CEYLANPINAR - "Is the tea good? It comes from those houses over there." Ramaazen adds sugar to the already sweet drink, pointing at a line of dwellings on the far side of the barbed wire.
On this side of the border is Ceylanpinar, a mostly Kurdish town of 45,000 people. It is the farthest outpost of the arid, culturally conservative southeastern part of Turkey. On the other side is its twin city Ras al Ayn, Syrian in name but no longer in fact.
Since Assad's forces began to concentrate on Aleppo, the Kurdish minority in Syria has taken control of some of the northern provinces, including that of Ras al Ayn, which its new government calls Serekani. From here, you only have to call out and the people on the other side will reply with a Kurdish greeting, "Bi xatire te!"
"Three months ago, the Turkish army militarized the border. First, they gave us a ton of stuff. In Syria they were mainly getting pillows and pots," says the 40-year-old Ramaazen, sitting in the garden of Ougretmenevi, the teachers' house for the Atatürk Middle School, of which he is the principal.
His colleagues, Edip and Mehemet, are playing tawle, the local take on backgammon. They comment on the Turkish-Syrian ripostes. "To fire back was a mistake. Who knows, it could even have been the rebels who threw the grenades to drag us into the war."
Not that the inhabitants of Ceylanpinar are hostile to the revolt against Damascus. “The Syrians want their rights. They are right," reflects Alì, leaving the Kraln internet cafe.
His friend Safi, a tour operator, says: "Until two years ago, my uncles in Ras al Ayn lived in very bad conditions. They didn't even have their papers." But having watched from their balconies as the Syrian revolt degenerated into civil war, Ramaazen, Edip, Mehemet, and the others prefer to believe in the third-party bet of their cousins on the other side, rather than in Assad or the Syrian rebels, who are supported by the detested Turkish central government.
"The Syrian crisis could bring one of Turkey's worst nightmares to life," notes analyst Mehmet Ali Birand. By this, he means the birth of a large Kurdish state along Turkey's southeast border, where most of the country's 12 million Kurds live. The possibility exists because of the convergence of parallel historical events: There is a power vacuum in the north of Syria. Kurds have political autonomy in Iraq, where Ankara is attempting to restart trade. And Tehran is stoking anti-Turkish sentiment in Iran's northwest.
"We and the people of Ras al Ayn are the same family. We want to stay here, in the place where we live, but also to be free to move from one place to the other without barriers," explains Sertac, a merchant, whilst walking down the main street of the town, lined with all-male cafés and women veiled with purple scarves.
Independence or autonomy
Would this mean independence? "I don't know how to answer that," he says. The vision of a separate nation, which Abdullah Ocalan, imprisoned leader of the PKK (Party of Kurdish Workers) considers “dated,” no longer entices the Kurds, the world’s most numerous people without their own country.
There are 30 million Kurds who were divided among Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey since World War I, when the Ottoman Empire broke up, and never reunited. The functioning model of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan is a much better bet.
The Turkish initiative, unfortunately for the locals, has more to do with internal politics than with the Arab Spring, of which Erdogan is also an emblem. Behind Ankara's hard-line attitude to its old friend Assad, looms the Kurdish question, used by both over the years as a threat and a bargaining tool.
For ten years, Hafez Assad protected the Kurdish guerrilla group PKK, which today is on the EU's and U.S.'s lists of terrorist organizations. In 1998, the prospect of a Turkish invasion finally made him desist. The thawing relationship between the two nations was marked by Damascus with a stepped-up hunt for the already invisible Kurds.
The anti-regime revolt that began in March 2011 threw the chess board into confusion, with Erdogan devoted to the cause of the rebels, and the Syrian president returning to "tactical cooperation" with the PKK, a temporary anti-Turk alliance which Assad denies, but which has been confirmed by a report by the Henry Jackson Society, a British think tank. The developments have been observed with anger and discomfiture by Turkish Kurds.
"We want peace. The proof is that here, where we are all Kurds, the grenades are not falling as they are in Hatay," says Abdullah, an office worker, as he chooses notebooks for his eight school-age children in the Simsek stationery store.
Certainly Aisha, her mother Aklimé and her grandmother Gulsem, three generations who live together in a brick and metal house a few steps from the barbed wire, swear they hear shots every evening, and often see desperate people running as fast as they can toward the border full of soldiers.
But in this remote city, where for three years Ankara has been sending courageous teachers who want to win points, the atmosphere is relaxed. There is nothing here like the nightly wails of terrified children in Ackakale.
"The Kurdish movement in Syria is historical. It is their political coming of age," confirms the founder of the Kurdish Human Rights Project, Mustafa Gundogdu.
It is not a coincidence that Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan and guest at the most recent party congress of the Turkish premier, is busy trying to federate the various rival groups of Syrian Kurds. Ankara is not happy. Since the beginning of the year, the guerrilla war against Kurdish rebels in eastern Turkey has killed almost 700 people, both Turkish soldiers and rebels. A hundred have died in the past month alone.
And now the war in Syria, far from subsiding, is threatening to cross the border.