On Edge as Syria’s War Knocks Ever Harder on the Door to Turkey

The men stood at the road’s edge and watched the war that is inching ever closer to home. Amid the rumble of explosions, workers picked cotton and red peppers in this nook of Turkey’s fertile southwest.

“Since 6 this morning, they have been pounding that village,” Enver Elmas, a 46-year-old farmer, said as Syrian government forces battled with rebels in the village of Azmerin, just across the narrow Orontes River. “We’re scared. Our village is right by the border.”

Turkey and Syria share a meandering border over 500 miles long, where in places the villages seem to merge, families share their names and pedigrees, if not their passports, and twisted olive trees roll out over the hillsides. Here, amid the quiet rhythms of rural life, people are witnessing what for 19 months had been one of the gravest concerns about the war next door: that it would spill over the border, draw in neighboring nations and, in a flash, become a regional conflagration.

War, it becomes clearer by the day, is inching closer to home.

Cross-border tensions were particularly high on Friday, when Turkey scrambled two fighter planes here after reports that Syrian helicopters were attacking Azmerin, raising fears of another incursion in Turkish territory.

In a village on the outskirts of Akcakale, a five-hour drive from here through hilly farmland carpeted with cotton fields, mourners continued to fill a funeral tent this week for five civilians killed a week earlier by a Syrian mortar shell, the first time the civil war brought death inside Turkey, and the first time Turkey’s military fired back into Syria. Turkey’s top military officer, Gen. Necdet Ozel, visited the mourners on Wednesday and, within earshot of television cameras, leaned in toward a family member and promised an even stronger military response should the cross-border attacks from Syria persist.

A journey through these borderlands reveals a region increasingly on edge. As Turkey’s leaders show less willingness to play only a behind-the-scenes role in aiding Syria’s rebels, it is here where people are feeling the heat. From the start, there has been a slow-boiling resentment over the tens of thousands of refugees, the economic hardships and the ethnic tensions wrought by the Syrian conflict.

But those burdens now feel like a troublesome prologue to the real danger that lies ahead. Turkey has intensified security measures in military zones, deploying artillery and antiaircraft batteries aimed at Syria. It has stationed F-16 fighter jets near the border, ready to carry out airstrikes, should it come to that.

“It’s messed up now,” said Mehmet Ali Mutafoglu, who runs his family’s multimillion-dollar textile business in Gaziantep, a border city known for pistachios and shopping centers that used to attract busloads of Syrians.

“People from Istanbul, from Ankara, they don’t know what’s going on here,” he said, echoing a familiar complaint up and down the region.

Before the war, Mr. Mutafoglu invested $40 million in two factories in Syria that he said generated $25 million in annual revenue. Now he fears his investment will be lost, along with the ties that bound the two nations and brought opportunity to both.

He said that he fully expected Turkey to be dragged deeper into the fight, and that the country should have done more from the start to mediate the dispute. He now pays 25 Syrian men to guard his empty factories, and he relies on connections with rebels and Syrian government officials to ensure that they are not destroyed in the fighting. He said his brother was planning a dangerous journey to Aleppo, with the help of smugglers, to check on the facilities.

“It’s a $40 million investment,” he said. “I can’t just let it go.”

This region benefited from the commercial and cultural openings to Syria under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose Justice and Development Party rose to power in 2002 and began orienting the country away from the West and toward the Arab world. The opening to Syria was the centerpiece of that strategy. But now, with no swift resolution to the conflict at hand, few — not the local residents, not the rebels — seem supportive of Turkey’s approach to Syria.

In another border city, Kilis, Mr. Mutafoglu said that the price of food and apartment rents had risen sharply and that the local hospital was so full of Syrians that there was sometimes no room for residents.

No single road links these cities, towns and villages stretching east and west over such a vast area. But the crossings are the common denominator, the portal to the challenges this region shares.

At one crossing just outside Kilis, next to a refugee camp that houses thousands of Syrians, a rebel fighter who gave his name as Abu Bashir was busy trying to get a taxi driver to take him and some friends back into Syria, back to the fight. His wife and three children were to stay behind, in a camp, and he said he was grateful for that help from Turkey.

As he negotiated with the taxi driver, a farmer, Davut Bayramoglu, stood nearby, selling tea and biscuits and cigarettes, and nursing his own discontent.

“I don’t like this, because these people are going to be here forever, and they will cause problems,” said Mr. Bayramoglu, who added that his farm was picked bare of grapes and cherries by Syrian refugees and that he now earned only 10 Turkish lira, or $5.50, a day from his tea stand. “We keep saying that they are Muslim and we have to help them, but are there no other Muslims to help them?”

In the city’s center, at a park with a tea shop, men played backgammon and worried about war. They said the social fabric was fraying with the arrival of so many Syrians. Apartment rents are rising, and residents cannot get adequate health care. There seemed no end to their complaints.

“Our state hospital is one of the best in Turkey, but it can no longer serve its own people,” said Osman Altinoymak, a retired banker. “It is full of Arabs.”

At the hospital, a desk attendant said that was true. “There are so many Syrians coming each day for treatment because it is free,” said the attendant, who declined to give her name after her boss walked over and said workers were not allowed to speak to reporters. “There is no room for locals. It is a big problem for Turkey.”

But this region is also the most important staging area for rebel fighters and a hub for Syrian opposition figures. That was, initially, how the government seemed to want it, giving the rebels a haven, letting them plot, plan, rest and arm, all while safely in Turkish territory. The rebels would then cross back into Syria.

But that strategy, or tactic, has now frayed, as war inches closer to home.

Just outside Akcakale, where the civilians were killed by a Syrian mortar, a Turkish tank was positioned next to the border outpost, its gun aimed at Syria. Snipers could be seen atop a grain silo, as the flag of the Free Syrian Army fluttered on the other side.

“They have to feel the weight of Turkey,” said Mehmet Toktimur, 24, who used to earn money driving a taxi back and forth across the border. “The retaliation is good.”

In a valley outside Hacipasa, Turkish soldiers watch Syrians freely cross the little river, and white vans driven by Turks maneuver down a narrow dirt road to the river’s edge, where they collect the wounded and take them to hospitals.

On Wednesday, at a busy intersection, a man driving a white Renault was injured when he crashed into another vehicle. A half-hour later he was still lying on the pavement, suffering from chest injuries, as he waited for an ambulance that took longer than usual because of the number of Syrians needing medical attention, a police officer said.

At the same time, men were gathered for another reason. A farmer said that a shell had just landed in his field nearby but had not detonated.

“I called the military,” said the farmer, Ahmet Pehlivan. “Now we are expecting the bomb squad.”

Source: The New York Times

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