The New Market on the Turkish-Syrian Border

This May, a French woman and her two children entered Syria from Turkish territory near Khirbat al-Joz. The woman was part of a French armed group and crossed by liaising with Turkish officers, paying them a sum thought to exceed two thousand dollars, according to sources interviewed by the author. Other jihadists including Chechens, Uzbeks, and Caucasians have crossed into Turkey with the knowledge of the Turks, either for medical treatment or to collect or transfer funds.

While Turkey has steadily tightened the border it shares with Idlib and Aleppo, the high demand for people to go back and forth has created new markets facilitating border crossings. Demand to cross the border comes in many forms, including refugees escaping Syria, fighters (Syrian and foreign) in need of medical aid, and collecting money transfers in Turkey.

Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (which includes the former Jabhat Fateh al-Sham / Nusra Front) formed offices in Salqin, Harem, Darkoush and Sarmada to facilitate crossings for Syrians wishing to head for Turkish villages. Many of these Syrians are poor and displaced by the war, leaving them with little financial means to get into Turkey. They often have to sell whatever remains of their belongings to get themselves and their families into Turkey. Tahrir al-Sham saw a way to profit from this: setting up fixers for those making the crossing. These offices do not just facilitate crossings into Turkey. When Tahrir al-Sham’s foreign fighters have money transferred to them, these offices sometimes organize fixers to collect the money in Turkey and deliver it. None of this could take place without bribes being paid to the Turkish officers on the border.

Whereas those who can pay are able to enter Turkey easily, those without money risk their lives on more difficult routes. There are many stories of Turkey’s “Jandarma” opening fire on people trying to illegally cross, at times killing people, and of families losing their children during the trip across the border. However, foreign fighters have the funds to cross the border without taking risky routes. They can sell machine guns and Kalashnikovs on the black market to raise enough money to pay a Turkish officer as a bribe for crossing, and still have enough to spend in Turkey, either on shopping or medical tourism. The Amal hospital in Reyhanli has become well-known for receiving foreign fighters as well. The Turkish intelligence services give injured foreign fighters there special ID cards like those given to Syrians, despite their distinctly non-Syrian appearance and the fact that they do not speak Arabic. They spend some time in Turkish hospitals then head back to Syria, once again relying on ties with the officers on the borders.

A woman in her twenties who recently reached Holland but did not wish to be named as she feared for her family in Turkey, said she had worked at the Amal hospital and that the Turkish intelligence services would help foreign fighters enter Turkey. Meanwhile they prevented Syrians wounded in the Khan Sheikhun Sarin gas attack from entering the country until hours later. She said Turkey at the start of the revolution had a more open policy to receiving Syrians fleeing the war, but over the past two years that had been turned on its head. As the border has gotten tighter, money has played more of a role in getting people across the border.

The border areas in general have become risky because of the tensions between Syrians trying to cross and the Turkish guards. Khirbet al-Joz, a border village in northwest Idlib, is one of the main transit points into Turkey and continues to face daily bursts of gunfire from the Turkish Jandarma. One poor man there who lived on the income from his cow now lives on food handouts from local organizations because his cow was killed by a stray bullet.

Dr Mohammad al-Sheikh, head of an educational group in Idlib, visited Khirbet al-Joz and invited journalists to do so too. He described the place as almost deserted and said life there was hell. Syrians fear that if they try to stand up to the Turkish officers, then they would close the humanitarian crossing in the village, a vital source of supplies for villages in northern Syria. Syrians have protested along the border in rural Idlib, about the border situation and about how the Turkish army bulldozers have cleared parts of Syrian land to secure the border area, including destroying Syrians’ orchards and farms. Syrian activists report that at times Turkish guards have responded with live fire.

There are no official statistics on the number of Syrians who have died while crossing, either because of unsafe routes or because of Turkish guards shooting at them. Meanwhile smuggling is continuing under the eyes of soldiers, although it is unclear how aware the central government is of what is going on. The result, though, is that hundreds of fighters continue to cross into Syria, some with their families. And not just people cross the borders. Weapons, aid, and equipment are also brought across. Foreign fighters again seem to have a financial advantage over their Syrian counterparts since they can receive money transfers in Turkey from friends and family abroad. Syrian fighters point to the fact that the price of winter shoes worn by Uzbek fighters is eighty dollars, while some Syrian rebel fighters wear the most basic boots. There are also reports of speakers of Turkic languages using their relations with Turkey to enter Syria.

Recently, some Turkish hospitals started to allow only four wounded people to enter certain hospitals per day, including those in critical condition, while hospitals continue to welcome foreign fighters with Syrian IDs, according to the former staff member at Amal hospital.

What is happening on the Syrian-Turkish border is a result of problems facing the Turkish economy and its inability to absorb large numbers of refugees, along with Turkey’s efforts to build strong ties with fighters inside Syria to guarantee its presence and clout in the country during and after the war, along with Turkey’s ties to other Turkic speakers. In other words, Turkey wants to send a message, by closing its borders, that it is no longer able to absorb Syrians, leaving people at the mercy of the free market: whoever can afford it can pay, and whoever cannot pay must try other means.

Ahmad Abd al-Haqq is a Syrian civilian journalist.

Image: Photo: A Turkish soldier on an armoured military vehicle surveys the border line between Turkey and Syria, near the southeastern city of Kilis, Turkey, March 2, 2017. REUTERS/Murad Sezer