ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
The crackdown on protesters in Syria is spreading to the far corners of that country. That includes a remote town on the border with Iraq in Syria's Eastern Desert. That tribal region has long been known as a transit point for fighters and weapons coming into Iraq during the war. And now, those routes appear to be reversing.
NPR's Kelly McEvers recently traveled to the border and sent this report.
KELLY MCEVERS: The trouble in the Syrian town of Albukamal started this past weekend. Like in so many Syrian cities and towns, people took to the streets in protest against the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
(Soundbite of chanting protestors)
MCEVERS: And like in so many Syrian cities and towns, security forces from the central government responded brutally - surrounding the town and, activists say, killing a handful of protesters, including a 14-year-old boy.
This time, though, soldiers in a local battalion defended the protesters. Activists say more than a hundred soldiers joined their cause.
Now, authorities in the central government are offering a deal to the tribal leaders of Al-Bukamal: Hand over these defectors, they say, and we'll leave you alone. Activists say negotiations are ongoing.
The thing about the tribes in this region is they're not just confined to Syria. These same tribes span into Iraq, too. All that separates them is the border fence.
So on this side is - this is Iraq, but just beyond that building...
Unidentified Man #1: (unintelligible) Bashar's father. Do you see it?
MCEVERS: Oh yeah, yeah. Yeah, you can see a picture of Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current president of Syria. And it's a really heavily fortified border. I mean, we're standing in front of this big fence with, you know, razor wire and there's Hesco, sand-filled bomb barriers. And then beyond there...
The reason the border is so fortified now is that during some of the most violent years of the Iraq war, it was here that militants and weapons crossed from Syria into Iraq.
Syrian state TV recently claimed that route is being reversed, that the guns and fighters are now coming into Syria to help in the fight against the government.
We asked a local border commander about the claim. He doesn't want his voice to be on tape.
Unidentified Man #2: He says we are trying to do our best to protect the borders, as you can see, but it is long borders. There must be some cases of infiltration. But we are doing our best so much little we have.
MCEVERS: We drive away from the border, into the nearest town on the Iraqi side, to a dusty strip of vegetable stands, mini-markets and car parts shops.
So we're standing on the main street in the town of Qaim. This is the wild West of Iraq. People tell us that it's the kind of place a few years ago that you would walk outside and say a prayer as if it was your last prayer ever.
At the time, al-Qaida was very active here, insurgents were very active here. The area has calmed down now, but just across the border, with the troubles in Syria, things are starting to flare up again.
We step into a shop that sells curling irons and toasters. Shop owner Ahmed Abdulkadir(ph) was part of the original resistance to the U.S. occupation here. That resistance later turned against more extreme insurgents from al-Qaida, who'd come here by way of Syria.
Abdulkadir says everyone here has a relative across the border in Al-Bukamal, and everyone is waiting to see if the tribal leaders will reach a truce with the government or if security forces will crack down again. He says the Syrians have now closed the border. That means a lot less business for him.
We asked Abdulkadir if former resistance fighters here in Qaim will find ways to help support the resistance in Syria.
Mr. AHMED ABDULKADIR: (Speaking foreign language).
McEVERS: Let's just say this, he says, with a wink: What goes around comes around. The troubles in Syria are not just affecting businesses and tribes, they're also affecting the thousands of Iraqis who fled to Syria during the war's most violent years.
One woman, who goes by the name One woman, who goes by the name Um Salwan(ph), fled Iraq when insurgents fired a rocket at her house. She says life in Syria has been hard but until recently, it was still better than Iraq. That changed with the protests and the crackdowns.
Ms. UM SALWAN: (through translator) Came here only to find out things are much worse. There's nothing here.
MCEVERS: For now, Um Salwan says she wants to return to Syria. But with the land border closed, she'll have to spend her savings on plane tickets.
Kelly McEvers, NPR News.
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