In A Change, Turkey Tightens Its Border With Syria

Turkish army personnel patrol near the border with Syria in Kilis earlier this month. Activists and smugglers say it's getting harder to get medical and communications equipment into Syria across the Turkish border.

Turkish army personnel patrol near the border with Syria in Kilis earlier this month. Activists and smugglers say it's getting harder to get medical and communications equipment into Syria across the Turkish border. Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images

The spring sun is warming the fields and orchards along the Turkey-Syria border, and new refugee camps are sprouting as well.

Smugglers who have long worked these mountain border trails are now busy moving civilians out of Syria to the safety of Turkish camps. They're also moving medical and communications equipment and people into opposition-held neighborhoods in Syria. But recently, some say that's getting harder.

A smuggler known as Abu Ayham says Turkish guards, who used to permit nonlethal aid to pass freely, have suddenly grown much tougher on the smugglers.

"The situation is very hard now," Ayham says. "On the Turkish side, if the guards catch you and you have nothing but a mobile phone, they will take it and they might jail you. The other day a group was stopped carrying only small tents for people hiding in the mountains. The guards said, 'This is military equipment,' and seized it."

Activists say it could be the whim of a local Turkish commander, and smugglers working different routes say they haven't encountered similar problems.

On the other hand, analysts say Turkey recently caught 14 supporters of the separatist PKK Kurdish movement trying to cross into Turkey from Syria.

Turkey is worried that Syrian President Bashar Assad might revive Syria's support for the Kurdish separatists seeking a homeland in southeastern Turkey, as his father, Hafez, did in the 1990s.

When asked about international assistance pledged for Syria, the smugglers say they haven't seen it. But that may be because aid officials are worried about maintaining neutrality.

Concern For Refugees

The U.N. high commissioner for refugees, Antonio Guterres, says there must be space for purely humanitarian activities.

"We all know there are movements of armed people and things of the sort," Guterres says. "But for us, it's essential to preserve the humanitarian and civilian nature of the protection to refugees, people that flee the violence and are looking for safety and need support."

Syrian activists say the Syrian regime is using aid deliveries to trap opposition supporters. The World Food Program, for instance, which just announced a significant increase in assistance to Syria, uses the Syrian Arab Red Crescent as its local partner. Activists say the Red Crescent is riddled with government informers, and opposition backers who collect the food are being tracked, arrested and interrogated.

These days, violence is hitting both sides in Syria. Still, the balance of power is heavily with the government, and much of the resistance remains an amateur effort.

Removing Mines

In a video posted to the Internet earlier this year, former Syrian soldier Mazen Haj Issa demonstrates how to disarm a Russian-made land mine he dug up near the border with Turkey.

Since making this video, he says he's removed about 300 mines from northern Syria, teaching himself to disarm them and training four friends to help dig them up.

"Personally, I'd love to disarm all the mines, but the military remains too close to some of them, so our main effort is to keep a path for people trying to escape Syria," he says.

Turkish officials say they are attempting to gain control over border crossings, and they insist it's not a weakening of Turkey's support for the Syrians. But the problems experienced by smuggler Abu Ayham leave him skeptical about Turkey's promise to stand by the Syrian people.

"You know, we came to Turkey because of [Turkish Prime Minister] Erdogan's comments that we are all one family," Ayham says. "We thought Turkey would embrace us and help us. But now the Turks are blaming the Syrians for everything that goes wrong. We're shocked, actually, at the reality."

Gul Tuysuz and Michele Kelemen contributed to this report.

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