x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Smugglers drag Turkey into Syria's civil war

The Turkish military says 18 soldiers were wounded when border troops intercept a group of 2,500 to 3,000 smugglers bringing diesel fuel into Turkey.

Syrian army tanks patrol Latakia province in western Syria. AFP
Syrian army tanks patrol Latakia province in western Syria. AFP

ISTANBUL // Deadly clashes have taken place between the Turkish military and smugglers thriving on the chaos of Syria's civil war as the border between the two countries grows increasingly lawless.

The border region is already struggling to cope with the spill-over from Syria's conflict. Half a million refugees have flooded into southern Turkey since the fighting began in 2011 and clashes near the border often spill over into Turkish territory.

The Turkish military says 18 soldiers were wounded on Tuesday when border troops intercepted a group of 2,500 to 3,000 smugglers from bringing diesel fuel into Turkey near the town of Reyhanli in Hatay province.

The smugglers set diesel barrels on fire to keep the troops at bay, and soldiers fired in the air and used tear gas to disperse the crowd of smugglers, the military said. Local villagers attacked the troops with stones, Molotov cocktails and firearms, it added. Nine Turkish citizens were arrested.

The clash was part of what has become an almost daily pattern of confrontation.

A western security consultant working with NGOs and aid agencies along the border said the Syrian conflict had created lucrative, if illegal, business opportunities on the 900km border which were being exploited by Syrian rebels, criminal groups and smugglers, especially fuel trafficking.

"Fuel is expensive in Turkey, and with no one really controlling oil fields or refineries inside Syria, there are big incentives to smuggle fuel out, with everyone taking a cut of the profits along the way," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was commenting on a sensitive issue.

A litre of diesel costs about Dh8 in Turkey, but only a quarter of that in Syria.

Relief supplies, provided by the international community for Syrians, were also being smuggled out and sold in southern Turkey, the security consultant said, while weapons and militants crossed in the other direction.

"Smuggling and criminality has always been an issue there, but now for the first time the smugglers and criminals are in a position to exert real control on both sides of the border," he said.

For Turkey, that is the latest headache emanating from the conflict in Syria.

Since the start of the uprising against president Bashar Al Assad in 2011, Turkey has been following an "open door" policy, welocomin Syrian refugees and tolerating rebels who use Turkish territory as a base for attacks in Syria.

Scores of Turks have died in bomb attacks on the border that Ankara blames on Damascus and by shells from Syria hitting Turkish territory. On Friday, two Turkish Airlines pilots were kidnapped by Shiite gunmen in Lebanon, in an apparent effort to get Turkey to exert pressure on Sunni Syrian rebels to free Shiite hostages in Syria.

Increasing smuggling activities on the border are adding a new element of tension.

Almost 100,000 litres of fuel and close to 10,000 cartons of cigarettes were confiscated on the border between August 2 and 8 alone, the Turkish General Staff said on its website.

A total of 400,000 litres of fuel have been confiscated since early July, according to the army. At least one smuggler has been killed in clashes between soldiers and smugglers.

While the General Staff said its troops were trying to prevent smuggling, villagers in the region accused the military of stirring up tensions.

"They opened fire on our village arbitrarily and hit a 15-year-old teenager," said Hasan Cemiloglu, the foreman of Kusakli, a Turkish village just 500 metres from the border near Reyhanli.

Mr Cemiloglu told Turkish television that about 500 soldiers entered his village on Tuesday, the day of the clashes that left 18 soldiers wounded. According to the military, villagers attacked the troops with stones, Molotov cocktails and firearms.

Oytun Orhan, an analyst at the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies in Ankara, said bloody turf wars among opposition groups in Syria were a factor in the worsening situation.

"The struggle in northern Syria has turned into a dirty conflict between armed groups", with different opposition factions fighting each other rather than fighting the Al Assad government, Mr Orhan said.

"They just want to control their region and border crossings, the distribution of supplies coming from outside Syria [as well as] the oil regions" in Syria.

"The smugglers are mainly armed groups and tribes on the Syria side," Mr Orhan said. "They are armed and have a lot of men."

The area around Reyhanli and the Cilvegozu crossing point, with the Syrian Bab al Hawa check point on the other side, as well as a border crossing near the Turkish city of Kilis to the north-east, were key zones for smuggling, the western security consultant said.

"Our assessment is that the Turks are having a hard time policing the area; there are places even on the Turkish side that are beginning to feel more as if they are held by the Syrian rebels than in Turkish hands, and that is a concern," he said.

"There is a growing lawlessness on some parts of the border and it could get out of hand," he said.

A Syrian Kurdish opposition activist, who travels often in the border region, and widely in Turkey and Syria, said the frontier zone had been porous even before the Syrian uprising, with militants from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a rebel group fighting Ankara, moving between Syria, Iraq and Turkey.

Now that Islamic radicals are also crossing the borders to join the war - sometimes fighting Kurdish separatists who have also come in to fight - the situation on the frontier is murkier than ever, he said.

"There are a lot of things going on below the surface on the border, and a lot of things crossing the border, including weapons and Islamic extremists, and PKK fighters have crossed into Syria as well, and it makes it a complicated situation there, you cannot always be sure what is happening or who is doing what."

The western security consultant agreed.

"The Turkish are in a very, very tenuous situation, they have a chaotic, dangerous war next door, there are lots of foreign actors at play in their backyard, from Islamic and Kurdish militants to western spy agencies and supporters of the Assad regime, and there are no easy answers for them to deal with those things," he said.

"Even if they could seal the border, they would help the Syrian regime and harm the Syrian people and rebels, which they don't want to do."