Ataturk Boulevard: Off-Ramp for the ‘Jihadi Highway’

Ottawa Citizen, September 17, 2014.

REYHANLI, TURKEY — The sparsely treed, burnt-brown mountain that looms over this small city is called Al Chaik. Reyhanli’s main drag, Ataturk Boulevard, comes to an abrupt end at the foot of the mountain. A few metres from where the pavement ends, on the steep slope of the mouOtntainside, coils of tangled razor wire spool through the trees behind signs with the words “Forbidden Zone” in Turkish, English, French and German.

Reyhanli is in Turkey. Al Chaik Mountain is in Syria. This is where the “jihadi highway” to Syria ends, in a terrestrial peninsula of Turkey’s Hatay Province surrounded by Syria on three sides.

Most of the 12,000 foreign fighters that the U.S. State Department reckons have flocked to Syria have come through Reyhanli and its outlying districts of hardscabble cotton fields and goat pastures. They come to fight for any number of insurgent groups, not least the genocidal throat-slitters of the Al Qaida offshoot known as the Islamic State.

Turkish president Recep Erdogan has been notoriously promiscuous in his toleration of foreign fighters headed for the most sinister Islamist fronts fighting in Syria, including the Islamic State. But in recent weeks, owing to mounting international pressure to shut down the jihadi highway through here, Erdogan has squeezed cross-border choke points and stepped up border patrols.

Arrests and detentions are on the rise. Two weeks ago, German citizen Marco Jonuscheit was apprehended here. He ended up confessing that he’d come to Reyhanli to cross the border into Syria and wage jihad for the Islamic State. Around the same time, the French citizen and Islamic State fanatic Hamza Mandhouj was picked up and sent home to face charges in France.

Earlier this week, Brooklyn-based videographer Zack Baddorf and I were picked up off the street by plainclothes officers and taken to Reyhanli Police Headquarters for a grilling. We’d been watched since we arrived — the police showed us a photograph of the car with Syrian licence plates that brought us into town the day before. We’d been traveling through Northern Iraq and the Kurdish-held region of Syria, but in the end, Reyhanli Police Chief Duygu Uzundurukany cleared us, and off we went.

A close eye and a firm hand on jihadi traffic is all to the good. But the crackdown in and around Rehanli isn’t just hampering jihadi lunatics, and the traffic has also been running in both directions.

Syrian maps have long shown Reyhanli as belonging to Syria, but this is a Turkish town. The currency is the Turkish lira, and Turkish armored personnel carriers patrol the streets. But over the past three years, Syria has disgorged more than three million refugees into neighbouring countries. More than a third of the exodus has ended up in Turkey, and Reyhanli’s population has doubled to roughly 140,000 people.

Along Ataturk Boulevard, you will hear Arabic spoken more commonly than Turkish. The city’s Syrians are mostly poor people whose home cities have been reduced to ash and rubble by Bashar Al Assad’s barrel bombs. Already, Turkey’s reluctance to take in more Syrians has left tens of thousands of uprooted civilians trapped on the Syrian side of the border. For them, the crackdown will only make things worse.

The closing of the frontier is also bad news for the pro-democracy Free Syrian Army, which is heavily reliant on easy movement across the border. Absurdly, Turkey’s effort to blockade the jihadi highway may take its toughest toll on the FSA, which has already been eclipsed by anti-democratic and jihadist groupings such as the Islamic State, Ahrar ash-Sham and Jabhat al Nusra.

If the crackdown further curtails the FSA’s access to its meagre sources of supplies and ammunition, the FSA is finished, Mohammed Noor Babackery, a wounded FSA fighter, told me.

“The FSA has been given promises, but no money. Many members of the FSA have already joined Daash (the Arab term for the Islamic State). Maybe the FSA is finished already now,” the 22-year-old from Raqqa said.

As for his own fate, Babackery will never walk again. He lingers in a post-operative care and rehabilitation centre a few blocks from the botttom of Ataturk Boulevard and the Syrian border at the foot of Mount Al Chaik. He’s paralysed from the waist down. His legs are withering. He urinates through a catheter tube and he has to wear diapers. It’s been like this ever since a bullet fired by an Assad regime sniper lodged near his spinal cord during a battle in Raqqa 18 months ago. Raqqa is now the Islamic State’s headquarters in Syria.

The 60-bed post-op centre is run by the Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organizations (which goes by its French acronym, UOSSM), which is also beginning to feel the sting of Erdogan’s border crackdown. UOSSM, a Syrian expatriate effort supported by several humanitarian relief organizations in Canada, the United States and Europe, supplies 55 hospitals in Syria — all in areas outside the control of Assad’s regime in Damascus.

In the Syrian charnel house of Aleppo, a mere 50 kilometres from Reyhanli, roughly 1.8 million of the city’s two million people have no access to medical treatment except for UOSSM’s field hospital operations.

The hospital where Babackery underwent surgery is a state-of-the-art operation that OUSSM opened at Bab al-Hawa, a rat-infested refugee encampment just inside the Syrian border only a short drive from downtown Reyhanli. Last week, Turkish authorities prevented five foreign surgery specialists from crossing the border at Bab al-Hawa. The specialists had come to conduct training programs for the UOSSM hospital’s medical staff.

Control of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing and its sprawling encampment of uprooted Syrians has changed hands several times between the FSA, Ahrar ash-Sham, Jabhat al Nusra and other Islamist groupings (the Assad regime has also bombed Bab al-Hawa several times). The overwhelming majority of the 600 patients who undergo surgeries at the hospital there every month are innocent victims of Assad’s bombing campaigns.

Sometimes, patients from Turkish hospitals are rushed across the border to the hospital at Bab al-Hawa. Often, patients from the hospital at Bab al Hawa are transferred after surgery to Reyhanli. This traffic, too, is threatened by Turkey’s tightening of its border with Syria.

“We treat anyone and everyone,” OUSSM senior coordinator Daher Zeidan told me. “We even receive soldiers from the regime. We don’t ask where the injured are from. We operate under humanitarian law principles.”

But this is the world’s most gruesome war zone now. Humanitarian law doesn’t pull much weight around here.

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