen patrolling Akcakale’s streets, at least according to Dettmer.
“On the day I entered town,” Dettmer writes, “there was one police car at a roundabout as you entered the main drag and a policeman sitting on the ground with his back to the road drinking tea with a local.”
A Turkish smuggler, calling himself Ahmed for the purposes of the article, confirmed to Dettmer that this kind of behaviour was fairly common.
“They [Turkish border guards] are very tough with the Kurds and the areas controlled by the Free Syrian Army, but with areas across from ISIS not so much,” he said. “It isn’t hard to cross into the Caliphate,” he said.
As a result, bomb-making materials are still flowing into Syria from its northern neighbour. According to Dettmer, bomb-grade piping is easily finding its way into the war zone: “Smugglers say the piping can sustain high pressure and will be used by jihadists in Syria to manufacture pipe bombs, improvised explosive devices and launch-tubes for mortars,” he writes.
While fear of retribution may be one factor for lax border controls, the potential for income is another. While Ankara has officially banned trade and support for ISIS, many border town residents have come to depend on the cross-border trade for their livelihood.
As Dettmer points out, “new office and residential buildings are springing up” in Akcakale, and there are “obvious signs” that some are clearly “profiteering” from the war.
Moreover, many Turks are either directly related to or have come to identify with those living across the border, further complicating Ankara’s goal of severing these illicit pipelines.
“For us Akcakale doesn’t exist,” Ahmed said. “Locals call this town Tel Abyad, too, just like over the border. We are the same town, the same family separated by a railway line and a little fence.”
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