Turkey must "do more within its own territory, so it controls its border, which it has not done effectively since [Islamic State] first arose," Defense Secretary Ash Carter told the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. President Barack Obama made a similar point in a news conference, saying that "ground forces on the Turkish side of the border can do a much better job of sealing the border."
Here's what they're talking about–in less diplomatic terms: Turkey's 565-mile border with Syria has been a veritable open door for extremists, terrorist finance, and weapons since Syria's civil war began raging in 2011. And the traffic runs both ways. Oil and antiquities are among the goods sold via middle men in Turkey, with the profits yielding crucial external financial streams for ISIS.
The border problem is serious. Last month the State Department announced a "Rewards for Justice" bounty of $5 million on Tirad al-Jarba–also known as Abu-Muhammad al-Shimali–a key Islamic State leader it said was "responsible for facilitating the travel of foreign terrorist fighters primarily through Gaziantep, Turkey," as well as facilitating travel to Syria by would-be ISIS fighters from Australia, Europe, and elsewhere in the Middle East.
In September, the Treasury Department designated 15 individuals ISIS facilitators and financiers as a means to block them from the U.S.-led financial system. Yemeni national Mu'tassim Yahya 'Ali al-Rumaysh, Tarad Mohammad Aljarba of Saudi Arabia, and Morad Laaboudi of Morocco were identified as having operated along the Turkish-Syrian border. The designations reinforce Turkey's central role in ISIS financing.
Such direct negative mentions of Turkey, a NATO ally, by the executive branch are rare. They are not recriminations, but they reflect growing frustration among U.S. officials after countless bilateral conversations that have not produced change.
For its part, Ankara has started to acknowledge the problem. But the road ahead looks rocky. Turkish officials apparently believed that opening the border to a range of Syrian rebels could help hasten the fall of Bashar al-Assad. But as Syria's war dragged on, the fighters came to include jihadist groups and, eventually, Islamic State extremists. Over the last year or so, as ISIS exploited Turkey's lax border policies, operatives have established roots in Turkey. This means that challenging the status quo carries risks for Turkey, as the July suicide bombing by an ISIS operative in the eastern Turkish town of Suruc underscores.
Since Turkey downed a Russian fighter jet last week, a war of words has erupted between Ankara and Moscow, including Russian charges that Turkey is buying oil from Islamic State. That conflict has prompted Washington and other NATO allies to defend Ankara. Although a united front helps to deter Russian aggression, pressure on Turkey will be needed to seal Islamic State's most important gateway to the outside world.