Turkish authorities let Syrian jihadists run their own medical network

By Dogu Eroglu –  Sep 22 2014

If you’re in Gaziantep­—a southeastern town of Turkey, which shares a land border with Syria—during the summer of 2014 when Syria’s multifaceted armed conflict reached its peak, and someone admits he is running a network offering free medical treatment to Syrian jihadists, you better take him seriously.“On an ordinary day, I work almost 15 hours. The job gives me inner peace and clear conscience, so I never feel tired at all,” says Sait Gokdere. The 56-year-old man is one of the coordinators at the medical network based out of Gaziantep, designated for jihadists wounded either during the Islamic Front’s (the umbrella organization for anti-Assad armed factions in Syria) battles against ISIS, or aerial bombardments by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in Syria.

Gokdere, once an executive at IHH (Humanitarian Relief Foundation)—the Islamic organization that launched Gaza-bound humanitarian flotilla to break Israel’s naval blockade in 2010—is now in charge of another charity association, Imkan-Der (Opportunity Association). Founded in 2009, the charity’s initial goal was helping displaced refugees and asylum seekers in Northern Caucasus, but as Syrian Civil War erupted, they turned their eyes there, so did Gokdere. “Jihadist brothers came Turkey for medical aid, yet overburdened hospitals prevented them from receiving proper treatment. So, we came up with our own solution. May Allah bless the government for their support,” he declares his commitment to the cause.

Later in the conversation, he is quick to address “the solution” remark: “We run a 150-bed medical operation in Gaziantep, with three infirmaries and a rehabilitation clinic.” The bold statement coincides with many accounts blaming Turkey authorities for supporting armed groups in Syria. Though accusations have been denied, origins of arms and ammunitions under control of armed factions could be tracked back to Turkish soil in most instances, it’s even reported ISIS uses Turkish state enterprise MKE-branded ammunition. In addition to being primary suspects for Turkey’s gun-running program, frontier towns Hatay, Kilis, and Gaziantep have simultaneously served as safe havens for jihadists, and leadership of several armed groups.

Recently abstained from signing the communique to pledge to help U.S. fight ISIS, Turkey draws fire for its lack of commitment, however, Turkey’s venturesome track record seems to be forgotten. Turkey’s overt support to Free Syrian Army, and shelter provided to al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front through government decrees aside, many agree the lax Turkish border controls allowing militants to easily enter Syria to join ISIS, was crucial to the organization’s rise. Yet again, Turkey appears to turn a blind eye to another armed Islamic group sharing common features with ISIS, and allied with al-Nusra Front: The Islamic Front.

The Islamic Front (also goes by the name al-Jabhat al-Islāmiyyah) is currently one of the most influential armed forces in Syria, with allegedly some 45,000 fighters. Despite the open hostility between two organizations, the Islamic Front bears an uncanny resemblance to infamous ISIS: Just like ISIS, the Islamic Front’s primary objective is establishing a Sharia state, it despises ways of democracy, and welcomes foreign jihadists. Notwithstanding ISIS confrontation, clashes between the Islamic Front and al-Assad forces prolong for control over Aleppo and Idlib. Where there is armed conflict, there exist casualties, and the Islamic Front’s severely wounded are often en route to Turkey.

Street view of the clinic

The clinic Gokdere works at is in downtown Gaziantep, only within half a mile from the governor’s office. Residential blocks surround the building, but people on street do not appear to be stunned by the awkward image of three middle-aged, peshmerga-looking men sitting on its doorsteps. As we arrive at the facility, three recovering men stand up in a precautious manner; “As-salamu alaykum,” they greet Gokdere respectfully, knowing that he’s the one providing for the facility.

The Mudir (Arabic word stands for the person in charge) shows me around, and lays down the outline of their struggle in a nutshell. As we enter the medical ward on the ground floor, he explains the jihadists in the ward are from Aleppo or Idlib, and had their own professions before they took up arms against al-Assad regime. Recovering men criticize U.S. policies overseas—they feel bitter about Washington choosing to act against ISIS, but not al-Assad.

No cutting-edge medical devices, or key specialists exist in this place; the 6-story facility consists of dozens of sickbeds, sleeping quarters reserved for patients’ relatives, a pharmacy, few shady bathrooms, a narrow kitchen, and an office floor. The ward covered with official logos of al-Tawhid Brigade (A strong armed faction operates under the Islamic Front umbrella) hosts young and eager recovering militias, aged 15 to 25. The third floor is spared for the relatives of the wounded, while the pharmacy and a small infirmary are located on the fourth. The last floor is used as an office space, where I meet the operatives, and get briefed on how their network works.

Official logo of al-Tawhid Brigade, which is a faction of the Islamic Front, appears on doors of wards, at the clinic.

According to Gokdere, all the bedding, clothes, wheelchairs, crutches and simple pharmaceuticals are acquired through aid campaigns Imkan-Der run, whereas medicine, which doesn’t come too often but essential for treatment is purchased with the money obtained from fundraisers. Basic necessities such as food and cleaning supplies, he says, are provided by the Municipality of Sahinbey, the administration of central district.

Manager of the network—a Syrian male at his late 30s—tells that when jihadists get heavily wounded and require impatient treatment, Imkan-Der is notified by their connections in Syria and that’s how all operations begin. A car or a pickup truck crosses the border to bring the wounded to the location of first response, Kilis Public Hospital. However, due to over-capacitated hospitals, most jihadists are transferred to Gaziantep (If all fails, wounded are taken to hospitals in Ankara, or Istanbul).

As jihadists get placed at official hospital wards, the network’s doctors visit patients, and they even attend to their wounds. When I ask Hamza Agca, Chair to the Gaziantep-Kilis Chamber of Physicians, about the feasibility of such an operation, he answers rather cautiously: “Possible, but not likely. Nevertheless, Syrian physicians might be keeping an eye on jihadists by sneaking into the hospitals, disguised as visitors.”

Once jihadists recover enough to leave the intensive care units, they are transferred to the clinic or infirmary houses, where they stay until they’re fit to head back to the battlefield. Which Doctors tell, over 700 jihadists treated at different hospitals had been monitored by them within the first 8 months of 2014.

When doctors direct their attention to the surveillance camera system—Gokdere later says local police advised them to install it—and start taking notes on an incoming patient brought to the clinic they saw on the monitors, I ask Gokdere if he ever gets concerned over the legal consequences of this operation. “Don’t you think the tides may turn someday, and the courts may come after you?” I ask.

He puts the cards on the table: “Local government already know of our activities, how do you think we cross the border every time with a wounded jihadist in the trunk?” He declares their support for armed opposition will continue until al-Assad is overthrown, “Long live hell for all tyrants,” quoting from Said Nursi, (a Sunni Muslim theologian advocates “jihad by words,” and has millions of followers in contemporary Turkey) “Eventually, everybody will get what he deserves,” he adds.

A shorter version of this story appeared on Turkish Daily Birgun.

Edited by: Busra Erkara
All photo credits and graphics belong to Dogu Eroglu unless stated otherwise.