In Gaziantep, Turkey, less than 50 kilometres from the Syria-Turkey border, Syrians have chosen their favourite cafes, have opened Aleppine sweet shops and set up stores in the old city. Many have arrived in Turkey intending to stay permanently. Others are escorting their wives and children to safety, before returning “inside” to assist the politically and militarily fragmented Syrian opposition in battling the regime of Bashar al-Assad and rebuilding their communities.
For many Syrians, getting into Turkey is hazardous. Those with money and education left Syria long ago and are living contentedly in family-owned holiday houses in Beirut and elsewhere, waiting out the war without the burden of being required to choose a side in the conflict – or having one chosen for them. But due to both individual lack of funds and the ostracisation of Syria from the international community after 9/11, most Syrians do not possess passports and so are not granted the luxury of departure. After violence broke out in 2011, the price of obtaining a Syrian passport increased from around 250 Syrian pounds (about US$50 at the time) to over 21,000 pounds (US$250 – $350 during the early stages of the uprising) if required urgently, as was frequently the case. Of those lucky few who could afford this cost, many now find themselves marooned in liberated areas, unable to reach the official offices of the regime in order to submit the necessary documents. To obtain a Syrian passport today in rebel-held Syria costs closer to US$1000 (150,000 pounds at today’s exchange rates) – an amount almost no one can afford.
Procuring a passport is only the first hurdle to getting out of Syria. The formerly short trip across the border (a one hour direct drive from Aleppo to the Bab al-Salama, crossing at the Turkish border) can now take in excess of five hours. Many are afraid to use the main highway for fear of regime bombs, and either take a slower, parallel route that is still at risk of airstrike, or zigzag their way across the countryside from town to town, avoiding those controlled by ISIS or the Kurds.
Entering Turkey at the border crossing is relatively uneventful for those in possession of a passport. Turkey has so far been generous in its hospitality towards Syrians, and currently hosts around 200,000 in Gaziantep province alone. It is estimated that there are close to 720,000 Syrians spread throughout Turkey. However, without a passport the official crossing will not permit passage. To get out of Syria, locals must travel to points along the border and go through the fence that separates the two countries. These unofficial crossing points are colourfully decorated and holes have been cut for people to pass through. Turkish police patrol the farmland adjacent to the border, and on a bad day may choose to make it difficult for people to pass through. Late last year, when the fighting in Syria approached dangerously close to the border, Turkey made moves to tighten access, resulting in uproar from the international community. However, the border-crossing is generally quiet and Turkish authorities readily allow people through. Some reports indicate more than 1000 people move back and forth each day, via one unofficial crossing point close to Bab al-Salama alone.
Another crossing point into Turkey, at Bab al-Hawa is favoured by some Syrians due to its proximity to Idlib. Here, refugees without a passport must travel some distance along the barrier in order to hitch a ride on a raft, which takes them across the Orontes river to Turkish soil. The Turkish border police generally allow people to move freely, but there have been reports of boats being shot at and capsizing.
These border regions remain porous. Many leave, some return. So far, Turkish authorities seem nonchalantly unconcerned about the traffic to and from their country. It is common knowledge that smuggled goods such as narcotics and weapons flow relatively freely across the border into Syria, as do foreign fighters, including 150 Australian citizens who stand to have their passports cancelled. However, the recent discovery of an ISIS cell in Istanbul, and the repatriation of battle-hardened fighters back to their homes in Europe and elsewhere is disconcerting for Turkish and other foreign governments. It is unclear how far Turkish hospitality and humanitarianism will stretch in light of an ongoing lack of international assistance for the increasing influx of Syrians, and the ever-growing threat to Turkey’s unique ethnic makeup posed by the instability in Syria.
Turkey is not the only country shouldering the refugee burden. There are now one million registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon. In some ways, Lebanon seems a more natural choice for people escaping the violence. There are historic ties between Lebanon and Syria, they speak the same language, and close familial connections between the two countries are widespread. However, the regime and its ally Hezbollah currently control the Syrian side of the crossing points between the two countries. Those who are known to the regime, or come from a liberated area, run the risk of being taken in for questioning if caught attempting to cross. Additionally, because of the close ties the Syrian regime still maintains with Lebanon, many Syrians have been unable to claim official refugee status and seek UN relief there.
Above: A portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad among the trash in al-Qsair.
Currently, the internationally recognised political arm of the Syrian opposition, the Syrian Interim Government, sits outside Syria in Gaziantep, Turkey. This has caused no end of friction between those still “inside” Syria and those on the outer. Many inside question its ability to legitimately speak for the Syrian people, a shortcoming that reaches to the very heart of the malaise facing the opposition. The interim government itself does nothing to discredit these accusations. Its members have an unhealthy preoccupation with the rivalry between two of the Coalition’s major sponsors, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The infighting has only increased divisive intra-Coalition dynamics and has at times ground to a halt its ability to affect any real change within Syria or abroad. There is also a sense of victimisation – why did the international community assist Iraq (in 2003) and Libya (in 2011) to militarily overthrow their oppressive regimes, and not Syria now? While they may well have a point, at this time it would potentially be far more productive to look first to their own internecine fighting as a barrier to effectiveness that can actually be addressed, rather than to complain about the lack of involvement or support that has been forthcoming from others, predominantly the United States.
The experience of Syrians in southern Turkey is broad and varied. While some live in relative comfort, many arrive after difficult, troubled journeys, pursued by bombs. They come to Turkey with post-traumatic stress and heavy military bags, ready to eat a decent meal of fresh food and drink clean water. These men will return to Syria soon to fight against a regime that continues to barrel-bomb their communities. They will return and try to reestablish stable electricity and water supplies, rebuild roads, schools, hospitals and community centres. The violence the al-Assad regime has unleashed against its own people is unprecedented. For this reason alone its continued control of power is untenable – those who have lost loved ones will never accept the regime and will continue to go back inside to oppose it.