Turkey Is Major Transit Route For Islamic State Fighters

Militant fighters are crossing into Syria through Turkey and public criticism of Turkey is growing louder. NPR's Linda Wertheimer talks to the Financial Times' Istanbul correspondent, Daniel Dombey.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

NATO members are also concerned about threats from the Islamic State, ISIS, and the fighting in Syria. On Friday, British Prime Minister David Cameron raised the terror threat level in Britain to severe citing the risk from ISIS. The Obama administration has called the group the greatest threat to the United States since al-Qaida before 9/11. The Islamic State threat has led to tension with Turkey, a NATO member and U.S. ally. That's because Turkey is a major transit route for fighters joining up with militants in neighboring Syria. To talk about the role that Turkey plays as a transit route for ISIS, we have with us Daniel Dombey. He is the Turkey correspondent for the Financial Time. Welcome.

DANIEL DOMBEY: My pleasure. Good to be with you.

WERTHEIMER: Now this summer, the U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder estimated that there were 7,000 foreign fighters in Syria. U.S. officials say at least 140 Americans have gone to fight with Syria in Iraq so far this year. Do you have any idea how many of these people travel through Turkey?

DOMBEY: There's a very high a proportion of people who travel through Turkey. Turkey has now become, perhaps, the main route of both people and weapons going to these two theaters for the Islamic State. Because don't forget this is now an entity that spreads across, not just Iraq, but Syria as well. And you can see the importance of Turkey for them because the Turkish border is 900 kilometers long with Syria. So it becomes almost an un-police-able border rather like the U.S.-Mexican border.

WERTHEIMER: Is it at all realistic to think that Turkey could prevent these militants from crossing and recrossing the borders since it's so incredibly long?

DOMBEY: I think, in this issue, Turkey both has a case to answer and a case to make. It has a case to answer because many people accuse it of, at the very least, having turned a blind eye a couple of years ago when the Turkish priority was very much to get rid of president Bashar al-Assad from Syria. And they didn't really care to much, say many people, which bunch of bearded fighters did that job.

What turkey says, however, is, you try policing a 900-kilometer-long border. They say what they need more, particularly from their Western European and North African counterparts, is information about people who are already suspected Jihadis who may be going to Syria because they argue it's much easier to stop someone at a major international airport and just prevent them from entering a country than to police this incredibly long border.

WERTHEIMER: Turkey is facing a very particular threat from the Islamic State. In June, 49 consular workers in Mosul were taken hostage by ISIS. And that includes Turkey's council general. Obviously, this is very serious. What sort of effect is this having on Turkey's policy?

DOMBEY: I think this has a huge effect. It would be an almost unimaginable situation for a country like the U.S. or U.K. to have that many hostages in the hands of a group this blood thirsty. This is not the Ayatollah's Iran. This is something much, much worse. The savagery of these people, I think, has been impressed on all of us. As a result, it's unthinkable, to be absolutely honest, that turkey would participate in military operations against ISIS. And I think, to be honest, all of its partners appreciate that. They're treading on very thin ice. Turkey is very much one of the countries most at risk. It's not just those 49 people. It's the fact that ISIS has a border of hundreds of kilometers with Turkey, with a NATO state. And if there is any blowback from what's happening in Iraq and Syria, it could very well happen here I'm afraid.

WERTHEIMER: Daniel Dombey of the Financial Times speaking to us from Turkey. Thank you very much for doing this.

DOMBEY: My pleasure. Thank you very much indeed.

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