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How Syria's Messy Borders Complicate Journalism, Aid Work, and Politics

The Syrian civil war has made going from country to country in the Middle East a messy business.

by Hannah Lucinda Smith
15 May 2014, 2:45pm

A building at the Ras al Ain–Ceylanpınar border crossing, shelled during clashes between Syrian rebels and Kurdish armed forces.

February 2013. I’m at the Kilis crossing on the Syrian side of the Turkish-Syrian border. A big guy, shaven-headed and dressed in scruffy fatigues, with an ancient Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder, slowly flicks through my passport, front to back, one page at a time. Without looking up, he asks, “You’ve been in Syria?” He has an interrogator’s demeanor. I nod.

“Before liberation or after liberation?”

“Before liberation,” I say. I wonder if I should apologize. He flicks through my passport again, this time from the back to the front. “And you’re a journalist?”

“Yes,” I reply. Then, for the first time, he looks me square in the face, and he smiles.

“Welcome to Free Syria!” he says. “You want a stamp?”

Hell yes, I want a stamp. Of course I do. I just entered Free Syria, and I want a souvenir—and the duty-free store has been looted. So I smile back and remember my manners. “Yes, please!”

“Really?” he asks, raising an eyebrow. “You’re sure you want a stamp?” Without hesitation, I confirm. He digs out his inkpad and stamps my passport—a little fuzzy circle barely distinguishable from the mess of other stamps on the page. And then I forget all about it.

I realized my mistake seven months later. I was standing at border control at Beirut Airport with an irate and growing line of people behind me, watching the guard who had been checking my passport hurry between his colleagues, holding hushed conversations with each of them. When he ran out of people to talk to, he went into a glass-paneled office and spent 20 minutes talking on his phone.

In the moment before he’d left me, his eyes had rested on that stamp. “You’ve been in Syria?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied. And as I watched him dash off with my passport, I wondered whether I should shout after him: “But I’m a journalist!”

The most worrying thing about this whole situation was that I wasn’t trying to enter Lebanon but leave it. I’d come into the country a week earlier with no problems at all, and now, when I wanted to get out, the fact that I’d entered a rebel-held area of Syria had suddenly become a problem. Vague, half-remembered conversations came back to me. Hadn’t someone told me that there’s a Hezbollah detention center underneath this airport? I started to panic.

This border crossing at Ras al Ain–Ceylanpınar was initially seized by the FSA and Jabhat al Nusra in November 2012. The Kurdish YPG took control in July 2013.

Here’s a rundown on some of the more sectarian dynamics of the Syrian conflict: Hezbollah is a powerful Shia militia based in Lebanon, and it’s fighting on Bashar al Assad’s side in Syria. The Syrian rebels, including the guy who stamped my passport, are Sunni, and they’re fighting against the Assad regime. Just a few weeks earlier I’d watched a teenage rebel fling a Molotov cocktail in the direction of some Hezbollah fighters in Aleppo, a futile gesture of desperate hate. It didn’t explode because the gas he’d filled it with probably came from the makeshift oil refineries of Deir ez Zor. Maybe he hit one of them with the bottle. They really don’t like one another, Hezbollah and the Syrian rebels.

Hezbollah is going to arrest me, I thought. They’re going to arrest me and incarcerate me in the black hole of Beirut Airport, and it’s all because I got that stamp at the Syrian border.

The guard put the phone down and came back. I braced myself for bad news. And then, without looking at me, he stamped my passport and handed it back to me.

“Is there a problem?” I asked.

“No problem!” he said and held out his hand for the next person’s passport. I left Lebanon confused.

Later on I told the story to a Syrian friend. He listened, nodded, and smiled. “They let you go because you’re British,” he said. “If you’d been Syrian you would have been screwed. They’d have arrested you.”

He was right. My nationality saved me. But my nationality and the sense of safety that comes with it also got me into that mess in the first place. I grew up in the European Union, where crossing borders is easy and routine, and where—as long as you’re an EU citizen and you’ve stayed out of trouble—no one worries too much about where you’ve been and where you might go next. Until my teens, the only border I’d crossed had been the Scottish one. I still remember looking gloomily out of the car window at a rock carved with “Welcome to Scotland” and wondering why it was all so damned easy.

But borders are a different matter in the Middle East. In the second half of the 20th century, as the European nations that had spent the first half slaughtering one another formed a trade agreement, then a political union, then a visa-free travel area and a single currency, the Middle Eastern states tore into one another with increasing ferocity. Two world wars eventually pushed Europe towards unity and peace, but those same wars—and the bad geopolitical decisions that followed—are still fueling conflicts in the Middle East. Since 1945 there have been more than 30 wars in the Middle Eastern countries that were created during the carve-up of empires in the 20th century.

So who you are, where you’re from, and where you’ve been all determine which borders you can cross here, and how you’ll be treated when you do. For outsiders traveling in the region, there used to be a simple duality to Middle Eastern borders: Israel on one side, the Arab states on the other. If you had Israeli stamps on your passport, then there were certain Arab states you wouldn’t be allowed to travel to, and vice versa. But the Syrian conflict is turning that duality into a messy soup of Israel versus Arab, and Sunni versus Shia; and all the other states that have joined in the Syrian war by proxy and are backing one of those sides.

The border crossing at Ras al Ain–Ceylanpınar

It seems that this conflict will redraw the map of the Middle East for good. Already, one border has changed beyond recognition: Turkey’s 500-mile-long frontier with Syria. Like most of the war correspondents who cover Syria, I’ve spent a lot of time at that border. The names of the towns dotted along it roll off our tongues with an easy rhythm: Antakya, Reyhanlı, Kilis, Akçakale.

Some people say that the Syrian war could never have happened without this border, and they’re right. Journalists congregate here because it’s the easiest way to get into Syria without a regime-issued visa. Ever wondered why there are so many reports from Aleppo and so few from Daraa, the city where the first protests of the revolution erupted? It’s because Aleppo is an hour’s drive from the Turkish border, while Daraa is at the other end of the country, next to Jordan. When the Syrian rebels in the north began capturing the border crossings in early 2012, the Turkish government kept their side of the border open. Journalists could cross in and out with ease. They could even get a Free Syria border stamp. And if journalists can get in and out that way, so can fighters, war supplies, and jihadists.

This frontier, once heavily regulated on the Syrian side, quickly became a free-for-all. In May 2013, I was offered a Humvee for the bargain price of $20,000 in a huge unofficial car market near the Bab al Hawa border crossing. I had only ever seen Hummers in pictures up until then, but in rebel-held Syria they were on sale alongside BMWs, Jeeps, and Land Rovers. Only a few of them had license plates; the ones that did came from the stolen-car trading hotspots of Romania and Bulgaria. Savvy businessmen had spotted a gap in the market—Syrian rebels didn’t want to drive the crappy Iranian-made Saba models that had flooded the Syrian market for years. They wanted prestige rides, and now they could get them without the old 250 percent import tax.

I couldn’t afford the Hummer, but I have bought plenty of the cigarettes that come the other way. Shop owners in the Turkish border towns peddle two types of cigarettes: cheap ones from Turkey and cheaper ones from Syria. Gauloises quickly became my smoke of choice, mainly because it always amused me to see the rough rebel fighters smoking a brand that I’d previously associated with Parisian artists. They cost around a dollar a pack in a shop in the border towns. You can buy them in bulk from the refugee camps for about half that price.

But there are still international rules to borders, and according to them, the rebel-controlled border between Syria and Turkey is illegal. However brutal and maligned, Assad's Syria is a still a sovereign state and a member of the United Nations. Assad doesn't recognize the right of the rebels to control that border, so neither does the rest of the world. And aid agencies have to respect international rules, even if journalists, rebels, and capitalism do not.

Respecting the rules is a headache when there are millions of people who desperately need aid inside Syria. The World Food Programme (WFP) is struggling to cope with one of the biggest humanitarian crises it has ever seen and deliver food aid to hundreds of thousands of people in the rebel-held north. But the WFP cannot take that aid over the Turkish border. Instead it has to travel a circuitous route through regime-controlled borders, and then across hundreds of miles of contested territory to get to the places where it is needed. A journey that could take hours lasts days, and the aid is often looted along the way.

A YPG fighter walking in the short stretch of no man’s land between Turkey and Syria at the Ras al Ain–Ceylanpınar border crossing

Once you realize the ridiculousness of it all, you will also start thinking about the ridiculousness of that border. It is a dividing line as arbitrary as any in the Middle East, drawn by the foreign politicians who divided the Ottoman Empire with the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. Those politicians seem to have had little regard for the ethnic areas and towns that the border cuts through. At the eastern end it cleaved through Kurdish territory, making the Kurds a minority group that would face decades of persecution in both Turkey and Syria. Extended families were separated by barbed wire and a minefield. Towns were chopped in two. All along the border you find towns with two names: Ras al Ain and Tell Abyad on the Syrian side become Ceylanpınar and Akçakale in Turkey. Nothing separates them but the name and the border fence.

And now, in the second decade of the 21st century, the ghosts of Lausanne are awakening. The protests that started in Daraa in 2011 were an instinctive response to the brutality of the Syrian regime. A group of schoolchildren were arrested and tortured for writing anti-regime graffiti on a wall, and their families came out to demand their release. But the regime cracked down and the protests grew, and three years later, Syria has splintered into a bloody mess. The Kurds are fighting to protect their territory. The Sunni rebels are fighting for freedom, whatever that means. The foreign jihadists are fighting to establish an Islamist caliphate. And the Alawite-dominated government is fighting to cling on to power at all costs. All this seemed unthinkable three years ago, but some say that sectarian conflict in Syria was written between the lines of Lausanne and caused by the arbitrary placement of borders nearly a century ago.

So what’s the future? As each day passes and the atrocities pile up, it seems more and more likely that Syria will itself end up divided, with an autonomous homeland for the Kurds in the northeast, an Alawite state stretching from Damascus to the coast, and a Sunni state occupying the rest of the territory. Some who are watching the conflict from the safety of their armchairs, thousands of miles away, believe that’s the best option for Syria. But few of the Syrians I speak to would agree.

This beautiful, ancient, vibrant country has always been more than a forced federation of sects and ethnicities. It is a diverse and multicultural nation, and has been for thousands of years. Each city and region is a mix of cultures and religions, and that’s what made it so wonderful. So what will happen to the people who don’t fit so neatly into those new states that the armchair commentators are imagining? And how will those new states deal with each other?

The Middle East doesn’t need any more borders. The Treaty of Lausanne has taught us that map-drawing rarely works, and more map-drawing is unlikely to sort out the region’s current problems. But that’s the depressing thing about history. It tends to repeat itself.