Turkey a hub for Syria revolution as illegal border crossing points abound
By Liz Sly,
ON THE TURKEY-SYRIA BORDER — Come nightfall, a bucolic farming village begins to buzz with unusual activity. Shadowy figures emerge from olive groves, clutching small suitcases. Cars crowd the winding rural road collecting and discharging passengers. Farmers step onto their porches, ready to offer a bed for the night to Syrians who have hiked across one of the countless illegal crossing points along Turkey’s 550-mile border with their country.
On Wednesday, Turkey closed all of its legal border posts after Syrian rebels seized control of several crossings on the Syrian side. The move was prompted in part by concerns that Islamic extremists may have overrun at least one of the Syrian posts, at Bab al-Hawa, after a video posted online showed jihadi fighters there declaring they had established an “Islamic state.”
Turkish officials said that the closure would affect only Turks traveling to Syria and that Syrian refugees would still be allowed into Turkey.
But refugees do not use the official crossings. Nor do the rebels, arms smugglers, defectors and war wounded who have swarmed into southern Turkey in recent months, transforming one of the sleepiest parts of the country into a nerve center for the Syrian revolution.
Syria’s other borders, with Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan, are witnessing similar activity on a lesser scale. But it is in Turkey, whose government long ago embraced calls for the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, that the Syrian rebels have found the warmest welcome.
“We must take care of them because they are our brothers and sisters,” said Suphi Atan, a spokesman for Turkey’s Foreign Ministry in the south, referring to the 43,000 Syrian refugees who are being housed in refugee camps dotting the border.
Far deeper role
Turkey’s role in the revolt goes far deeper than helping refugees, though to what extent it is actively aiding a war that has spun beyond the reach of world diplomacy is unclear. Turkey seems to be groping for a strategy to address the unfolding chaos on its doorstep, said Hugh Pope of the International Crisis Group in Istanbul.
“Turkey wants to have a say in what happens in Syria,” he said. “But I’m not sure it’s got any easy answers to what is going on. This is all new and unexpected for Turkey.”
What is clear is that the Syrian conflict has already reached deep into Turkey. The quaint and ancient city of Antakya, the preferred destination for most Syrians crossing the border, pulses with the intrigue and gossip of the war next door.
Free Syrian Army fighters stride through its narrow streets, sunburned and sweaty from the battlefield, hoping to meet benefactors to provide them with money and arms.
Salafi Muslims, who have come to offer help from the countries of the Persian Gulf region, huddle over kebabs, their long beards and robes conspicuous in secularist Turkey.
Men who identify themselves as representatives of rebel battalions rent cheap hotel rooms and apartments, swelling the population of a city, once part of Syria, where many still speak Arabic as their native tongue.
Most of the talk is of money and arms, both of which are in inadequate supply, according to fighters and activists. Weapons have been reaching the rebels in small quantities, procured from arms dealers with funding provided by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. But deliveries have been intermittent, and the small arms and ammunition are not sufficient to defeat the well-equipped Syrian army, rebels say.
Some blame Turkey for not doing enough, even as its prime minister, Recep Tayyep Erdogan, delivers strongly worded statements condemning Assad, a former friend and ally, and predicting his demise.
“With Turkey, it’s all talk,” said Abu Alaa, a veteran fighter and former farmer who had crossed into Syria to hustle for fresh supplies of ammunition. His rebel battalion received 4,000 grenades from a Turkish arms dealer last month, but they were quickly used up.
Turkey, however, is deeply involved in the efforts to organize the Syrian opposition, hosting the offices of the umbrella Syrian National Council in Istanbul and acting as gatekeepers at the walled, tented camp housing the leadership of the Free Syrian Army at Apaydin, a pinprick of a village a few miles from the border.
There, Turkish soldiers screen the steady stream of rebel commanders, Arab benefactors and destitute Syrians who show up at its gates to offer money and weapons to the commanders inside or to solicit a share of them. Journalists are not admitted, and the officers have to request permission to leave.
Another indicator of just how closely Turkey has become embroiled in the effort both to help and also control the Syrian influx is on display around the corner from the village, on a small rise topped by a fortified military outpost that was reinforced further after Syria shot down a Turkish jet last month.
Here, an illegal crossing point has been formalized with a small metal gate fixed across a break in the barbed-wire fence. A Turkish officer sits at a kitchen table, writing down the names of those going in and out of the country. His clip pad is topped by a chart of Syrian military insignia, to help identify the ranks of army defectors coming across.
A border bus station
On a recent evening, an ambulance waited for wounded victims and a truck was offloading what appeared to be medical supplies for transportation into Syria.
Minibuses on the Turkish side of the fence were filling up with women and children, while minibuses on the Syrian side filled up with young men, most likely rebel fighters commuting back to Syria after visiting their families in the refugee camps.
The Turkish soldiers at the crossing refused to allow interviews, but rebel fighters elsewhere say they regularly come and go through the checkpoint, the only illegal route into Syria through which Syrians can drive, along a rough dirt track.
This is also the point at which weapons are ferried into Syria, delivered by Turkish military trucks and picked up by fighters on the other side in the dead of night, according to two farmers living nearby who said they have witnessed the activity late at night.
Turkey has repeatedly denied it is arming the rebels and says its efforts to help the Syrian opposition are purely humanitarian.
But at a minimum, Pope said, Turkey is looking the other way.
“Certainly there has been no decision made public that Turkey is arming the rebels, but I don’t think anyone is trying to stop the rebels acquiring weapons, either,” he said.
Whether Turkey could is another question. Because Turkey transports all those coming into Syria through the controlled crossing point to refugee camps, many Syrians still prefer to use the illegal routes.
As the sun set over the village one recent evening, a Turkish soldier strode toward the olive groves from which Syrians usually emerge, waving his hands urgently. Then a shot rang out, to deter those trying to sneak into the country.
An hour later, the soldier was gone. A family of five slipped out of the olive grove and disappeared into the night.
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