Security challenges in the Turkish-Syrian borderlands

Security challenges in the Turkish-Syrian borderlands

The recent spate of ISIS-inspired terror attacks in Turkey and subsequent attempted coup, combined with foreign fighters’ incessant attempts to enter ISIS’s shrinking territory have kept Turkey’s border with Syria, once dubbed a “jihadist highway”, at the forefront of regional security issues. Has Ankara responded adequately to the international community’s demands to bring its 911 kilometer border with Assad’s regime under control, or are smuggling and border crossings by militants a continuing threat?

Gasoline smuggling

Earlier this year, gasoline smuggling from Turkey to Syria received international attention after Russia accused the Turkish government of facilitating contraband routes across the Syrian border. While gasoline smuggling has long been a contentious issue in the region, the illicit practice appears to be declining. According to figures from Turkey’s Office for Combatting Smuggling and Organized Crime, only 4.33 million liters were seized in 2015, compared with 13.7 million in 2014; these numbers represent a 70% year-over-year decrease. Nonetheless, gasoline smugglers are continuing the illicit practice. Using industrial drilling machines, they continue to install pipes 5-10 meters under the border to facilitate smuggling.


As drug smuggling — particularly of an amphetamine called Captagon — continues to play a major role in financing armed groups in Syria, the illicit practice has emerged as a major threat to border security. Smugglers continue to find increasingly sophisticated methods of smuggling the pills into Turkey for further distribution into traditional consumer bases in the Persian Gulf. An April 2016 seizure in the border region of Hatay, for example, yielded over half a metric ton of the drug. Hidden inside pipes, the stash had previously gone undetected by drug-sniffing dogs. One month later in the same region, two law enforcement operations led to the discovery of over 3 million Captagon tablets.

Fortress on the border

In 2015, approximately 910 militants were caught crossing the Syrian border into Turkey. This number is modestly lower than the 992 militants captured in 2014, according to figures from the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF). In an effort to decrease militant border-crossings, the TAF has already spent 300 million Lira implementing a project dubbed the “Syria Physical Border Security System,” which aims to seal off the 911 kilometer frontier through a combination of concrete walls, watchtowers, observation blimps, flood-lamps, ditches and drones alongside the border. In order to prevent militants from entering Turkey via standard routes, the government created a database of individuals banned from entering the country due to alleged ties to militant groups. According to a parliamentary statement by Turkey’s Interior Minister, the database currently contains 41,000 names.

Despite hardened security measures, a recent incident has caused many to question the extent to which Ankara has abandoned efforts to support anti-Assad foreign fighters operating in Syria. Secret files signed by the assistant governor of Ağrı, a region in Turkey’s east that borders Iran, were leaked in early May 2016, exposing that 19 foreign fighters were given medical treatment at a refugee holding center. This incident has since been brought up by opposition members of Parliament.

Even if Turkey succeeds in sealing the border, Ankara faces the challenge of dealing with the substantial number of Turkish fighters currently fighting on the ground in Syria. Files from Turkish federal police that were leaked to the national newspaper Cumhuriyet estimated that 2,750 Salafi Turks have gone to fight in Syria since April 2011. Approximately 750 of these Turks are currently fighting for ISIS, and 130 remain in the ranks of the al-Nusra Front.

Money flows

Despite the militarization of Turkish border security, money continues to move from Turkish banks and organizations across the Syrian border into the hands of armed groups. These illicit financial flows pose serious risks to financial institutions and companies with a footprint in the region.

A group of Syrian Christians is suing Kuwait-Turkey Participation Bank, a Turkish financial institution founded with Kuwaiti capital, for facilitating terror financing through a foundation called the İslami Şam Heyeti Derneği (Islamic Damascus Committee Association). A Kuwaiti named Hajjaj al-Ajmi, who has been designated by the Department of the Treasury as a terror financier, encouraged his followers to donate to the foundation through the bank.

At the same time, IHH, a conservative Turkish Islamic humanitarian relief organization, is being investigated in the United States. Authorities suspect IHH of establishing shell companies in the Balkans for the purpose of purchasing weapons to ship to Islamist rebels in Syria. Additional allegations suspect IHH of recruiting willing fighters from Muslim communities in the North Caucasus for the struggle against Assad’s regime. At the same time, multiple Turkish state ministers and government foundations openly supported and raised money for the organization’s activities in Syria.

Even as the Turkish state militarizes border security and gets a handle on gasoline smuggling, the unrelenting flow of narcotics, foreign fighters, and illicit funds across the Syrian border are a persistent threat to international security and will remain so as long as the conflict to Turkey’s south smolders.  

Disclaimer: the views expressed in this article are the author’s alone.

About Author

Luke Rodeheffer

Luke Rodeheffer is a cyberthreat researcher at Flashpoint in New York City. He holds an MA from Stanford University, where he was a FLAS Fellow for Turkish. Luke was previously a Fulbright Fellow in Ukraine and a research assistant at Koç University in Istanbul. You can follow him on Twitter @LukeRodeheffer