Middle East

Border smuggling highlights Nusra’s service effort

Syrian refugees newly arrived in Turkey look at the Syrian border from the Turkish side on January 14, 2014 in Kilis. (AFP PHOTO / OZAN KOSE)

KILIS, Turkey: For a modest fee, Ibrahim leads Syrians across the Turkish border, one of many services his organization, the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, provides to those in need.

On a recent day, he led a line of taxis up a muddy road through olive groves toward Turkey’s border with Syria, where dozens of Syrians clutching overstuffed suitcases and burlap sacks waited on the other side to get across.

Thousands have fled following an outbreak of clashes pitting Islamist and moderate rebels against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), a feared Al-Qaeda affiliate with roots in the Iraq war.

The fighting has claimed an estimated 1,100 lives and comes as the rebels are still battling forces loyal to President Bashar Assad.

Ibrahim, who asked that his last name not be used, belongs to the Nusra Front, which is also affiliated with Al-Qaeda but has pursued a very different strategy in Syria, seeking to build popular support by providing aid and other services.

“We are civilized,” he says. “We don’t have this archaic mentality.”

He charges about $15 to cross, less for those of more limited means.

“I am here to protect people from injustice and help them however I can,” says Ibrahim, a soft-spoken man with a close-cropped beard.

“If people don’t have a way to get to Turkey, are we supposed to leave them here to die?”

The Turkish government has an open-door policy toward the refugees, but those who have no passports must cross illegally, and in many of the checkpoints on the Syrian side have seen fierce clashes.

Since the fighting erupted with ISIS, thousands have crossed every day, fleeing an increasingly brutal war in which the unfinished struggle to overthrow President Bashar Assad is just one of many fronts.

At an official crossing several kilometers to the east, Abu Omar walked across with his wife and five children.

Rebels from the Islamic Front and ISIS were battling for control of Jarablus, the Syrian town on the other side of the border, and a huge car bomb had exploded the day before, killing several people.

“It’s very, very bad inside,” Abu Omar says.

In recent months ISIS militants, including jihadists from Iraq, Egypt and Tunisia, had banned smoking and made prayers compulsory, Abu Omar says.

And three months ago, ISIS shot dead two men in a public execution.

“They were accused of stealing,” Abu Omar’s young son chimes in.

Several kilometers to the west, vans pull over on a highway looking out across a scenic valley, the Syrian Kurdish village of Afrin visible in the distance.

A group of refugees is gathered at the border fence down in the bottom of a valley, where they have been stopped by Turkish soldiers, who will likely allow them to pass.

ISIS has laid siege to Afrin for days, and residents are running low on food and fuel.

Abdul-Rahman left a week ago to seek work in Istanbul and has returned to retrieve his wife and children, hoping they will soon make their way up the hillside on the Turkish side of the border.

“I have a law degree from the university. Have you ever seen a lawyer dressed like this?” he says, gesturing to his dusty clothes.

Three years into an uprising that was supposed to restore dignity to Syrians after decades of dictatorship, more than 2 million have fled the country and millions more have been driven into poverty.

And three years after protesters broke through a police state’s wall of fear, Abdul-Rahman, like dozens of Syrians interviewed in Turkey, asks his full name not be printed for fear of retribution.

“I know a doctor in Syria who is selling diesel on the side of the road,” he says. “I know a fellow lawyer who is selling vegetables. No one has any dignity.”

When his wife and children arrive, he will take them to Istanbul and seek work as a day laborer.

“I think about my children every night and I cry,” he says. “We’ve all become beggars, no matter where we go.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 20, 2014, on page 8.




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