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Airstrikes empty Turkish border town of foreign fighters

The US airstrikes in September and a recent Turkish crackdown on illegal border crossings have significantly changed the face of Reyhanli.
Syrians enter Turkey from the Turkish Cilvegozu border gate, located opposite Syrian commercial crossing point Bab al-Hawa in Reyhanli, Hatay province, September 13, 2013. REUTERS/Umit Bektas (TURKEY - Tags: POLITICS CONFLICT SOCIETY IMMIGRATION) - RTX13JU1

REYHANLI, Turkey — Shaggy hair, rust-colored beard, he walks in with a limp, one leg riddled with shrapnel months back, the other injured by a tank bomb in the battle for Kassab this past spring.

The fighter is from northwestern Syria and belongs to Jabhat al-Nusra, a US-designated terrorist group that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) collaborates with on several fronts throughout the country.

In August, jihadists and fighters of varying loyalties had flooded the hotels and streets of this border town in southern Turkey’s Hatay region during this reporter’s last visit. The US airstrikes in September, just across the border in the Idlib region, and a recent Turkish crackdown on illegal border crossings have since changed the face of the town significantly.

The Jabhat al-Nusra fighter agreed to meet at a hotel that for at least the past two years has served as a crowded meeting place for many fighters and "facilitators."

The hotel was virtually empty over several days in October.

"We’re not even 50% full," one of the workers told Al-Monitor. "We had to turn people away every night a few months ago.’’

Humanitarian aid workers, Turkish ambulance drivers, members of the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham, variegated FSA groups and private funders had crowded the enclosed dining area in August. In October, only an occasional small gathering of wearied, bedraggled Syrian fighters was seen in the same dining area.

Many Syrians with a bit of savings or who work for international aid organizations rent homes, while those in even better financial circumstances have moved on. One of the few formally trained Syrian physiotherapists, who this reporter interviewed this spring, recently fled clandestinely to Europe.

Many Syrians have paid to get false ID cards to get in and out of Syria while those who can’t — including some FSA officers — have to continue using the increasingly difficult illegal routes.

Little true fighting continues in the region just across the border. Regime bombs continue to fall on, kill and maim those left in opposition areas, and Damascus has reportedly stepped up its attacks on rebel-held areas in the north since media attention shifted en masse to the battle to keep the border town of Kobani farther east out of the hands of the Islamic State (IS).

The closest major fighting against the regime is near Aleppo and farther south, close to the key town of Morek in northern Hama and the two nearby air bases still held by Damascus, al-Hamidiyeh and Wadi al-Daif.

As recent as two months ago, fighters with full beards and a somewhat intimidating air crowded the streets of the Turkish border town. Since the airstrikes, some continue to travel in and out of the border town but do it in a much more discrete fashion.

In August, a foreign jihadist had openly spoken to this reporter about his fighting with Jabhat al-Nusra. He admitted to taking part in some battles alongside IS, which was pushed out of the Idlib region in early 2014 by a concerted effort by several rebel groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra.

The man did not hesitate to speak — on a bus, walking down the main street of Reyhanli and in a popular restaurant — about his affiliation and past.

Frequent calls in a relaxed, joking French interspersed with a few classical Arabic terms interrupted the conversation. Intermittent aggressiveness surfaced in response to some questions posed.

Staff at a restaurant frequented by the tall, bulky man of North African origins were exceedingly deferential to him, seemingly out of wariness.

This reporter instead did not see any obvious foreign fighters over several days during the subsequent visit to the town in October.

Some injured Syrian fighters in wheelchairs or on crutches and a few amputees were occasionally seen in the streets, but nothing close to the masses spilling from makeshift clinics previously. Some of the latter have since been renovated and made into more permanent fixtures, with signs outside them bearing their names and main sponsors.

A line several kilometers long of trailer trucks instead now lines the road to the Bab al-Hawa border crossing at night. An importer of cars into Syria from Europe told Al-Monitor that the trailers typically have to wait two to three days in line before getting to the border control point.

It has become harder for people to use the previously popular illegal crossings, and information on those still operating is disclosed sparingly. Turkish police have cracked down and stepped up arrests of those they suspect of intending to cross into Syria to join extremist groups.

For some, though, the airstrikes have sparked anger that is "pushing us toward IS," Al-Monitor was told by a young Syrian-Palestinian woman living in the town.

In a simple white headscarf next to her clean-shaven husband in shorts and a T-shirt, watching the Faisal al-Qassim live debate show so popular with moderate Syrians, the university-educated woman in her 20s told Al-Monitor heatedly, "If it’s a choice between the regime and IS, we will support IS."

Her husband’s wages from working with Western aid organizations is what allowed him to bring her here from Damascus and what enables them to rent a simple flat.

Though she doesn’t support IS, she said, "The regime is worse."

Her brother, a doctor, was detained and tortured for several months by the Bashar al-Assad regime in 2012-13 for treating protesters. He subsequently went to an IS-held area and worked there until the recent airstrikes near Raqqa caused him to leave his job and cross into Turkey. Her husband had grown up in one of the towns hit by the recent US airstrikes in the Idlib region just across the border.

When asked about whether Turkey made the right decision to tighten border controls, she said, "Yes, but they should have done this years ago."

Several FSA commanders Al-Monitor met with in Reyhanli said that the extremist factions are still more powerful in the region across the border, though US weapons have in some cases helped more moderate fighters. They say, however, that unfortunately Jabhat al-Nusra is essential to the fight against the regime for the foreseeable future.

Back at the established meeting point, the Jabhat al-Nusra fighter’s eyes are fearful, looking around frequently to ensure no one is watching. The unkempt, slightly overweight, injured and notably shell-shocked man in his 20s is wearing a dusty, cheap polyester jumpsuit and plastic flip-flops.

"While the FSA was going to just let us die, when we were trapped for four days with no food and water" during an incident in the Anfal campaign launched by rebel groups in the Latakia-area mountains in the spring, the Islamist "Sham al-Islam were the ones to save us," he said.

Sham al-Islam is a jihadist group of mostly Moroccans fighting in the Syrian conflict. It was also designated a terrorist group by the United States in September 2014.

Eyes dart about and the fighter obviously wants to leave. A 4x4 with a driver is parked outside waiting for him. His cousin, a former regime officer who defected early on and who fights with an FSA brigade, noted somewhat apologetically, "He’s a good man, he really is."

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