Amid Explosions and Clashes, Volatile Turkey-Syria Border Gets More Dangerous

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Smoke rises from the Syrian side of the border after a Turkish air force jet downed a Syrian military helicopter at the Turkey-Syria border near Hatay province, Turkey, Sept. 16, 2013.

It’s far from what the Turks had in mind. In late 2009, at the height of its detente with Syria, the Ankara government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan lifted visa requirements for Syrian nationals and floated plans for future energy cooperation, investments, as well a free trade zone. Less then four years later, with its southern neighbor gripped by war, and with Turkey openly calling for the US to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad‘s regime, the border has become a flashpoint. The area — expected to be a crossroads for traders, business people and tourists — now teems with refugees, smugglers and insurgents.

According to the International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels-based think tank, 75 people have died in violence along the border since June 2012, when Syrian air defenses shot down a Turkish fighter jet over the Mediterranean. The threat of further bloodshed may be around the corner. On Monday, a pair of Turkish F-16s downed a Syrian helicopter that had crossed into Turkish airspace. “Nobody will dare to violate Turkey’s borders again,” the country’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu announced. “The necessary measures have been taken.”

Earlier this year, a car bombing that Erdogan’s government believes to have been the work of Syrian intelligence agents claimed 53 lives in Reyhanli, a border town in Turkey’s southern Hatay province. Having contained the fallout from the attack — in days that followed the attack, groups of young men harassed and attacked Syrian refugees, whom they blamed for the bloodshed — local authorities have since had to confront an entirely different menace. In Reyhanli, smuggling has always been part of the local economy. Over the past few months, however, it has turned into a plague. The Turkish General Staff has described a number of incidents in which its troops have had to fire tear gas and warning shots to push back waves of as many as 3,000 Syrian smugglers, who often storm the border by car or on horseback. In Kusakli, a hilltop village less than ten minutes by car from Reyhanli, a group of armed smugglers recently kidnapped a local farmer and held him hostage in Syria until the man’s family paid a 13,000 lira ($6000) ransom.

In nearby Antakya, the war in Syria has fueled both sectarian tensions and dissent against Erdogan’s government. On the night of Sept. 9, a 22-year-old man, Ahmet Atakan, died during a protest held to commemorate the earlier death of a local anti-government demonstrator. Atakan was a member of the area’s Arab Alawite minority whose ethnic kinsmen, including Assad, form the core of Syria’s ruling elite. The extent to which the fallout from Syria had been driving the protests became clear on the day of his funeral as momentum built toward violent clashes that would erupt later that evening. “We’re afraid of problems with Sunnis,” Khatifa Capar, an elderly Alawite woman, told me on the way back from the cemetery. “Why does he want war so badly, this mullah, this Davutoglu,” she asked, referring to Turkey’s pious Foreign Minister.

Back in Armutlu, the Alawite neighborhood where Atakan lived and died, a young biology graduate, Okan Yolcu, complained that Turkey, by giving Sunni insurgents and foreign jihadists free rein in the border areas, was not only waging a proxy war against Syria but also deliberately stoking tensions with local Alawites. “The government wants to involve us in a religious war in the Middle East, but we want no part of their game.” Conspiracy theories abound. “It’s Erdogan who staged the Reyhanli bombing,” another man told me. “Why? To pin the blame on the Alawites, to provoke clashes with Sunnis.”

About 200 miles east, in Ceylanpinar, the war in Syria has struck with alarming intensity. Since late July, four Turkish civilians have died and dozens have been left wounded by shrapnel and stray bullets from clashes between Kurdish militias and the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al Nusra on the other side of the border. According to media reports, hospitals in Ceylanpinar routinely receive wounded Nusra fighters.

At airports like the one in Hatay, bearded young men donning military-style duffel bags are a regular sight, as are the minibuses that whisk them off to the border, part of what Hugh Pope, the ICG’s Turkey expert, calls an “over-ground railway of jihadists to Syria.” There’s little that Turkey can do to turn the foreign fighters away. Local authorities, says Pope, insist that the young men have legitimate travel documents and carry no weapons, “so there are no grounds on which to detain them.”

Still, the jihadist threat to Turkey might not be as big as it is made out to be, says Pope. Syria in the 2010s might be the new destination for global jihad, just like Afghanistan was in the 1980s, but Turkey — a cohesive, strong state — is not another Pakistan. “The government is fully in control of its resources and able to prevent the kind of problems in the south that Pakistan had in its tribal areas,” he says. “The army and security forces are able to react with full flexibility to specific threats.”

A more insidious problem, says Pope, is the threat of “fifth columnists” among the Syrians in Turkey. By most accounts, Turkey has done a remarkable job housing and feeding some 200,000 Syrian refugees in tent camps and container cities scattered along the border. (As many as 300,000 more live outside the camps, mostly in towns like Reyhanli.) But Ankara’s open-door policy has also allowed certain dangerous elements, including Kurdish militants and Assad regime agents, to cross into Turkey with relative ease. With this, the risk of violence in the border regions remains constant, says Pope, as does the threat of sectarian and ethnic clashes that might follow any further attacks on Turkish soil. “Given the way Syria has operated in the past you have to assume that it has elements that can create a lot of trouble for Turkey, as we saw in Reyhanli,” says Pope.

In Sunni-majority Reyhanli, tensions between locals and Syrian newcomers may have subsided and sympathy for the rebels endures, but there is palpable exasperation with the fallout from Syria, including the burdens of the refugee influx, as well as with Turkey’s policies. “The world needs to negotiate to the end with the Bashar, but there are limits,” Suleyman Soker, a stationery shop owner, told me. “If nothing changes, me might need war. We don’t want it, but we don’t want the Syrians either.”

The day before, a mortar fired from Syria had fallen on the outskirts of town, Soker said. No one was injured.