Turkey is struggling to close a “jihadist highway” that lets foreign militants slip across its border into Syria, amid pressure from Western governments and mounting security fears at home.
Turkish forces have stepped up arrests, patrols and interrogations in recent months, but the rapid advance of Islamic State extremists in Iraq has made Ankara’s initiative even more urgent, say Turkish officials, Western diplomats and residents.
On Wednesday, President Barack Obama signaled an expansion of American aims in the effort to halt Islamic State, saying the U.S. would “degrade and destroy” the extremist group and turn it into “a manageable problem” with the help of international partners.
Turkey became the primary route for foreign jihadists to join Syria’s civil war because of the country’s easy visa policies for travel, its porous 565-mile border with Syria and its modern transportation infrastructure.
Ankara, which grew hostile to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after his deadly crackdown on protesters in 2011, also allowed foreign militants who sought to oust him to freely operate, diplomats say. Ankara has denied turning a blind eye to their presence.
With Turkey’s latest policy shift, long-bearded militants once seen openly traveling to battle or receiving medical treatment here in the leafy border villages of Turkey’s Hatay province have begun keeping a lower profile, residents and officials say.
They are shaving their beards, trading their baggy trousers and tunics for Western clothing and flying into tourism hubs on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast rather than directly to Syria’s border. Other fighters sneak into Syria through Lebanon and Jordan.
“Now we are asked questions and our bags are checked,” said Mohammed Al-Ahmad, a 20-year-old former Syrian fighter with the Free Syrian Army who was returning to Turkey from a family visit in Syria. “This wouldn’t have happened last year.”