KILIS, Turkey — A group affiliated with al-Qaeda controls the road leading south into Syria from this key border crossing on the front line of the debacle that Turkey’s Syria policy has become.
For more than a year, Turkey turned a blind eye as thousands of foreign volunteers from across the Muslim world streamed through the country en route to fight alongside Syria’s rebels, perhaps calculating that the fighters would help accelerate President Bashar al-Assad’s demise.
Now the extremists whose ranks the foreigners swelled are gaining ascendancy across northern Syria, putting al-Qaeda on NATO’s borders for the first time, raising fears of cross-border attacks and exposing how terribly Turkey’s efforts to bring about Assad’s removal have gone awry.
Meanwhile, in Damascus, Assad is showing every sign that he will ride out the revolt and perhaps remain in power for years, sustained in part by Western alarm at the rise of the extremists. The United States has served notice that it has no intention of intervening militarily, and Turkey, once the most vocal proponent of action to oust Assad, has been left to confront the consequences of what appears to have been a grave policy miscalculation.
“This was not the outcome Turkey wanted,” acknowledged a Turkish official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the subject of Syria is so sensitive.
Critics say Turkey has only itself to blame for a state of affairs that Turkish authorities appear, at least indirectly, to have encouraged. President Obama rebuked Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan when they met at the White House in May for not doing more to restrict the flow of foreign fighters, and the issue is expected to be on the agenda when the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, visits Washington on Monday.
Almost all of the foreign fighters contributing to al-Qaeda’s strength in northern Syria traveled there via Turkey, flying into Istanbul and transferring to domestic commercial flights for the trip to the border. With their untrimmed beards and their backpacks, the foreigners are often conspicuous in the sedate, Western-oriented towns of southern Turkey.
There they check into hotels if they have some money, or get put up in safe houses if they don’t, before heading either for the legal border crossings or the well-worn smuggler routes crisscrossing the 500-mile-long border.
“It’s so easy,” said a Syrian living in Kilis who smuggles travelers into Syria through the nearby olive groves and asked to be identified by only his first name, Mohammed. He claims he has escorted dozens of foreigners across the border in the past 18 months, including Chechens, Sudanese, Tunisians and a Canadian.
“For example, someone comes from Tunisia. He flies to the international airport wearing jihadi clothes and a jihadi beard and he has jihadi songs on his mobile,” Mohammed said. “If the Turkish government wants to prevent them coming into the country, it would do so, but they don’t.”
Some opposition politicians have accused the Turkish government of going further than simply tolerating the traffic, saying that it also has helped transport, train and arm the foreign fighters. In the Kurdish areas of northeastern Syria, which Turkey fears may be seeking independence, rumors abound of secret training camps and mysterious military buses filled with fighters dispatched to aid Syrian rebels battling the Kurds.
Foreign fighters captured by Kurds have claimed that they were trained in Turkish camps and that Turkish instructors teach at rebel camps in Syria, according to Saleh Muslim, the leader of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, the biggest Kurdish faction in Syria.
“In the beginning, Turkey helped them directly, and very clearly,” he said in a telephone interview.
Turkey strenuously denies that it has done anything to facilitate the flow of extremists. The Syrian war has overwhelmed Turkey in multiple ways, officials say, and as authorities struggled to accommodate an influx of 600,000 refugees while also aiding the mainstream rebels, they simply overlooked the foreign travelers.
“I don’t think anything was done on purpose,” the Turkish official said. “You can’t tell who is a jihadi or not, and a lot of Muslim people come to our country. Our visa procedure is not so strict.”
“Now, I think, everyone is realizing how much of a problem these extremist groups are,” he added. “At the end of the day, you can’t work with them, and you can’t even count on them to topple Assad.”
Turkey also may not have minded that the foreigners appeared to be contributing to the effort to oust Assad, said Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“Turkey believed so firmly that Assad would fall and the good guys would take over they did not see a problem with allowing anyone and everyone to go and fight,” he said. “But the entire premise is not coming to fruition.”
The realization that both Assad and the jihadists may endure is prompting what one analyst familiar with government thinking called “adjustments” to Turkey’s policy. Ankara is not going to drop its insistence that Assad must go, he said, but it is exploring more nuanced ways to pursue the objective.
Erdogan has softened his once-colorful anti-Assad rhetoric, denounced the al-Qaeda-affiliated groups active in Syria and reached out to some former friends who had been alienated by his staunch support for the Syrian opposition, including Iraq and Iran.
Turkey has taken steps to crack down on some of the cross-border activity. A truck loaded with 1,200 rockets destined for the rebels was intercepted this month, raids have been conducted against suspected al-Qaeda hideouts in Istanbul and foreigners are being turned back from border crossings into Syria — although not from the airport.
Muslim, the Kurdish leader, said Turkey has not provided any direct assistance recently to the extremists fighting in northeastern Syria, leading him to suspect that U.S. pressure is having an effect. “They should have done it before, but it is late now,” he said.
It was the capture in September of the town of Azaz, just across the border from Kilis, that brought home to Turkey the costs of its policy, said Amr al-Azm, a professor of history at Shawnee State University in Ohio and a Syrian who backs the opposition.
Warnings from authorities that al-Qaeda is planning bombings in Turkey have put the town on edge, prompting extra army patrols and police checkpoints. Last month, Turkish artillery fired mortars into Azaz after two people in Turkey were injured by stray bullets.
“It’s like closing the stable after the horses have bolted,” Azm said. “These guys have so many resources, they could fight for another two years.”