Outside Kobani, Cheap Passage from Turkey

by Zlatica Hoke

October 25, 2014

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As Turkish tanks patrol the long and porous border with Syria, things appear secure and quiet.

But after the military vehicles depart, two men dash onto Turkish soil from the Syrian side of a loose barbed-wire barrier.

The embattled Syrian Kurdish city of Kobani, currently besieged by Islamic State forces, is clearly visible through the unmonitored gap in the fence.

As the footage rolls, it becomes clear why smugglers in Turkey offer comparatively cheap passage to war-torn regions to the south.

While Ankara has stepped up efforts to stem the flow of foreign fighters seeking to join Islamic State militants battling for control of the Syrian border city, porous borders, manned by easily bribed guards, make illegal crossings all too easy.

The border crossing of Oncupinar, an hour's drive from the Syrian city of Aleppo, teems with people trying to cross into one of the most violent regions in the world. Many are Turkish Kurds who want to help their Syrian brethren; others are supporters trying to join the militants.

A man identified as a former smuggler named Mustafa said anyone could enter and leave Turkey easily. He said it costs no more than 50 Turkish liras, equivalent to about $20, to illegally enter Syria.

The "smuggling process here is semi-open on the border," he said, estimating at least 25 smugglers operate along it.

Mustafa spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity, fearing arrest or retribution from criminals and militants. He said most of the people who want to cross are Turks or Syrians, but there are also foreigners.

"I saw three foreigners in September who spoke English with an American accent," he said. "They told me that they wanted to go to the region that is controlled by Islamic State group. I told them to go 15 kilometers farther to the refugee camp in Kilis and cross from there. They said they would give me money if I took them there, but they did not show up at the appointed time."

Other smugglers confirmed Mustafa's account of an Islamic State crossing point close to a refugee camp in Kilis, with another farther east near the Syrian city of Jarablus.

The Turkish government has stepped up border security to curb, if not eliminate, illegal crossings, officials in Ankara said.

"The measures that have been enacted right now would probably decrease all these activities," said Cemalettin Hasami, an adviser to the Turkish prime minister. "Bringing it to zero level that's almost impossible but ... measures have been taken and we believe they have been quite effective."

Smugglers say a crackdown by authorities over the last year has made their work more dangerous, but the border remains porous because of their knowledge of its vulnerabilities and complicity among some guards.