Co-authored by Merve Tahiroglu
Controversy erupted in Turkey last week, after local government officials in Denizli province in western Turkey confirmed that a Turkish citizen allegedly wounded while fighting for the Islamic State (IS) was being treated in a local hospital. Rumors on social media suggested that the fighter had recently been wounded in Kobane, a Syrian Kurdish town across the Turkish border -- some 600 miles away from the hospital -- meaning that the fighter had been airlifted there.
It's still unclear whether Turkey has been actively transporting wounded fighters to their hospitals from Syria as part of their assistance package to the rebel groups, or whether these irregular forces have made their way independently. Either way, the jihadists now know that Turkey is a place where they are welcomed when they are in need of repair.
As the gurneys roll in, some Turkish medical professionals are beginning to wonder whether their Hippocratic Oath is worth all the trouble. Earlier this month, a nurse in the southern coastal town of Mersin wrote a letter to the police and government, complaining that she had treated enough IS members. "We treat them, then they go and kidnap hostages ... Many other militants came here for treatment. They just went back to fighting after they left."
As it turns out, other IS fighters have been treated across Turkey for months. In September, the Turkish media reported that an IS member was treated in a Sanliurfa hospital near the Syrian border. The fighter reportedly succumbed to wounds suffered during a battle with the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). A second report suggested that there were 10 such fighters hospitalized, but it was unclear whether they all met a similar fate. Around that same time, the Turkish press reported that a secret makeshift IS hospital was operating out of a two-story house in Sanliurfa, a border town close to IS-controlled territory in Syria.
Earlier last year, other Turkish media reports revealed that IS fighters were being treated in other locations across the country. One IS fighter went on the record with Aydinlik newspaper in June, saying, "If Turkey hadn't been so understanding, we wouldn't have been able to achieve what we have until now." Another report out of Hatay made headlines when a hospital official complained of IS members being treated there. "Turkey needs to stop supporting these guerrillas," the official said. After a photograph of an IS commander allegedly receiving free treatment in Hatay's public hospital in April began circulating on the internet, opposition deputies took the issue to the parliament, and accused the government of protecting and cooperating with jihadist militants.
But, it's not only IS fighters that receive this assistance. In July 2013, an al-Nusra front commander reportedly received treatment at Ceylanpinar public hospital, near the Syrian border. There were so many wounded fighters coming in that month that Ceylanpinar's residents complained to Hurriyet, "they only treat Syrians here. What do we need to do to get treated? Go to Syria? ... We haven't gotten any service for months. We have become second-class citizens."
A report from September suggests that one fighter from Ahrar al-Sham, a group with known ties to al-Qaeda, was admitted to a hospital in Hatay, where he died. Fighters from the Islamic Front -- as many as 700 -- also received treatment in Gaziantep.
The demand for medical treatment in Turkey has led to a proliferation of makeshift hospitals. Journalist Tuluhan Tekelioğlu reported in November 2013 that at least four medical centers, disguised as hostels, were being financed by Saudi non-government organizations. Tekelioğlu noted it was unclear whether the Turkish government knew about these centers, which were treating Syrian fighters in Reyhanli. "Transfers of the wounded have become part of the war economy," he noted. "Smugglers bring in a wounded fighter through the border every day."
None of this is particularly surprising, given Turkey's lax border policies, which have amounted to a wink and a nod to Sunni fighters streaming into Syria with the goal of bringing down the Iran-backed Assad regime. Turkey has allowed its 565-mile border with Syria to be exploited by a range of rebel factions, making Southeastern Turkey akin to Peshawar during the 1990s. And it now appears that access to Turkey's health system could be part of that deal.
But it's not only Syrian jihadists who are benefitting from the Turkish medical system. Hamas leader Imad al-Alami, whose name appeared on the list of the original six Hamas officials designated as terrorists by the U.S. government in 2003, arrived in Turkey a month after last summer's war with Israel for surgery on his right leg. What exactly happened to al-Alami is unclear. Rumors circulated on blogs and forums that he was injured in an intra-Hamas battle, although Hamas insists that he was hit by an Israeli airstrike. Either way, the traditional envoy between Iran and Hamas has been convalescing in Turkey, and given that Turkey has become a top external headquarters for Hamas in recent years, it's unclear whether he will be leaving any time soon.
Turkey also appears to have provided medical services to a prominent Libyan jihadist. In January, Ansar al-Sharia confirmed the death of its leader Mohamed al-Zahawi. Al-Zahawi died at a Turkish hospital, where he had received medical treatment for an "injury sustained in battles for Benghazi." Turkey sent his body back to Misrata for the funeral.
It is no secret that Turkey has oriented its foreign policy toward Islamist regimes and Muslim Brotherhood movements in recent years. However, Turkey's new role as jihadi general hospital should be a warning. Ankara's socialized medicine for extremists is yet another dangerous indicator for a regime that has helped Iran evade sanctions, granted permission to Hamas to establish a headquarters in Turkey, and allowed the Islamic State to run rampant.