Regime nowhere to be seen along porous borderlands

Tue, Aug 7, 2012, 01:00

Rebels here co-ordinate supplies for opposition forces fighting in Aleppo, writes MARY FITZGERALD, Foreign Affairs Correspondent, on the Turkey-Syria border

EVERY TIME Fadi crosses the border into Syria, the same text message pops up on his mobile phone: “Ministry of tourism welcomes you in Syria. Please call 137 for information or complaints.”

Fadi allows himself a wry smile. His phone is on a Turkish network – its signal can be better than Syrian networks, which are often disrupted by the regime – but he is Syrian.

Several months ago he turned revolutionary, deciding to take up arms against the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad after government forces killed several people in his hometown nestled deep in Syria’s northern flank.

These days, when he’s not ferrying injured fighters and refugees over the porous border with Turkey, Fadi is helping co-ordinate supplies for opposition forces battling the regime some 50km (30 miles) south of here in Aleppo, Syria’s most populous city and a major commercial hub.

Like his fellow rebels, Fadi moves freely through this broad swathe of northern Syria, where the three-starred green, white and black flag of the opposition flutters from homes, businesses and former regime buildings.

At border posts seized by the rebels last month, the flag flies proudly above faded murals of the two-starred red, white and black standard of Assad’s Syrian Arab Republic.

The regime is nowhere to be seen along these rugged borderlands and locals believe it will never be seen again. They say the Syrian military is too stretched fighting insurrection elsewhere to regain control here in this bucolic landscape of gently rolling hills and olive groves.

“Here we breathe the air of Free Syria,” Fadi smiles. “Bashar will never be able to take it back.”

Over iftar, the evening meal that breaks the fast during Ramadan, at a nearby house, the talk is of Aleppo. “We’ve heard terrible stories from people who fled their homes there,” says Um Mohammed, as she scoops up molokiya, a traditional stew made of greens, served with roasted lamb. “But it’s not over yet. At this stage, after everything we have seen over the last year, we think Bashar is capable of anything. God help Aleppo.”

In a local school-turned-rebel- brigade base, they also speak of Aleppo. A rebel fighter who spent the previous day in Salahuddin, the rebel-held district of the city that has been pounded by the regime’s bomber aircraft this past week, relays details of the situation there.

The others listen intently, some tutting or sighing as they hear of the destruction wrought.

Plans are afoot to send more men and arms to Aleppo. The most common weaponry seen in rebel hands in northern Syria are cheap Chinese- or Iraqi-made Kalashnikovs, though heavier arms are beginning to trickle in.

In the streets of this dusty border town there are pick-up trucks mounted with Dushka anti-aircraft guns and with the brigade’s insignia – an eagle rendered in the colours of the revolutionary flag – splashed across their doors.

A group of men carefully place rocket-propelled grenades into the back of another truck before covering the load with plastic sheeting.

“The border is key,” says one, who gives his name as Abu Idris. “And since we gained control of the border posts, it has become easier to bring in what we need.”

Turkish officials insist they are closely patrolling the 820km (510-mile) frontier but locals claim they mostly turn a blind eye. “Everyone knows Turkey supports our revolution,” says Abu Idris.

Every night medical supplies, military equipment and volunteers slip over the border.

In the other direction come injured fighters and refugees trudging over fields and through a barbed wire fence marking where Syria ends and Turkey begins.

In the nearby towns of Antakya and Reyhanli, the sound of loud Syrian-dialect Arabic mixes with Turkish in cafes and restaurants. Wounded Syrians – many of them receiving treatment in the area’s hospitals – hobble on crutches.

Turkey now hosts more than 40,000 Syrian refugees, among them army defectors and ordinary civilians fleeing violence in their towns and villages.

One section along the border has become home to elements that have prompted unease among Syrians and Turks. Locals report seeing a small number of foreign jihadis that appear different to the other, mostly Arab, volunteers that have been welcomed into the rebel ranks.

Last month the rebel Free Syrian Army rescued two European photojournalists who had been kidnapped by such a group. The journalists said their captors, who appeared to be mostly of British and south Asian background, had set up a camp and spoke of how they “wanted to bring sharia law to Syria”.

The episode caused disquiet among those living here. “They are different to us, they are hard people,” says one Syrian fighter.

“We don’t share their ideas. They are not welcome here.”