On the porous border with Turkey, smugglers keep Syria's uprising alive
It is hard to miss the tension in the smoke stained room of the former police station in Altima; a stone's throw across the border into Syria from Reyhanli, .
Nervous men sit in silence as the local commander furiously tells the younger Free Army fighter to ferry bags of weapons and medical supplies, piled throughout the entrance and back room, into two tired looking trucks parked out front.
Forty to 50 bags later, the reason for the hurried pace and frayed nerves appears. Five tall, well-dressed and very fit Arab men show up sporting expensive foreign weapons and little interest in the customary greetings and respect experienced throughout the ranks of the FSA. Italian shoes and immaculately pressed designer shirts stand in stark contrast to the odd mix of cheap designer knock-offs and sweat-stained fatigues worn by the fighters of the FSA.
The men move quickly, speak only to the FSA commander, known by his men as Zaza, and get the job of organising and loading of the supplies completed with military precision.
Two shackled and blindfolded men appear from a locked room at the end of the corridor and are led out of the building into the back of a white Toyota four-wheel drive accompanied by the five strangers.
"Shabiha" the man next to me whispers, in reference to the pro-Assad militia that has been at the vanguard of the regime's crackdown. As quickly as they appeared, the men disappear into the night.
Over the coming weeks this would be a regular occurrence. The hills of northern Syria, lining the border region between neighboring Turkey and the mountain strongholds of the Free Syrian Army, in villages like Radna, Bouzghal and Kafr Arouq, are a natural gift to the smugglers funnelling weapons and supplies to the FSA. Cheap Chinese and Iraqi-made Kalashnikovs, ammunition and medical supplies pour across the 510 mile (822km) border through villages similar to Altima, keeping hopes for the uprising alive after 15 months.
From the cafes in the Turkish cities of Antakya and Reyhanli, filled with a curious mix of tourists, journalists and Syrian money men, a web of routes, people, material and weapons begins to grow with the end goal of supplying the Free Syrian Army factions fighting to topple the Assad regime. A young man in the Syrian village of Quorqania explains it with impressive simplicity. Abu Haidr says quietly, like he is guarding a secret: "Without these supply routes across the border the FSA is finished in the north."
The Assad regime is all too aware of the vital nature of controlling the porous borders. On the lowlands, between the cities of regime-controlled Idlib and Aleppo, and the mountainous border, the Syrian army has amassed hundreds of tanks and pieces of artillery. Daily they attack villages and cities thought to be sympathetic to the FSA with deadly combinations of tanks, artillery and helicopters. On 5 June, the Syrian army attacked the city of Al Atarib, about 15 miles (25km) southwest of Aleppo, with a ferocity rarely witnessed in the north. After two solid days of bombardment and more than 100 dead, Al Atarib became a shell of the city it once was with weary survivors fleeing to the FSA protected hills to the west.
Helicopters are regularly seen flying high over the region to rain Russian-made rockets packed with high explosives down on villages protected from direct armour attack by the narrow and heavily defended mountain passes. On the road from Altima to the plains surrounding Aleppo, the charred hulks of tanks litter the way, quiet testament to the ageless advantage of solid, natural fighting positions.
For months the defence of this region by the FSA has been thin. However in May, as the peace plan brokered by Kofi Annan appeared to be all but an abject failure, a renewed effort to arm the FSA in the north began in earnest.
The FSA leadership meets almost daily now in the refugee camps of Yeladaki, Bonuynogun and the Syrian army defectors' camp south of Demirkopru in Turkey, to organise the crossing of medicine, arms, refugees, fighters and journalists into Syria. With monetary support pledged form Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the smuggling routes in the north could become a deciding factor in the uprising.
The village of Quorqania is abuzz late into the evening as revellers from a wedding between an FSA commander and a local woman pour out into the cool mountain air. Drummers pound out a throbbing beat and a local man sings anti-regime songs through a PA system with the volume set to maximum. The mood is high and many of the revelers appear relaxed and confident as they dance, in small circles of men, to the cadence of the drums.
What is different about this evening is that the men in the streets are armed to the teeth.
To one side is a man with an American M4 equipped with laser sighting in one arm and a shiny Colt 45 strapped to his shoulder. He is filming the celebration on his iPhone while other men empty clips from their Kalashnikovs into the deep violet sky, in salute to the newly married man. Rocket-propelled grenade launchers, PKC heavy machine guns and enough Kalashnikovs to supply each man have all come to the party.
Only two months earlier these same men were counting each round and would only return fire if the situation was grave. Weapons and the ammunition to feed them were strictkly conserved. Many men shared a single rifle.
The fighting in the north continues to intensify. Many here expect a big fight to defend the vital smuggling routes in the coming months. What is different, at the tail end of the second spring of revolution, is that the FSA appears well armed and prepared to meet anything the Assad regime sends their way.
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