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WSJ: A Violent Year in the Life of the Syria-Turkey Border

HATAY, Turkey—Along this porous frontier, Syria’s conflict is increasingly migrating onto Turkish soil, reshaping communities and feeding fears that Ankara’s support for rebel groups could backfire, igniting fresh violence on this side of the border.

Written by Joe Parkinson, Nour Malas and Ayla Albayrak Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

For more than a year, a deadly combination of car bombs, artillery shells and stray gunfire has spilled across the frontier, leaving over 70 Turks dead. Once-sleepy Turkish towns now teem with refugees, smugglers and fighters en route to Syria’s battlegrounds. Sprawling, dust-caked refugee camps housing more than half a million Syrians dot the border region.

Conflict has recalibrated the local economy, forcing the closure of hundreds of Turkish family-run businesses dependent on cross border trade—while fueling a boom in the smuggling of weapons, fuel and food.

The new trauma and complexity of everyday life here is at the heart of a Wall Street Journal interactive video project that chronicles a year on the Syria-Turkey border. The project combines portraits of everyday citizens—doctors, teachers, journalists—with videos shot by local residents and distributed via social media.

The social media videos, which have been verified and had their geographic coordinates located by social media news agency Storyful and curated by WSJ editors, are predominantly filmed in border regions of Northern Syria controlled by rebels, and therefore broadly reflect an opposition viewpoint. But they also offer readers a chance to see the conflict through the eyes of people living across this war-torn frontier.

Across the borderland, it’s not just bullets that are shifting the political landscape. Hotels and restaurants which once heaved with tourists from across the Arab world now serve journalists, aid workers and bearded Islamist fighters preparing for battle. Thousands of trucks, which once delivered Turkish goods through Syria to fast-growing Arab markets lie idle, gathering dust, a monument to the region’s broken economy.

As the war has ravaged cross-border trade, new economic linkages have emerged. Turkish businessmen, Syrian rebels and residents of the north have joined forces to finance and build oil refineries and textile factories, moves that Turks and Syrians involved in these deals say ensures the Turkish partners a profit and an economic stake in Syria. Smugglers on both sides of the borders are thriving. “They’ve become millionaires,” a Turkish trucker said of the smugglers’ expanding business.

The situation on the border has only become more perilous. In recent months, one fear has shifted into sharp focus: that the growing power of radical Islamist brigades affiliated to al Qaeda—which have expanded their influence in northern Syria to within kilometers of the frontier—could potentially threaten Turkish communities.

Radical Islamist groups have for the past month fought battles with moderate rebel forces and Kurdish militia increasingly close to Turkey’s porous border, with scores of Turkish citizens injured by stray bullets. Fighters from the al Qaeda linked Islamic state of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIS, control at least three villages along the border and a covert smuggling path into Idlib province, according to rebel groups.

Last month, a car bomb killed at least 20 people in the northern Syrian town of Darkoush, one and a half miles from the Turkish border, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. It said dozens more people were wounded by the explosion in the market of Darkoush, a small rebel-controlled town just over a mile from the frontier, and some of the wounded by the were taken into Turkey for treatment.

“The war is a nightmare for us here…We’re afraid that Syria turns into another Afghanistan, right in our doorstep,” said Refik Eryilmaz, Turkish lawmaker from the border city of Antakya. “We’re afraid that the radicals could point their guns at us tomorrow,” he said.

Earlier this month, Turkey’s general staff said they seized three vehicles loaded with 20 bags of sulfur and eight sealed barrels filled with an unidentified substance after a firefight with Syrians trying to smuggle the material into Syria. The military did not speculate on the intended use of the seized substances.

The war is also tearing at family ties, as a growing number of Turkish men travel to Syria’s front lines to fight Jihad with rebel groups. Turkish rights groups say that hundreds of young men have traveled to Syria, mainly to fight with radical Islamist groups, a claim the government has not addressed.

Mehmet, a 47-year old truck driver from Gaziantep says his son disappeared to fight Jihad in Northern Syria last year. “The police told us our son had been a member of a group affiliated to extremists. They have all this information, but they don’t prevent the recruitment of our sons. The police said there are 170 families like us in Gaziantep alone,” the father said, adding that he had not heard from his son for over a month.

The growing sway of extremist brigades has forced Ankara in recent months to dial back its efforts to funnel weapons to rebel groups for fear of emboldening radicals, according to senior U.S. officials. Turkey has repeatedly denied offering help to radical Islamists, stressing that they have sabotaged Syria’s revolution and pose a threat to Turkish security. Turkey’s government has shuttered crossings that previously offered a supply lifeline to more moderate opposition brigades and in October passed new laws officially sanctioning radical groups like the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.

At one part along the frontier, Turkish officials have begun to construct a 6-foot-high barrier to make the frontier less porous.

Yet many here fear Ankara may now be unable to contain the expanding influence of radical fighters, some of whom it once hoped could tip the military balance against Assad, according to U.S. officials. The power of radical Islamists in northern Syria has risen after the U.S.-Russian deal to strip Damascus of its chemical weapons emboldened President Bashar al-Assad and demoralized the moderate Free Syrian Army, according to analysts and rebel commanders.

The perception in these borderlands that Syria’s conflict is spilling onto Turkish territory spotlights the policy dilemma for Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has spearheaded international efforts to force regime change in Damascus: ease support for Syrian rebel fighters and likely strengthen the regime, or boost military support and risk strengthening radical groups and importing violence.

“The constellation of risks along the border means Turkey is journeying into the unknown,” said Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat now at the Carnegie Endowment. “Ankara is increasingly unnerved by the risks.”

This post originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal.

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