WASHINGTON For all the Obama administration's vocal concern about Islamist extremists fighting in Syria, neither U.S. officials nor regional allies have taken significant action to stem the flow of jihadists to rebel ranks.
The jihadist pipelines mainly via Turkey, but also through Jordan and Iraq are an open secret, according to interviews this month with fighters and eyewitnesses, as well as analysts who've closely monitored the 2-year-old uprising against President Bashar Assad's regime.
The foreign fighters would be hard to miss for Turkish and Western intelligence operatives they stay at established safe houses, openly recruit comrades and often stand out with distinctive appearances and habits yet there's been no overt effort to crack down on their presence in frontier towns.
"Even with this growing jihadist threat, there's a reluctance to do anything more proactive on Syria," said Elizabeth O'Bagy, an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War who recently spent two weeks traveling with rebels in Syria, where she encountered Tunisian, Moroccan and Algerian fighters, she said.
That observation was similar to what a McClatchy reporter witnessed during a recent trip to Syria, where he saw Egyptians and Libyans, as well as other nationalities, among rebel fighters.
"The pipelines are still open and fighters are coming in quite freely," O'Bagy said.
Such a laissez-faire approach not only runs counter to the alarmist public comments from the State Department on extremist elements trying to "hijack" the Syrian rebellion but also is a marked change from the way the government dealt with the jihadist "rat lines" that once ran in the opposite direction out of Syria into neighboring Iraq to fight U.S. forces before the American military withdrew at the end of 2011.
During the Iraq War, the U.S. government spent millions of dollars helping the Iraqis beef up border security and intercept the fighters and weapons that were streaming into the country. By contrast, McClatchy couldn't find a single public mention of authorities arresting a suspected jihadist at the Turkish border or any signs that the United States was pressuring Turkey to be more vigilant at crossings such as Bab al Hawa, the Syrian town across the border from Reyhanli, Turkey, that's firmly under rebel control.
State Department officials reject the idea that they've turned a blind eye to the traffic, but they wouldn't go into detail on any possible discussions with Syria's neighbors about hardening the borders and better tracking foreign fighters.
"In our continuing discussions with our partners in the region, we are emphasizing the need for all countries that border Syria to take steps to prevent extremist elements like Jabhat al Nusra from entering Syria," a State Department official said, referring to an anti-Assad group known as the Nusra Front in English that the United States has said is an incarnation of the group al-Qaida in Iraq. The diplomat, who wasn't authorized to discuss the matter publicly, spoke only on the condition of anonymity.
Analysts offer mixed views on why the United States hasn't done more to block the jihadist routes. They argue that the pipelines are less of a priority for the administration because the jihadists aren't targeting Americans as they were in Iraq; that U.S. diplomats want to avoid confronting the Turks because they need Turkey's help on other urgent regional matters; and perhaps most important, that battle-skilled jihadists are a necessary evil to hasten the U.S. goal of ousting Assad.
"There was a willful ignorance of reality there because we wanted Syria to be simpler than it is," said Brian Fishman, a counter-terrorism expert at the Washington-based New America Foundation. "The reality is that the situation in Syria raises tremendous policy questions and moral questions."