Flow Of Fighters Shifting On Iraq-Syria Border

July 21, 2011

Kelly McEvers

The crackdown on protesters in Syria is spreading to the far corners of the country — recently, to a remote town on the border with Iraq in Syria's eastern desert.

This tribal region has long been known as a transit point for fighters and weapons coming into Iraq during the war, and for refugees leaving Iraq for Syria. Now, those routes might be reversing.

Trouble began in the Syrian town of Al-Bukamal this past weekend. Like in so many Syrian cities and towns, people took to the streets in protest against the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

And, like in so many protests, security forces from the central government are accused of responding brutally, surrounding the town and, activists say, killing a handful of protesters, including a 14-year-old boy.

But this time, soldiers in a local battalion defended the protesters. Activists say more than 100 soldiers joined their cause.

Now authorities in the central government are offering a deal to the tribal leaders of Al-Bukamal: Hand over the defectors, they say, and we'll leave you alone. Activists say negotiations are ongoing.

Tribal Connections Across The Border

The tribes of this region, though, are not just confined to Syria — the same tribes span into Iraq, too. All that separates them is a border fence — albeit one with razor wire and Hescos, a type of sand-filled bomb barrier.

The border is so fortified now because during some of the most violent years of the Iraq war, it was here that militants and weapons crossed from Syria into Iraq.

Syrian state TV recently claimed that route is being reversed, and that the guns and fighters are now coming into Syria, to help in the fight against the government.

NPR asked a local border commander, who did not want to be identified, about the claim. Through an interpreter, he said they are trying to do their best to protect the borders. But, he adds, it is a long border — there must be some cases of infiltration. He says they're doing their best with the little they have.

Resistance On The Iraqi Side

Driving away from the border into the town of Qaim on the Iraqi side, there's a dusty strip of vegetable stands, mini-markets and car-parts shops. This is the wild west of Iraq. People say it's the kind of place where, just a few years ago, when you walked outside, you'd say a prayer as if it was your last prayer ever.

At the time, al-Qaida and insurgents were very active here. The area has calmed down now, but just across the border, with the troubles in Syria, things are starting to flare up again.

Ahmed Abdulkadir, the owner of a shop that sells curling irons and toasters, was part of the original resistance to the U.S. occupation here. That resistance later turned against more extreme insurgents from al-Qaida who'd come by way of Syria.

Abdulkadir says everyone here has a relative across the border in Al-Bukamal, and everyone is waiting to see if the tribal leaders will reach a truce with the government or if security forces will crack down again. He says the Syrians have now closed the border, and that means a lot less business for him.

Asked if former resistance fighters in Qaim will find ways to help support the resistance in Syria, Abdulkadir says, with a wink: What goes around comes around.

A Better Life In Syria?

The troubles in Syria are not just affecting businesses and tribes. They're also affecting the thousands of Iraqis who fled to Syria during the war's most violent years.

One woman, who goes by the name Umm Salwan, fled Iraq when insurgents fired a rocket at her house. She says life in Syria has been hard. But until recently, it was still better than Iraq.

That changed with the protests and the crackdowns.

Through an interpreter, she says that she told her husband: "Listen, I have suffered enough. Five years is enough. I want to go see my family and see what I have to do ... to find a solution."

Umm Salwan and three of her four children took a bus back to Iraq, where her parents' house has only a few hours of electricity a day.

She says she came here to find that things are much worse — that there is nothing here.

For now, Umm Salwan says she wants to return to Syria. But with the land border closed, she'll have to spend her savings on plane tickets.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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