by Giorgio Cafiero
Situated at the Turkish-Syrian border’s intersection with the Mediterranean, Turkey’s southernmost Hatay Province has been highly vulnerable to spillover effects from Syria’s raging war. That’s been a function not only of geography and refugee waves, but also history, demography, and sectarianism.
Hatay belonged to the French Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon before officials in Paris handed the province over to the Turkish state in 1939. France made this move to guarantee “friendship” with Ankara during World War II and prevent Turkey from allying with Nazi Germany. Yet this created a grievance among Syrian nationalists who have long seen Hatay as part of Greater Syria, illegitimately occupied by the Turks. A least on paper, this is the position of Syria’s regime even though officials in Damascus have not pushed their counterparts in Ankara on this issue for years.
One third of Hatay’s population is Arab Alawite, just like Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and those who hold the upper echelons of the Ba’athist regime in Damascus. Hatay’s Arab Alawites are overwhelmingly secular and opposed to Turkey’s ruling neo-Islamist Justice and Development Party. Like Hatay’s Arab Sunnis, the province’s Arab Alawites remain linked to their co-religionists in Syria via family ties and tribal affiliations. Although these two groups—along with Kurds, Armenians, Jews, and Circassians—have lived in harmony in Hatay for centuries, developments in Syria since 2011 have raised sectarian temperatures in the southern province, pitting Hatay’s Arab Alawites who generally favor Assad against the province’s Arab Sunnis who overwhelmingly oppose his regime.
Notwithstanding all these factors, the province has remained remarkably peaceful since 2011 save for several incidents of terrorism and rocket and mortar attacks from the Syrian side of the border. The ancient city of Antakya (Antioch), Hatay’s capital, remains a tourism destination for Turks and non-Turks alike who enjoy the province’s museums with Roman ruins, castles, waterfalls, and special cuisine that represents Hatay’s diverse and rich culture.
Since the Syrian crisis erupted, however, tensions have remained high in Hatay. In January, Turkey launched Operation Olive Branch from Hatay against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)-affiliated Peoples’ Protection Unit (YPG) in the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin. Since the beginning of the campaign, which has since become a quagmire for Turkey, Turkish officials have been increasingly worried about the YPG bringing its fight against Turkey to Hatay. Moreover, with a looming battle for the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib that borders Hatay, between Turkish-backed Islamist rebels on one side and the Syrian regime (possibly with YPG support) on the other, maintaining security in Hatay may prove challenging.
Since the implementation of Turkey’s State of Emergency following the failed coup of July 15, 2016, Turkish security forces have been clamping down on Syrian migration into Hatay, constantly rounding up refugees in large numbers and placing them in detention centers. This spring, I had an opportunity to meet with a handful of Syrians detained in Hatay. Most were ordinary Syrian citizens who came to Hatay in pursuit of security and a steady income and now live behind bars in the shadows of Turkey’s legal system.
Yet a number of global terrorists have also crossed the Turkish-Syrian border with some coming into Hatay, further threatening the province’s peace and harmonious relations among its different ethnic and religious communities.
The Jihadist Terrorist from Raqqa
On April 1, 2018, I met an ex-Islamic State (ISIS or IS) fighter jailed in Antakya. Turkish security forces had detained this young, scrawny terrorist in Hatay near the Turkish-Syrian border. The detainee, whom I will call Abdullah, was a Syrian national from Raqqa.
When I asked him if he was a member of IS, he confirmed that he’d joined the group in Syria and fought in key battles against the Syrian Arab Army and its Russian ally in Palmyra, and against other adversaries in his home city of Raqqa and Mosul. Out of all the ex-IS soldiers whom I interviewed during my fieldwork in southern Turkey, Abdullah was the only one who had no regrets about joining the outfit.
Abdullah spoke fluent Arabic and Turkish, along with basic English. Most of our interview was conducted with a Google voice translator as Abdullah sat smiling in a chair. He made essentially no eye contact with me. Nonetheless, Abdullah explained that he was glad to continue speaking with me about his time fighting in the Levant as well as his perspectives on regional politics. I wanted to learn about this ex-IS soldier’s experiences in these major battles and his ideological outlook on the so-called caliphate’s enemies, allies, and competitors in the global jihadist arena.
“Who did you fight in Syria?” I asked him. “Who attacked you? The Syrian regime? The PKK? The Russians? The Americans? Hezbollah? The Iranians? Jabhat al-Nusra?”
Abdullah explained that in Palmyra he fought Assad’s forces on the ground and that the Russians attacked his positions from the air. He said that the most intense fighting he experienced was near Palmyra, recalling how the Russian bombardment was extremely powerful, so much so Abdullah could not fathom how much destruction an air force could possibly create with conventional weapons. He pointed to a large cut on the top of his head, which resulted from a splintered object flying at his head during battle while he and his IS cohorts were enduring Russia’s air attacks outside the ancient city.
When I asked the detainee about Qatar, accused by many of supporting IS, he made it clear that he reserved vitriol for the Western-allied Al Thani rulers in Doha: “When we were fighting in Iraq and Syria, Qatar, as a member of the American-led coalition, was bombing us. The Qatari leaders are just puppets of the US.” He similarly explained his views of the Al Saud rulers in Riyadh, accusing them of corruption and deviating from Islam.
He shared his perspective on various other jihadist militias in African and Arab countries that both compete and, in some instances, cooperate with IS. Abdullah explained that he was “neutral” on the Somali group, al-Shabaab. He did, however, state that he expressed full solidarity with Boko Haram, which in May 2015 pledged bayat (allegiance) to IS, pointing to that specific decision as the reason for his support.
His anti-Shia and anti-Iranian positions were extreme. He agreed with certain fatwas issued in the past by hardline Salafist clerics to endorse the killing of Shia Muslims, making a throat-slitting gesture. When asked about the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (previously Jabhat al-Nusra), he expressed his hatred for this sworn enemy of IS. Nonetheless, despite Osama bin Laden’s role as the former leader of al-Qaeda, which is now a global jihadist network made up of militant jihadists whom Abdullah considers kafirs (disbelievers), he spoke of the ex-Saudi national responsible for the September 11, 2001 attacks as a hero for the Arab/Islamic world. Abdullah maintained that al-Qaeda’s attacks against the US homeland in 2001 were righteous and glorious.
The Lingering Impact of IS
As an unrepentant and remorseless terrorist who felt no guilt for his service in IS ranks, Abdullah was a marked contrast from other ex-ISIS soldiers whom I interviewed in other detention facilities in Turkey who had expressed much regret about their participation in the extremist force. Although there is much to debate about the idea of certain former IS members rehabilitating into society in safe and healthy ways, some who have been detained would remain a grave security threat if ever released. Unfortunately, Abdullah was one of them.
Because of the current crisis in US-Turkey relations, aggravated by the Turkish government’s refusal to free Pastor Andrew Brunson, more voices in Washington are calling for an end to the strategic alliance. Nonetheless, the United States and its allies in Europe should understand Turkey’s role as a buffer between Western nations and the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, where up to 30,000 IS fighters remain, according to a recent UN report.
However difficult Turkey might be as an ally, if the lira plunges further and the second largest military power in NATO becomes more unstable, it would create major security challenges for the European Union, and by extension the United States as well. In such a worst-case scenario, dangerous jihadists like Abdullah would transit Hatay en route to Greece and Bulgaria with much greater ease, giving the United States reason to question the wisdom of measures aimed at weakening Turkey. At a time when IS is making its deadly insurgency campaigns in Iraq and Syria more relevant again while also looking to bring their bigotry and bloodshed to new destinations such as Europe and Africa, the security dilemmas that Turkey faces along its Syrian border could soon become even graver dilemmas for the rest of NATO.