House lawmakers pressed administration officials on Tuesday over whether Turkey is doing enough to stem the flow of foreign fighters joining the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
ISIS fighters have been using the Turkey-Syria border as a point of entry into the conflict zone.
At a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on foreign ISIS fighters, some members alleged that Turkey is not securing the border — perhaps because the government hopes to see the terror group counter Syrian leader Bashar Assad and local Kurds.
“We have to urge Turkey to seal its borders to prevent foreign fighters from joining ISIS,” said Rep. Brad ShermanBradley (Brad) James ShermanOvernight Defense & National Security — Congress begins Afghanistan grilling US says about 1,500 citizens remain in Afghanistan How Congress can advance peace with North Korea MORE (D-Calif.). “But the Turks seem much more focused on what they see as their enemies — Assad and many of the Kurdish fighters.”
Asked if Turkey was “complicit” in the influx of foreign fighters, administration officials at the hearing defended the partner in the anti-ISIS coalition.
“My answer is they’re not complicit,” said Robert Bradtke, senior adviser for partner engagement on Syrian foreign fighters at the State Department.
“We believe Turkey is taking steps to try and deal with the flow of foreign fighters,” he continued.
Bradtke said Turkey has a list of those who have been “denied entry” in the border region. Turkey has also had to deal with an influx of refugees fleeing Syria’s civil war.
The lawmakers’ questions come after Vice President Biden said in October that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan admitted to him that Ankara had been too lax securing its border and preventing fighters from going to Syria.
Erdoğan denied Biden’s account. The White House said Biden had apologized for the remarks, but the vice president later said he had not apologized.
The White House has sought to downplay the controversy.
"The relationship between the vice president and Erdoğan is in a good place," said a senior administration official last month.
Biden has also been a part of the administration’s efforts to bolster its relationship with Turkey, seen as a crucial ally in the fight against ISIS.
Last month, he traveled to the country and met with leaders there to discuss the partnership. The Turks have been pushing for a no-fly zone to be implemented over their border with Syria — which would have to be enforced by American airpower — but the U.S. has resisted that plan.
While Bradtke acknowledged on Tuesday that Turkey viewed Assad as a significant threat, he said he believed that the U.S. had a shared interest with the country in the fight against ISIS.
“But at the same time they [Turkey] recognize that [ISIS] is also a threat to Turkey itself,” he said.