[Note: This article was originally published on July 13, before the failed coup attempt]
ISTANBUL — This newspaper (Turkish daily Hürriyet) published the following report last month: “Syrians who want to spend the Ramadan Bayram (Eid al-Fitr) holiday with the relatives they left behind in their country where a horrible civil war is still going on, started to pass through the Cilvegozu border crossing located in Reyhanli, Hatay ...”
One Syrian migrant who crossed back into his native country at the Cilvegozu border said that he was going to spend 10 days in Syria, before returning to Turkey.
We have been told repeatedly that Syrian migrants come to Turkey because they cannot stay in their own country due to the civil war. So that would seem to mean that they have no place to go back to. But as you can see, there are those who have the option and resources to go to their own country, and then come back to our country. This naturally leads us to ask: If someone can go back to his own country and freely stay at least 10 days there, then what is he doing in this country as a refugee?
On the Syrian side of the Cilvegozu border crossing, the gate — called Bab al-Hawa — is controlled by the Islamic Front, a Salafi and jihadist organization. It took the border gate from the Free Syrian Army and is also fighting against ISIS and the Assad regime. For a Syrian to pass freely from the border crossing to go back to his country, they need to be at least not opposed to this organization. Or does that mean some of those crossing might even be supporters of this Salafist group? In any case, people identified as refugees because of an ongoing war are going back to the country they fled to spend a holiday with relatives — isn't there something strange going on here?
The border between Turkey and Syria is also central to news reported last month by The Washington Post: Rifai Ahmed Taha, a prominent al-Qaeda leader, was killed by a U.S. drone strike at a gas station in Idlib, Syria. Taha, 61, had gone to Syria from Istanbul to mediate between Jabhat al-Nusra, considered al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, and other jihadist groups. Taha had also been a senior leader in Gamaa Islamiya, the terrorist organization responsible for killing 58 foreign tourists and four Egyptian guides in 1997 in Luxor, Egypt, and was on Washington's terror watch list as a “specially designated global terrorist.”
Until now, it sounds like the recap of a familiar story: The U.S. pursues global terrorists who are on the watch list. When the terrorist is located, he becomes a target for drones or for military operations like the one that killed Osama Bin Laden.
But a closer look reveals that the reason why Taha had been able to avoid surveillance for so long was the fact that he was living in Istanbul. Evidently, to avoid causing a diplomatic problem with Turkey, the U.S. had settled with keeping an eye on Taha while he was in the Turkish capital, but the moment he crossed the Turkish border and was spotted in Syria, he was hit.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan uses every opportunity to condemn the West for a hypocritical, two-faced attitude in the face of terror organizations. “Tomorrow, you will be hit by the terrorist you are supporting today by staying silent,” said Erdogan.
And yet, it is the Turkish government that turned a blind eye to a jihadist terrorist living freely in Istanbul. Taha was allowed to meet with other terrorist organizations, freely cross into Syria and act as a mediator among them.
You sure can learn a lot by looking at the Turkey-Syria border.