Is Syria-Turkey border a safe haven for ISIS leaders? - analysis

The proximity of the two safehouses where the ISIS leaders lived with their families to the Turkish border and the Bab al-Hawa crossing suggests the presence of an ISIS haven near the border.

Turkish soldiers stand on top of tanks near the Turkish-Syrian border in Sanliurfa province, Turkey, October 15, 2019 (photo credit: REUTERS/MURAD SEZER)
Turkish soldiers stand on top of tanks near the Turkish-Syrian border in Sanliurfa province, Turkey, October 15, 2019
(photo credit: REUTERS/MURAD SEZER)

The US has now killed two leaders of ISIS in three years. Both were found within several kilometers of the border with Turkey. The first ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in an October 2019 raid on a house in Barisha, around four kilometers from the important and strategic Turkish border town of Reyhanli. His successor, Hashimi al-Qurayshi, was killed in a raid this week in Atmeh, which is also four kilometers from Reyhanli.  

The proximity of the two safehouses where the ISIS leaders lived with their families to the Turkish border and the border crossing of Bab al-Hawa points to an ISIS safe haven that has been constructed near the Turkish border. It doesn’t seem plausible that Turkey, which has backed extremists in Syria for years and enabled many thousands of pro-ISIS members to cross via Turkey into Syria in 2014, would have two ISIS leaders living so close to its border crossing without knowing. It also doesn’t seem plausible ISIS feels threatened by Turkey but has put down roots for its leadership so close to Turkey.  

Reports say that US President Joe Biden watched in real-time Wednesday as ”US commandos landed in Syria to raid a three-story home, surrounded by olive trees, where the top leader of ISIS was living with his wife and members of his family,” CNN reports. “From the head of the Situation Room table, Biden watched anxiously as an American helicopter suffered mechanical problems on the ground. There was relief in the room when children emerged from the first floor of the building, running to safety. Moments later, an explosion rocked the site: a suicide detonation that killed Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, his wife and his children, blowing their bodies outside the building and onto the surrounding land.” 

The raid this week was complex. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an extremist group that controls Idlib province in Syria near the Turkish border, maintains a presence near the house. Reports indicated that HTS set up roadblocks and may have even clashed with the US. However, HTS has also been angling to be removed from a US list of terrorist groups. HTS is the Syrian version of Al-Qaeda, but during the end of the Trump era, it tried to sell itself to US officials as a possible asset against the Syrian regime and Iran. Several glowing portraits of the extremist group appeared in US media, trying to humanize and whitewash their crimes, similar to how the Taliban have been pushing their public relations teams in the West. 

Meanwhile, the US raid had to contend with the fact that the house supposedly had three floors, one occupied by the ISIS leader who rarely ventured outside, and a second floor occupied by a high-level ISIS commander. But reports said the family on the first floor were not aware of their high-level terrorist neighbors. The ISIS leader died like his predecessor, he apparently blew himself up.

Interior of a building destroyed in the aftermath of a counter-terrorism mission conducted by the US Special Operations Forces is seen in Atmeh, Syria, February 3, 2022. (credit: MOHAMED AL-DAHER/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)Interior of a building destroyed in the aftermath of a counter-terrorism mission conducted by the US Special Operations Forces is seen in Atmeh, Syria, February 3, 2022. (credit: MOHAMED AL-DAHER/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

An important report by Alexander McKeever has detailed much of what is known about Atmeh and the raid the day after it took place. A map on his website at Substack notes that near the town is a large IDP camp and there is a Turkish military outpost in Idlib on one said and also an HTS checkpoint in the town. Turkey has put up numerous outposts in Idlib in recent years and reports have revealed that Turkish forces control part of the area and have been even been escorted by HTS members at times. A 2018 article suggesting Turkish forces had been escorted by HTS appeared in Turkish media.

The 2018 report at Hurriyet notes “the report said Yasin Tanboğa, an employee at the General Directorate of State Hydraulic Works (DSI), was killed in an attack carried out against a Turkish convoy as they were moving toward the Syrian town of al-Ais to establish an observation point in the de-escalation zone. What caught my attention in the report was that ‘Tahrir al-Sham forces were accompanying [the Turkish convoy] for security reasons’ en route to al-Ais. The footage later revealed on social media also showed elements hinting that the vehicles accompanying the Turkish convoy belonged to Tahrir al-Sham forces … What does it mean when a Turkish military convoy consisting of military vehicles including tanks belonging to the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) moves toward Idlib alongside Tahrir al-Sham forces?” 

McKeever notes that “in a manner reminiscent of Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad era, al-Qurayshi communicated with the outside world through couriers and a ‘lieutenant’ who lived on the second floor. According to the administration, an innocent family unrelated to the Islamic State resided on the first floor/basement.” Bin Laden was found not far from a Pakistan military academy. Pakistan had long supported the Taliban and had been a kind of highway for extremists going in and out of Pakistan. It appears Pakistan or some officials within the Pakistani regime hosted Bin Laden or purposely ignored his presence after he fled Afghanistan in 2002 following 9/11 and the US-backed invasion. 

The question about the close location to Turkey is one that US officials and NATO don't want to answer because it raises the question of why Turkey has enabled so many extremists to live in areas it controls in Syria. “How were two of the most wanted men in the world found living just outside Turkey? Unlike al-Baghdadi, who chose to live in a secluded compound on the outskirts of a small town, al-Qurayshi picked a building in perhaps the most densely populated district of northwestern Syria. Additionally, his third-floor apartment was located 500 meters from an HTS checkpoint, 2.15 kilometers from a Turkish Jandarma post across the border, and approximately 5 kilometers from the closest Turkish military base inside Syria,” McKeever notes. 

The timing of the raid also leads to questions. The US raid to kill Baghdadi came after the US appeared to greenlight a Turkish invasion of part of Syria in which Turkey and extremists it backs attacked the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. This was during the Trump administration, which was very close with Ankara. The administration agreed to the Turkish invasion and ethnic cleansing of Kurds from parts of Syria. It followed another invasion in Afrin in 2018. Afrin is near Idlib and the border to Afrin, which was once a Kurdish peaceful area, is near Atmeh. This means that ISIS likely benefited not only from Turkey’s role in Idlib and the presence of HTS, which was angling for partners in the former US administration but also from the ethnic cleansing of Afrin in 2018. The Turkish invasion, backing Syrian rebels and extremist groups such as Ahrar al-Sharquiya, forced 160,000 Kurds to flee Afrin.

Then came October 2019 when the US let Turkey invade eastern Syria, where US forces had been working with the SDF to fight ISIS. The invasion led to Russia moving into areas where US forces had once been present. In 2021 Turkey again threatened to invade parts of Syria to attack the SDF. Turkey tends to bomb groups like the SDF which have been fighting ISIS. This has enabled ISIS to continue to thrive in parts of Syria.

ISIS maintains a presence not only in Idlib, where its two leaders were found but also in Turkey. In addition, ISIS recently staged a large attack on an SDF-run prison in Syria. The battles left numerous casualties, probably in the hundreds. That battle was followed by Turkey launching widespread airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, targeting areas like Sinjar where Yazidi victims of ISIS live. Turkish-backed extremists also attacked Tel Tamir, an area where Christian minorities live in an SDF-controlled area of eastern Syria. Bizarrely, the raid on the ISIS leader came just days after the ISIS prison break took place. ISIS fighters had surrendered in Hasaka to US-backed SDF forces on January 26. On Wednesday, February 2, the raid took place to kill the ISIS leader. 

The timing is strange. The prison break, the Turkish airstrikes against anti-ISIS forces and then the raid. We may never know how all this interplay works. The US does not want to hint at Turkey’s problematic role in backing extremists in Syria and giving a safe haven to extremists in Idlib. This safe haven has enabled ISIS leaders to move in next door to Turkey. These ISIS leaders are from Iraq and yet they fear living in Iraq and parts of Syria where the SDF and Syrian regime are present. The only place they seem to feel safe is near Turkey’s border - yet the two US raids show they are not completely safe. How Turkish intelligence hasn’t noted their presence either means Turkey is not paying attention, or it is playing a role in what is happening. 

The house Baghdadi lived in is barely 20km from the house where his successor was found. It’s a forty-minute drive, but would be much faster if one went as the crow flies because Turkey’s border juts into the area between Barisha and Atmeh. In short, these two ISIS leaders lived as close as possible to Turkey’s key border crossing with Syria, without actually moving to Turkey. If they had lived any close they would have had to cross the border. And this is an active border crossing where extremist groups have received assistance in the past.

It’s clear the ISIS leaders chose this for a reason. Officials don’t want to say what they suspect may be happening. Even reports like the one at CNN didn’t want to mention the complexities of the border or HTS or what else is going on in this area, such as the ethnic cleansing of nearby Afrin. However, the presence of the ISIS leaders here cannot be seen except in the context of this reality. ISIS committed genocide against minorities, such as Yazidis, Shi’ites and Christians. It is no coincidence that when groups like Ahrar al-Sharqiya, backed by Turkey, rampaged through Afrin, kidnapping women, persecuting minorities and engaging in crimes that were so heinous the US sanctioned the group in July 2021.

This forms part of the context as to why ISIS felt comfortable in this area - with Afrin cleansed of opposition and minorities and Turkey’s bases nearby, it was a perfect setting for ISIS to set up camp. That the new leader of ISIS who came on the scene after Baghdadi’s demise choose to live close to where the US found Baghdadi, showed he was not concerned. Now he is dead and it is unclear if more ISIS leaders will be found in this area, or if they will transit the border or through Afrin and Idlib to some other area.