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How Turkey Became Prime Recruiting Ground For All Sides In Syria's War

A file photo of Kilis, Turkey, near the border with Syria
A file photo of Kilis, Turkey, near the border with Syria
Idris Emen

ISTANBUL — A series of reports shows a growing number of recruitment campaigns to sign up young Turkish people to fight in the Syrian war — on all sides.

The youth, generally ranging in age from 18 to 30, are mostly from the Adiyaman province in southeastern Turkey, though others come from a number of different areas along or near the country's 820-kilometer border with Syria.

Several groups with ties to al-Qaeda and their Syrian outfit al-Nusra, as well as others linked to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, have all set up shop in central Adiyaman to recruit young people with the promise of financial gain or the glory of jihad. The recruits are transferred to Syria in groups of 15 by way of the towns of Kilis, Hatay and Sanliurfa. It is estimated that at least 200 Turkish citizens were taken to Syria from Adiyaman alone in recent months.

Relatives of the young recruits have traveled from camp to camp in search of their sons, with some managing to get them back by paying ransom. The Governor’s office of Adiyaman and the local police refused to answer our questions on the matter. The main political opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) is preparing to bring the matter to the attention of the Turkish Parliament.

CHP Deputy Sezgin Tanrıkulu said they have been informed by NGOs of the area and two families whose sons were taken to Syria have come to them personally. “We have prepared a parliamentary inquiry to find out who is taking these youth to Syria and how,” he said, demanding the government take action.

M.D. is the father of twins who left home on Sept. 2 for Aleppo after telling their parents that they were going to university. M.D. said his sons’ behavior started to change last year: “First they grew beards, then they told their sisters to cover their heads," the father recalled. "They were getting mad at me while discussing the civil war in Syria, saying ‘There are things you do not understand. You do not understand Islam. This is a jihad and everybody should fight for it.’"

M.D. learned that his sons were not in college but in Syria when they called home one day. “They said they went there to take up the jihad and I should not come after them,” he said.

Jihad's children

The father went to the police but they said there is nothing they can do since his sons are adults. Later, he decided to go to Syria and visited six military camps in four days, meeting Turkish people from Adiyaman, Bitlis and Bingol before he found his twins. “I found both of them at a camp in Aleppo. When I told the gang leader that I had come to take my children, he said to me: ‘These children here are fighting for the jihad. Are you an infidel to keep them away from the jihad? We will shoot you and bury you here if you come here again.’”

M.D. returned to Turkey empty-handed.

F.B. was luckier. Two months ago, he tracked down his 25-year-old son in a Syrian camp called Ebu Dicle.

"They had me meet a commander. I told him ‘I came to take my son.’ His men turned their guns on me. Then I fainted," the Turkish father recalls. "When I woke up, my son was coming towards me with an armed group of 50 men in Arabic robes. I fainted again when I saw my son like this."

Eventually, another commander asked him to make a "donation," and F.B. was able to leave with his son, though he saw several other Turkish youth at the camp. “They told my son that he was going to fight against Assad when he was leaving Turkey — but the camp was for training the forces of Assad.”

Ozturk Turkdogan, head of the Human Rights Association of Turkey, said Turkish intelligence officers know about such youth being recruited to fight in Syria. “We had some information about illegal radical Islamist organizations gathering young people in the name of religion and taking them to Syria," Turkdogan said. "It surprises us that the police and the secret services turn a blind eye to the actions of these groups when it is obvious that they are recruiting soldiers for the civil war.”

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