$25 Buys an Illegal Crossing on Turkish Border With Syria

Reyhanli Crossing
Trucks line up at the Reyhanli border crossing with Syria in Reyhanli, Turkey, on January 15, 2014. Photographer: Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images

On Turkey’s border with Syria, outside a brick building housing the Turkish officials charged with overseeing who arrives and who leaves, a Syrian man whispers in Arabic.

“Smuggling? Want to get across?” he hisses at a gaggle of people stuck without the right papers.

Inside, under a wall decorated with a calendar featuring handguns and a window looking onto the no-man’s land between the border at Reyhanli and the chaos of Syria’s three-year civil war, a Turkish border official says nobody can get across without his permission.

Only Syrians, registered refugees or foreign passport holders born in Syria were allowed across, the official said, offering his visitors tea and travel advice. He asked not to be named because of Turkish government policy.

That boundary, marked in places only by waist-high barbed wire and empty watch towers, has for almost three years been a key conduit for weapons and foreign fighters seeking to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The biggest users were members of the Free Syrian Army, initially based in Turkey.

More recently, the border has also become known as the jihadi highway, an easy way for non-Syrians from European countries such as the U.K., France and Belgium to join in Syria’s civil war. They often fight on the side of militant groups such as the Islamic State, which now controls large swathes of land south of Turkey’s border as well as significant parts of Iraq.

And if the English-accented man shown in videos beheading two American journalists is identified as a British citizen, he may well have crossed the same border.

Western Passports

As international condemnation of the murders draws renewed attention to this porous crossing point for Western passport-holding fighters, Turkey has stepped up patrols, added highway checkpoints and erected new fencing.

It hasn’t worked, according to interviews with refugees, injured fighters recuperating in Turkish hospitals and with the smugglers who have long operated a black market ferrying people back and forth. As late as this week, illegal trips that skirted the Turkish controls were both simple and numerous.

The price: $25, with assurances that large amounts of equipment could be taken across with zero chance of inspection, according to three men who offered their services as traffickers. That’s up from about $10 a person before Turkish authorities cracked down on border security.

Tolerating Traffic

For the government, which has backed armed anti-government militias in Syria with shelter, training and, according to security analysts, weapons, the border has become an intractable issue. And it hampers President Barack Obama’s push to counter Islamic State in the region.

Keeping the border open, and tolerating the traffic of armed fighters, allowed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to play an outsize role in a regional conflict. Now, Islamic State has all but routed the Turkey-backed militias and taken 49 Turkish diplomats hostage in the city of Mosul in Iraq.

“It is almost impossible for Turkey to control the entire border with Syria,” said Oytun Orhan, an analyst at the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies in Ankara. “It is flat and locals have developed safe paths across mine fields in years. Turkey is the only NATO country which is directly threatened by Islamic State but no one should expect Turkey to act at will and ignore the safety of 49 hostages.”

Instead, an ambivalent status quo has been established at two of the three official border crossings that Turkey still maintains with Syria. Armored personnel carriers patrol highways near the border, besieged Syrian cities like Aleppo barely an hour’s drive away, and rural police officers flag down cars with Syrian license plates to check identity cards.

Cement Trucks

At the same time, cross-border trade, while lower than before the war began, is flourishing. On Sept. 2, 800 trucks loaded mostly with cement and iron waited at the Reyhanli crossing. The next day, another 500 were at the crossing at Kilis, almost three hours away. The trucks were allowed into a Turkish customs area, where workers unloaded the bags of cement and the iron bars and loaded them onto Syrian trucks.

The shipments are paid for in cash, said a man who answered the phone at a company whose logo was emblazoned on more than a dozen of the waiting trucks. He asked not to be identified, citing his reluctance to be seen as doing illegal business.

Covert commercial traffic flows the other way too, though it’s been cut back recently. Black-market oil, slowly boiled and its condensate collected in plastic barrels, was smuggled across the border or sent to Turkey via a network of underground pipes, each about the size of a fat garden hose.

Destroying Pipes

About 320 of these pipes were destroyed between June and late August by Turkish police in the nearby city of Hacipasa, according to a senior police official, who showed pictures of the pipes to a reporter. He asked not to be identified because of what he called negative publicity given by the foreign press to Turkish border towns.

The black market in petrol, sold for almost a third of what fuel costs in gas stations, yielded as much as $1.5 million a day for the militants in Syria until authorities began stopping the plastic barrels and some of the network of pipes was destroyed, said the senior police official.

“We saw all these people who were always crossing over to Syria, working with Syrians, and suddenly, they had money, cars,” said Ibrahim Yaman, the grey-haired mayor of the district of Defne, which also borders Syria. “So yes, there was a lot of proof of all this illegal trade for years, and now it’s been maybe 15 days that the government has decided to try and stop it. Can you stop something so big so quickly?”

Soap Factory

Hasan Akgol, a member of parliament for the province of Hatay, which borders Syria, said he had petitioned the Turkish government repeatedly to tighten the border. He only recently received assurances that action would be taken.

“The situation is not new,” said Akgol, speaking in the gardens of a soap factory turned luxury hotel, a block away from a neighborhood that has so many Syrians living in it that the signs on shops are now in Arabic. “There have been many problems at the border for a long time. But earlier, nobody cared because the sore was small.”

As Turkey continued to back anti-Assad militant groups, it paid little attention to how its border and military aid was being used in Syria, said Sinan Ulgen, a former diplomat and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. While the government didn’t directly support the Islamic State, “it turned a blind eye to border traffic and allowed all shades of militants to use Turkish territory as a logistical base,” he wrote in a Sept. 1 report for the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, with F. Doruk Ergun.

Loaded Cars

Easiest to move across, though, are people. Over a two-hour period at the Reyhanli crossing, hundreds of Syrians approached a single uniformed Turkish border agent, who grabbed at passports randomly. Cars loaded with household goods, food and passengers drove around him. Each time he paused to check a passport, others would walk past him.

Many with passports were using a lull in the fighting or the sudden opening of a highway to dash back to Syria for a day or two, to check in on relatives, or bring cash or supplies.

For those without a passport, a short wait at the gates elicited offers to smuggle them across. Bloomberg News was given access to a phone call with a man who said he had recently smuggled three white men he described as mujihedeen, or Islamic guerrilla fighters, across to Syria in the dead of the night.

“How many want to cross?” asked the man, who said he went by a nom de guerre, Abu Mohammed. He was identified by the local police official as the most prolific smuggler of foreigners.

No Passports

After a quick round of negotiations, during which he was informed that three foreigners wanted to cross, with boxes of equipment and without passports, he suggested a location, a time and an assurance that the foreigners would be met on the Syrian side by a car.

“150 lira,” he said, about $70. The conversation ended with a vague promise to speak again right before the putative crossing.

The flow of traffic from Syria to Turkey is mostly refugees, which have swollen to 1.4 million, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay said on Aug. 22. Housing them in sprawling camps, with schools, prefab trailer park-style housing and food allowances, has cost Turkey $3.5 billion already.

Many arrive like Omar Azur, 21, who was lying in a Kilis hospital bed, his wounds bleeding from a fresh bandage on his feet, and his fingers and toes burned from an explosion near his home in Aleppo. At least 20 injured people from his neighborhood were ferried to the border by an Islamic charity, then by Turkish ambulances to the hospital. One person died, he said. Another, receiving medical help in a closed room nearby, howled with pain.

Shrapnel Wound

Others had more mysterious histories. A 26-year-old man who said his name was Mehr Homiydi gave a disjointed version of his arrival at another hospital two weeks ago. He was a fighter, he said, hit in the back by shrapnel. His left leg was still weak, but physiotherapy was helping. He had fought for two months with a group that was anti-Assad, he said. After he recuperates, he said, he wants to go back to fighting.

Which group? “I don’t remember the name,” he said, suddenly nervous, his beard freshly trimmed. A small Koran lay by his side.

“He’s Islamic State,” whispered his nurse, after she changed the dressing on his back.

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