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More U.S.-Turkey Cooperation Vital to Counterterrorism Efforts | Commentary

By Halil Danismaz The White House will host the Summit on Countering Violent Extremism on Feb. 18 with the goal of finding longer-term solutions to immediate threats including ISIS and the Syrian civil war, as well as terrorism more broadly. From the brutal execution by ISIS of a Jordanian fighter pilot to the heinous attacks by al-Qaida in Paris, it is clear now more than ever that the fight against extremism is a growing global concern. It is because of this that Congress should move quickly to adopt the new Authorization for the Use of Military Force to immediately step up U.S. support of allies, particularly those on the front lines.  

The summit will showcase the U.S.’s and other countries’ most successful efforts in containing terrorism. It is critical that proposals developed from the summit do not overlook the transnational character of ISIS and other terrorist groups. Given its position at the forefront today’s greatest security challenges, Turkey deserves a prominent seat at the table. Turkey’s role in the war against extremism dates back to its cooperation with NATO during the Cold War. Serving as Europe’s southeastern flank, the country helped contain the spread of communism both within and beyond its borders. While today’s terrorist groups are different in shape and form, they similarly oppose the democratic systems of Turkey and its NATO allies. The Turkish government, likewise, continues to be a major player in 21st century counterterrorism efforts.  

In fact, Turkey has been at the helm of many of these efforts. Since 2009, the Turkish National Police have led the Anti-Terrorism Task Force of the EU’s Southeast European Law Enforcement Center. And since 2011 Turkey and the U.S. have co-chaired the Global Counterterrorism Forum to help combat the rise of extremism in the wake of the Arab Spring. The U.S. Department of State has called the GCTF the Obama’s Administration’s “signature initiative” in assisting “frontline countries and affected regions acquire the means to deal with threats.” Ankara also hosts NATO’s Centre of Excellence Defence Against Terrorism, which teaches NATO members and certain non-member states how to better tackle a number of terrorism-related issues, from preventing hostage crises to thwarting suicide bombings.  

Given this context, the suggestion that Turkey sympathizes with ISIS or any other extremist group is all the more absurd. But that’s exactly what Syrian President Bashar al-Assad claimed in his recent interview with Foreign Affairs.  

Assad’s remarks are even more ironic considering that his regime’s brutal and divisive reign created the very security gap that has allowed ISIS to grow into the imminent menace it is today. The Syrian civil war has driven more than 3.8 million refugees out of the country, including more than 1.6 million to Turkey. ISIS has taken advantage of this migration to spread their fighters throughout the region. Unlike Syria, the Turkish government immediately recognized the potential danger of ISIS when it became the first country among its Middle Eastern neighbors to designate it as a terrorist group in October 2013.  

Yet, the Syrian civil war also poses a unique and complex challenge to Turkey’s counterterrorism efforts. Because the country cannot simply close its doors to the worst humanitarian crisis in a generation, it is impossible for Turkey to fully secure its 1,000 miles of border with Syria, Iraq and Iran. Nevertheless, the Turkish government should get at least some credit from its allies for putting its counterterrorism expertise to work, including by digging miles-long trenches at known smuggling points along the border and by arresting more suspected terrorists on international watch lists than ever before. Since 2011 Turkish officials have deported more than 1,000 foreign fighters and other extremists, more than half of which were deported in 2014. According to Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, the country also maintains a watch list of 7,000 foreign fighters with contacts to terror groups in Syria and Iraq.  

As the White House lobbies Congress to pass the new AUMF, providing Turkey and Arab allies much needed backup for their ongoing campaigns against ISIS, and as it gathers regional allies for next week’s Summit, it should recognize Turkey’s legacy of combating extremism and the need for further cooperation in today’s counterterrorism efforts.  

Halil Danismaz is the president of the Turkish Heritage Organization.

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