Why Turkey Is Essential for the Syrian Opposition

Rebel fighters rely on the country for support and weapons, but it may no longer be a secure option.
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Syrian refugees make cross from the northern Syrian town of Ras al-Ain to Turkey, in the border town of Ceylanpinar, Sanliurfa province, on November 10, 2012. (Murad Sezer/Reuters)

ANTAKYA, Turkey--The buildings hit by bombs lay in heaps of rubble on the ground. Construction workers climb surrounding buildings, replacing the windows blown out by the blast. It has been almost two weeks since the bombings in Reyhanli, Turkey that killed more than 50 people. Clean-up efforts are underway, but the incident added to the increasing tensions in the country, which opposition soldiers hiding out in Turkey say could change the dynamic of their operations.

Without opposition operations in Turkey, the fighting in Syria would likely look much different.

Turkey may no longer be a secure option for the opposition because the war in Syria seems to have seeped through the border. Rebels escape imminent violence by fleeing, but they do not fully escape the watchful eye of the Syrian regime. An extension of the Syrian war is bubbling up in Turkey.

Over the past two years, the opposition has used Turkey to gather resources to aid its fight inside Syria. But the country no longer acts solely as a pipeline for money, aid, and weapons. It has become a home base for rebel soldiers to coordinate and heal before heading back to fight. It provides space for a complicated web of fractious groups that support various opposition forces in Syria.

It is unclear how many battalions in Syria have groups operating in Turkey. And there is no way of knowing who is affiliated with which opposition group when they cross the border. Some affiliate themselves with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), while others align with the Jabhat al-Nusra Front. And some groups are not affiliated with any opposition group in particular but call themselves "freelance fighters."

Each opposition group functions similarly. Battalions in Syria send "representatives" to Turkey to lobby for money and weapons. Some are young men who have volunteered for the position, while others are high-ranking officials who are ordered to go to Turkey from Saleem Edris, the leader of the FSA. The number of trips in and out of Syria varies by each group. Some travel to Turkey more often than others depending on what resources they need. Other groups send representatives to Turkey to live permanently. Depending on the affiliation of each group, representatives will work together by exchanging information about potential funders.

Opposition leaders on the Syrian border said in a series of interviews that several high-profile opposition members have been kidnapped over the last two years, including Hussein Harmoush, a former military lieutenant who defected in 2011 via a YouTube video that went viral. At least two kidnappings have been linked to the Syrian mukhabarat, or secret service.

Turkish officials in Reyhanli said last week that the people who carried out the bombings were connected with the Syrian mukhabarat. According to news reports, suspects admitted that the initial attack was supposed to take place in Antakya, where the majority of opposition leaders and soldiers live.

An FSA lieutenant living and working in Reyhanli for battalions in Yabroud, Syria says the Syrian mukhabarat is working with Turkish Alawites.

"Assad is trying to make the conflict come to Turkey because Turkey is helping the refugees," he says. "They are trying to make the refugees go back home."

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Turkey is home to more than 250,000 Syrian refugees, most of whom live in one of the country's 17 refugee camps. For the past two years, the camps in Turkey provided Syrians with a place to live away from the shellings and gunfire that have killed well over 75,000 people. But the bombings in Reyhanli created a new sense of fear for the refugees.

The refugees living in Turkey are mostly Sunni Muslims and live in Hatay Province -- an area with a large Alawite community. Many Turkish citizens living in Hatay are openly against the Syrian presence in the country, especially after the bombing in Reyhanli.

In the days following the bombings, Turkish citizens protested in the streets, blaming the government for opening its doors too widely to the Syrians.

Hatice Can, a lawyer in Antakya affiliated with the United Nations Refugee Agency, says sectarian divisions are growing stronger with each passing month. She says Alawites are "afraid of the Islamists" who have come into Turkey and are organizing and gaining support in the camps.

"They believe opposite of the government," Can says. "The government made a mistake. The Syrian war can be solved by Syria itself."

Hundreds of refugees living in Reyhanli returned to war-torn Syria because of the backlash that followed after the bombings. But the decision to return home is not as easy for representatives working for the opposition in Turkey. They need safe space to operate in Turkey in order to win battles in Syria.

Without opposition operations in Turkey, the fighting in Syria would likely look much different. Weapons and money would not flow as easily into the country, and the injured soldiers would not be able to access the makeshift hospitals they established on the border. But with the rumored increasing presence of Assad loyalists in Turkey, the opposition may need to rethink its strategy.

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Erin Banco is a freelance journalist based in New York.

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