A total of 600 UK citizens have been caught trying to enter Syria to join the Islamic State and other Islamist groups since 2012, the foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, has said.
Speaking on a visit to southern Turkey on Friday, Hammond said a further 800 UK citizens – believed to be made up of mainly fighters and their family members – had managed to enter Syria in the past four years, with half of those believed to still be inside the country.
Hammond said British and Turkish intelligence services had worked together to apprehend hundreds of Britons on their way to join the civil war, stopping some at the UK border and seizing others on planes or trains arriving in Istanbul.
Some had been returned to the UK, while others remained in Turkey for breaching laws on attempting or intending to cross the border into Syria without permission, he added.
Turkey is the main route into Syria for UK jihadis. Out of the at least 50 UK jihadis known to have died fighting either for Islamic State or al-Qaida’s Syrian branch, Jabhat al-Nusra, almost all travelled into Syria through Turkey.
One of those fighters, Fatlum Shakalu, 20, from west London, was killed in fighting in May 2015 after blowing himself up for Isis in the Iraqi city of Ramadi. Shakalu was understood to have smuggled himself into Syria via Turkey in the spring of 2013 with his brother Flamur, who also died on the frontline in Iraq last year.
Fellow fighter Omar Hussein from High Wycombe, who is still fighting with Isis, told the Guardian he arrived in Syria two years ago by coming through the Turkish border town of Reyhanli. The former Morrisons supermarket employee, who featured in an official Isis recruitment video in October 2014, described the the journey as easy.
“Approximately 800 Brits have been to Syria, of whom half are still there,” Hammond said on Friday. “But on top of that 800, we have stopped another 600.”
Earlier this week, Turkish police detained three Russian nationals suspected of links with Isis following a suicide bomb attack in Istanbul that killed at least 10 tourists.Hammond said there had been an increase in the number of Britons apprehended in Turkey thanks to a transformation in UK-Turkish security cooperation in the past eight months, stemming from a reassessment by Ankara of the scale of the threat posed to the Turkish economy and society by Isis.
Hammond said the interception of foreign jihadis aiming to join Isis and other Islamist groups was putting additional strain on the group in its de facto capital, Raqqa, as it also comes under attack from airstrikes conducted by western allies.
“There is evidence [Isis] is finding it difficult to recruit to the brigades in Raqqa because of the high attrition rate of foreign fighters,” he said. “Not just those targeted in UK drone strikes, but US strikes against prominent targets including foreign fighters.”
A recent Guardian investigation found that Isis ran a sophisticated border operation in Tel Abyad between December 2014 and March last year. Documents show that passengers, including Tunisians, arrived on busses from Turkey and submitted their names, ID numbers and dates of births before being allowed admission into Isis-held territory. The arrangement appeared to have ended only when Kurdish forces took the town from Isis last summer and Turkish authorities promptly sealed the crossing.
The latest propaganda disseminated by Isis has advised prospective recruits to travel to a second or third country before journeying to Turkey to avoid suspicion from authorities.
He said the collapse in oil prices meantIsis oil was only selling at $15 a barrel, punching a hole in their finances. “We know they’ve cut stipends to foreign fighters and many foreign fighters are in arrears on pay.”“Generally they are very stretched now – their manpower on the ground in relation to the territory they’re holding is very thin,” said Hammond.
Hammond also delivered his strongest critique yet of Russia’s air campaign in Syria, accusing Moscow of deliberately carrying out strikes on schools and hospitals.
Hammond levelled his charges after meeting Syrian civil defence workers in Adana, southern Turkey. The rescue workers are being trained by the Turks to extract the injured and dying from the rubble of buildings struck by Syrian regime bombs or Russian raids.
In probably his toughest condemnation of Russian tactics since Vladimir Putinsurprised the west by intervening militarily in Syria at the end of September, Hammond said: “The Russians are deliberately attacking civilians and the evidence points to them deliberately attacking schools and hospitals and deliberately targeting rescue workers. If you go back for a second strike, you know what you are doing.”
The west has long argued Russia is not targeting Isis but instead opponents of the Assad regime, but this is the furthest Hammond has gone in condemning the tactics of Russian pilots.
He said he would be raising the issue directly with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, in the next few days, adding that Russian military tactics were making it almost impossible to build the confidence necessary for peace talks due to start in Geneva on 25 January.
Hammond was told by the teams of civilian rescue workers in Adana that Russian bombing missions were distinct from those run by the Syrian air force since they attacked with multiple aircraft and always returned to targets 15 to 20 minutes after the initial bomb to hit the same target.
“Rescue workers are no longer marking their vehicles because they believe they are being targeted deliberately,” he said. “They also told me hospitals around Aleppo and Idlib have had Red Cross symbols removed because they are becoming a target for the Russians.”
Speaking inside the Adana refugee camp, 250km from the Syrian border in southern Turkey, the foreign secretary expressed his anger at the way in which the EU in October had promised €3bn to Turkey to obtain Ankara’s help to tackle the refugee crisis, but had failed to deliver a single euro.
Hammond blamed the Italian government and “frankly the EU bureaucracy” for the hold-up, adding it was hypocritical of EU officials to blame the Turks for not doing enough to halt the flow of refugees travelling to Europe – many of whom are fleeing the Syrian war – when it had failed to deliver on its side of the bargain.
“The UK was the first to commit to paying its share – £400m – we are ready to do so, but this requires 28 members states to deliver the fund.” Hammond said. He would raise the issue at the EU foreign affairs committee on Monday, he said.
The Turkish decision, announced on Friday, to offer work permits for any Syrian in Turkey for more than six months was described as a game changer by Hammond. “If they are not allowed to work it, drives them into illegal work or looking to migrate,” he said.
Before a London donors’ conference on Syria on 4 February that is seeking to raise $4bn, Hammond rounded on other EU members for not providing more urgently needed funds.
He said: “The UK has given £1.1bn and America even more, but frankly others need to do more. France has given £34m and we have got to get our partners to make a step change. If everyone donated in line with Britain, as a proportion of GDP, there would be no problem at all. The UN has asked for $8bn and we are short of that.”
He said the donors’ conference was likely to commit to placing every Syrian child in education whether in Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan.
In Turkey, more than 278,000 Syrian children are in Turkish schools and although Hammond welcomed Gordon Brown’s plan for a double shift system in schools to generate extra places for refugee children, he said the plan required many more teachers. “Double shifts means twice as many school teachers. That is the challenge.”