Islamic State has run sophisticated smuggling operations across the Syria-Turkey border.
The Guardian recently published a story based on documents captured by the Kurdish YPG forces after expelling the Islamic State (IS) from the town of Tel Abyad in northern Raqqa province on the border with Turkey. The documents concern issues of transportation and migration.
Since I helped the newspaper to verify the documents and did some additional research, I believe it worthwhile to write an extended commentary on this matter, not only to shed light on how transportation and migration work in the IS administrative system, but also the controversial issue of the Turkey-IS relationship.
The documents are produced below at right.
The Hijra Committee, which appears in the first document, is a body that turns up in my original raw archive of IS documents. It is responsible for the issue of migration (hijra) to the lands of IS and may even provide funds for those who cannot afford to make the journey but know someone within IS who can vouch for them.
As for transportation, this is dealt with by more than one IS administrative department, most notably the Connections Administration (overseeing the actual routes) and the Diwan al-Hisba, which has a role in managing border checkpoints.
Indeed, when travel is restricted by permission, the Diwan al-Hisba is the normal body to be approached to obtain a special permit for travel, including for journeys to areas outside the borders of IS. Permits may also be approved by the office of the wali [provincial governor] for a given IS province.
In keeping with the guidelines of the Principles in the Administration of the Islamic State, provision of transport and travel agencies should fall under the realm of acceptable independent private enterprise (as opposed to oil, for instance). Accordingly, it will be noted that most of these documents not only have IS stamps but also stamps of private businesses providing the transportation.
In addition, one must appreciate that the routes from these documents are all within IS territory. For example, the fourth document is a route from Raqqa to Tel Abyad, the last and penultimate documents concern journeys from Mosul to Raqqa, and so on. For comparison, below is another travel company offering journeys in IS territory including destinations of Mosul, Raqqa, al-Bab and Manbij.
The fact that some of these companies/agencies have names in reference to Turkey (e.g. "So-and-so company for directing trips to Turkey" and the "Ankara Office") doesn't mean they are Turkish companies or have offices in Turkey. Nor does the presence of a Turkish dialling code mean the person in question is based in Turkey. As it so happens, I got in touch with the head of the al-'Ala company for directing trips to Turkey, whose number appears in the above documents and has a Turkish dialling code. He is actually based in Raqqa.
I inquired on the issue of journeys to/from areas outside IS territory. He affirmed that there are currently no journeys allowed from IS-held territory to Turkey or to rebel-held areas of Aleppo, but when IS held Tel Abyad there were journeys to Turkey through the official border crossing there. It is however possible for an outsider in, say, rebel-held Syria to make a journey to IS-held areas like Raqqa for business purposes: the policy here reflecting an attempt by IS to maintain one avenue of cash flow with the outside world and prevent economic collapse (hence also why the 'gold dinar' of IS is nothing more than elaborate propaganda). In this context, a friend in Azaz also informed me that minibus-type vehicles operate out of the Bab al-Salama area, offering journeys to Manbij, al-Bab, Raqqa and even Deir az-Zor.
So what is the big picture here? Clearly it is true that Turkey has adopted a stricter attitude towards the YPG in Tel Abyad than it ever adopted towards IS in Tel Abyad, as illustrated by the approach towards transportation moving over the Tel Abyad border crossing while IS controlled the town. This fits in with what can be most charitably described as negligence towards the problem of IS and border movement in the period from 2013 until early 2015, partly driven by the way Turkey perceived Kurdish nationalism as a greater threat and IS had been careful to avoid direct mass-casualty attacks on Turkish soil.
Yet it is also apparent that this prior ease of travel to and from Turkey no longer exists, despite the fact IS still controls a part of Syria's northern border with Turkey in Aleppo province.
This new reality is so for multiple reasons. First, Turkey's official border crossings with IS-territory in Aleppo province are closed. Though there is cross-border activity going on in the vicinity of Elbeyli that is near the IS-held town of al-Ra'i (H/T Aaron Stein), it is illegal in nature, and it is undeniable that Turkey has made an effort to tighten border security- something that even IS fighters would acknowledge. Second, over time IS has more generally adopted a stricter policy towards its 'citizens' travelling to the outside world even as it is still open to Syrians from the outside visiting for business purposes, as mentioned above.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Turkey at the present time is pursuing an active strategy to roll back IS control over northern Aleppo province. Unfortunately, both sides of the debate on the Turkey-IS relationship tend to repeat the same talking points and overlook the nuances that have emerged over time. In part the motivations are polemical: one side seeks to blame the IS problem in Syria entirely on the policies of Turkey and the Gulf States, and thus minimise Assad and Iranian contributions to the problem, while the other side seeks to do the exact opposite.
These tired debates obscure the interesting picture of competing proposals at the present time on how to deal with the IS problem in north Aleppo. Turkey of course does not wish for the YPG to seize more of the border areas, and sees a solution in backing the rebels in north Aleppo trying to push back IS, principally embodied in what is known as the Marea Operations Room. To an extent, the U.S. and the international coalition it leads seem willing for the time being to give Turkey a chance to prove that it has bet on the right horse, as some airstrikes are conducted in support of these rebels fighting IS in north Aleppo. For Turkey, this strategy is a much safer alternative to the talk of a 'safe zone' that would have involved deploying Turkish ground troops in north Aleppo, risking casualties that would not be tolerated by the Turkish public.
The Marea Operations Room consists mainly of local Aleppo province factions and it does the bulk of the fighting against IS on the north Aleppo front. The principal factions are: Shami Front (mostly ex-Liwa al-Tawheed affiliates), Tajammu' Fa-Istaqim Kama Umirta (Aleppo-based mainstream Islamist group, which originally joined the Shami Front merger but broke off), Faylaq al-Sham (Islamist: Ikhwani type), Liwa al-Mu'atasim (FSA brand), Kata'ib al-Safwa (FSA brand, ex-Shami Front) and the Sultan al-Murad Division (Syrian Turkmen- FSA brand). Other factions also play a supporting role, principally Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Mujahideen. Notably absent in the north Aleppo operations are outright jihadist factions like Jabhat al-Nusra (Syrian al-Qa'ida) and components of Jabhat Ansar al-Din. Though the initial IS offensive in north Aleppo countryside towards Azaz at the end of May 2015 spurred a sense of urgency that all factions had to act to stop what was seen as an existential threat to the wider insurgency, talk of a Turkish 'safe zone' and the implementation of the current strategy that also involves coalition airstrikes in support of the rebels (even if somewhat limited) have meant that Jabhat al-Nusra has withdrawn from the fighting, leaving behind a handful of local guys wishing to defend their own homes. Jabhat Ansar al-Din also rejects the idea of international support to fight against IS.
Nevertheless, the capabilities of the rebels to realize Turkey's hopes are readily in doubt. The analysis that emerges of the north Aleppo fighting between IS and the rebels is that it is largely stalemated. Whenever the rebels do seize a village, the gain becomes very difficult to hold as IS launches a counter-attack. Meanwhile, certain areas lost to IS- such as Sawran, a frontline that fell at the end of May 2015 and was manned by the Northern Storm Brigade of the Shami Front- have yet to be recovered. The failings here have a number of causes: the regime-Iranian offensive to the south of Aleppo is drawing reinforcements that might come from Idlib to that front instead, and not all rebel groups on the north Aleppo front can afford to devote resources just to fighting IS. The regime and its allies are still fighting in Aleppo city, and the YPG/Jaysh al-Thuwar are threatening to encroach on Azaz to the west. Further, there is something to be said of rebel disorganization, as illustrated by the resignation of the head of the Marea Operations Room, citing disunity in the ranks and poor coordination.
Could the U.S. in particular eventually grow frustrated with the lack of rebel progress and place hopes in the YPG, whose 'Syrian Democratic Forces' coalition has already crossed the Euphrates via the Tishreen Dam? It certainly cannot be discounted. We should be focusing on these recent developments rather than polemical, outdated debates regarding the Turkey-IS relationship, which actually also detract from valid concerns regarding Turkish support for Jaysh al-Fatah in Idlib that involves Jabhat al-Nusra.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a research fellow at Middle East Forum's Jihad Intel project.