ANTAKYA - Sitting at the back of the restaurant, they try to be discrete. But their gear and clothes give them away: they are foreigners, anyone can tell.
In the Turkish city of Antakya, situated some 20 kilometers from the Syrian border, the relief workers try to avoid the attention of the Turkish authorities, and the local media. Despite the fact that Ankara is supporting the Syrian rebellion and hosting many of its refugees, the government has still not given its official approval to cross-border humanitarian operations. Still, border guards continue to turn a blind eye to it.
This is just the kind of ambiguos environment that is ideal for smugglers and traffickers trading their services to aid groups and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
Ihab, Ahmed and Souleiman are making the most of the situation. This trio in their 20s come from the Syrian port city of Latakia, working together as a small smuggling outfit. “We had each joined the resistance separately,” says Ihab, who heads the three-man team. “After an argument, I left the FSA (Free Syrian Army). Two friends of mine did the same, as we didn’t like their attitude. We decided to help our people in another way, which means providing them with the things they need: food, flour, medicines, oil, weapons and munitions.” The trio mostly works for small associations, local NGOs and private individuals.
Wrapped in a blanket, Ihab moves closer to the fire. It’s a cold evening of January in Atmeh, the first village across the border into Syria, amidst makeshift tents installed in the middle of the mud. In these parts, it is possible to find small shops offering smuggled goods. Ihab is searching for a shipment of cigarettes: despite the war they are still cheaper in Syria. Once the deal is negotiated, the difficulty is to move the tobacco to the other side of the border. Traffic goes in both directions, depending on the type of merchandise.
Armored vehicles and pick-ups jam the streets that lead to the border. “There are a dozen of more or less official checkpoints: when we have to bring medicines, we can pass close to the soldiers, but if we have weapons, we cross a little bit further, across the fields,” explains Ihab.
A logistics coordinator of a French NGO, who prefers to remain anonymous, tells us: "We operate in a grey area without official permission," he explains. "Even though the Turkish authorities are rather conciliatory toward us, they were not with other smaller organizations that were less discrete. Our situation is precarious."
It is even more complicated on the Syrian side, in the areas controlled by the rebels, because the lack of official representatives has produced chaos. "Clandestine networks control the border. Moreover, more or less coordinated armed groups impose their own law. Some of them want to make their profit from our activities or use them to promote a particular faction or community."
The war has created many opportunities for those with less than pure intentions. But Ihab refuses to be considered as someone exploiting misery: “We take just a small percentage of the price, in order to cover for our services. Other people act unscrupulously and make a fortune with the money they ask from the NGOs."
In addition to humanitarian aid, the main traffic circulating is with weapons. Ihab knows that this couldn’t be possible without the consent and the complicity of the corrupt Turkish soldiers: "They have their men everywhere and know exactly which goods are in transit. Arms shipments were delivered to the armed groups without being stopped at the border."
While the international community aims to help the civilians wherever they are in Syria, including in the areas where Bashar al-Assad forces have lost control, the border transactions are expected to finally grow. Turkey could bring order in the chaos on its side of the border, in order to facilitate the transit of medical aid. But in doing so it could see its alliances exposed: for the Turks are not only openly assisting the Free Syrian Army, but also -- and more secretly -- helping other armed Islamist groups from the Salafist movement.