x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

FSA hopes seized border post will help civilians escape violence

The FSA took the Bab Al Hawa border post in Syria's northern Idlib province on Wednesday after fighting with government troops and claim having control of it will make it easier for civilians to escape the violence that has raged in Syria since March last year.

Syrian rebels seized control of the Bab Al Hawa border post last week. They hope to use this as a corridor through which civilians will be able to pass to escape the violence in the country.
Syrian rebels seized control of the Bab Al Hawa border post last week. They hope to use this as a corridor through which civilians will be able to pass to escape the violence in the country.

CILVEGOZU, TURKEY // The Free Syrian Army's seizure of a border post in the country's north will allow for freedom of movement and increase the FSA's capabilities along the Turkish border, say rebels. However, the situation is still tense, with regime forces just a few kilometres down the road.

The FSA took the Bab Al Hawa border post in Syria's northern Idlib province on Wednesday after fighting with government troops and claim having control of it will make it easier for civilians to escape the violence that has raged in Syria since March last year.

"The FSA taking over Bab Al Hawa was a very huge thing," said defected Syrian Brigadier General Ziad Fahd, who is living in a Turkish refugee camp. "Journalists will be allowed to go in and wounded people will be able to go out faster."

He added that "as an armed opposition we are going organise Bab Al Hawa and put security and men there to control the situation".

At Cilvegozu in Hatay province, Turkey has effectively closed the border crossings with Syria but a Turkish official said that the border is "not officially" closed, although Turkish citizens are being advised not to cross.

Syrians wanting to return home are still allowed to pass through the Cilvegozu border post and continue on to the Bab Al Hawa border post after passing through about two kilometres of no man's land.

Although it was impossible to see through to Bab Al Hawa, a small number of Turkish lorry drivers and traders returning from Syria confirmed that the rebels still had control of the border post.

Muhammad Abdullah, an activist who spoke with The National by telephone from the Syrian border town of Atma, said that the rebels were not overly concerned with the Syrian military attempting to retake Bab Al Hawa. There were more important areas to the military, such as Idlib and Aleppo, for them to focus on, he said, adding that the FSA flag was still flying at the border.

However, he said that the Syrian military was still positioned only about six kilometres down the road from the Bab Al Hawa. The rebels have proved their ability to "liberate" villages or entire towns from regime forces but they have not been as successful at holding these areas.

"The situation [in Syria's northern Idlib] changes every hour or two hours," Mr Abdullah, admitted.

Regime forces were continuing to shell the area. Almost all civilians had fled from Al Dana, a town about six kilometres from Bab Al Hawa. Last night, at least six shells fell onto the town, injuring an unknown number of inhabitants, claimed Mr Abdullah.

While still unclear if regime forces would arrive to reinforce the border and drive the rebels from Bab Al Hawa, a rebel fighter in Turkey who gave his name as Mohammad said that seizing the border post was the latest sign that the rebels considered the border area near Turkey to be a buffer zone for them to operate in.

"This is very important because this is on the border. When we need to bring wounded or civilians needs to escape. This is the area," he said.

At Cilvegozu, a small number of Syrian cars passed through going toward Syria. There were also a few Syrians on foot who refused to speak with reporters at the border.

"They are all thieves, they are taking money and cars," yelled a Turkish lorry driver who gave his name as Mohammad Irfan. He said that he entered Syria two days ago and the rebels stole US$2,000 (Dh7,346) from him and all the carpets that he was transporting.

Debo Sezer, a Turkish businessman driving a small van back from Syria, said that he had just passed about 50 rebels at the border post. Unlike some of the other Turks returning from Syria, he said he had not felt threatened by the rebels, whom he called "good people".

"They helped us and asked if there was anything they could do for us," he said.

Mr Sezer said that they had wanted to see the passports of people crossing the border, but let him pass onto Turkey without difficulties.

Explaining that he had gone to Turkey because he was preparing to send two cars from Turkey to Jordan via Syria, Mr Sezer said that two of the cars had been commandeered and damaged by armed men at the customs point. Although he was frustrated by the loss of the vehicles, for which he had paid about TRY500 in customs fees, he refused to say that the FSA had been responsible for the damage.

Asked who had been responsible, Mr Sezer said: "Some people say the Syrian army, some people say the free army, some people say other people."

Celalettin Lekesiz, the governor of Turkey's Hatay province where the border crossing is located, said in a press conference that "independent groups who earn their living from smuggling" had ransacked and burnt 30 Turkish lorries at Bab Al Hawa, according to Agence France-Presse.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae