The New Sheriff in Town
At an outpost on the Turkish-Syrian border, rebel fighters are the law.
BAB AL-SALAM, Syria — On the day I visit the dusty border post of Bab al-Salam, it’s quiet — a steady trickle of cars and people are making the short crossing between Syria and Turkey with little fanfare. The revolutionary Syrian flag, the country’s official standard before the 1963 Baathist takeover, flaps in the breeze. An old woman is dragging a small, dilapidated trolley stacked with boxes of biscuits toward the border post, and the outpost is so calm you can hear the wheels creak. It’s a far cry from the chaos only a dozen miles south, where the war to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad is raging.
This post has been controlled for two-and-a-half months by the Northern Storm Brigade, an armed rebel group whose origins lie in the town of Azaz, about three miles from the border. Northern Storm now numbers around 1,200 fighters and boasts a presence that extends 30 miles south to the besieged city of Aleppo, farther on to Assad’s stronghold of Latakia, and even to the outskirts of Damascus. Bab al-Salam, its crown jewel, is part of a chain of border crossings along the Syria-Turkey frontier that are vital to the rebel war effort.
Ammar al-Dadikhli, the brigade’s massive commander, knows it. Sitting in a large office inside one of the border terminal buildings, he cuts a figure of a man with little left to prove. Dadikhli claims he was a vegetable seller before the war, though residents of his town say he also smuggled cigarettes. He describes his political views as moderate — he wants a civil state and reacts with distain when I mention an Islamist commander. He speaks quietly, taking his time, and when my questions are translated he nods, as if he were expecting that very question every time.
"The people from Azaz knew it is very important for this crossing to be free, so aid from other countries can cross into Syria," Dadikhli tells me. "Now, this crossing allows for humanitarian aid to come across and welcomes media to describe what’s really happening inside Syria."
And welcome journalists they do. The Northern Storm Brigade has become very media-savvy: At their "media center," a small, squat house at the crossing, the head media officer registers names and passports before allowing foreign journalists to move on — and then watches what coverage comes out of their trips.
Control of the border area is developing into one of the major struggles in the insurgency — and a flash point that could draw Turkey into the conflict. After Syrian shelling on Oct. 3 killed five civilians in the Turkish town of Akcakale, relations between Turkey and Syria plummeted. Artillery exchanges continued for six days straight, and on Oct. 10 Turkish fighter jets forced a Syrian airliner traveling from Moscow to Damascus to land in Ankara. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said that the plane was carrying "illegal cargo" over his country’s airspace.
The rebels with whom I spoke welcomed Turkey’s more aggressive stance with open arms, happy for any military support to weaken the Assad government.
As the Assad regime loses control in the country’s north, brigades like Northern Storm have carved out spheres of influence along the porous border. Despite their presence, however, the posts still rely on the goodwill of the Turkish authorities to function properly. At the end of the day, the Turks have the final say on what passes through, including aid, weapons, and refugees.
This control gives Turkey a great deal of leverage over the Syrian rebels, who well understand the importance of the border crossings.
"The border is like the liver of the Syrian revolution," says Abu Tarek Alhamwe, a commander of the Hama Free Army Brigade, when we meet in the Turkish town of Reyhanli, three miles from the border. "If it’s closed, the revolution will face a serious problem."
Syria’s anti-Assad fighters have chafed under some of Turkey’s restrictions. Samo Salouh, a member of the Northern Storm Brigade’s political committee and Bab al-Salam’s chief crossing officer, tells me that rebels want more heavy arms to be allowed across the border, but that such weapons remain heavily controlled. He also says that the Northern Storm Brigade asked the Turkish authorities for permission to allow shipments of trade to come across the border, but the Turks refused their request.
"The Turkish government asked us how deep inside Syria can you safeguard [the goods] and we said until Aleppo, but the Turkish government told us that’s not enough," he says, shaking his head in puzzlement when I ask why the products can’t just be put on Syrian vehicles to transport into Aleppo. "This was their decision," he says simply. "They told me when other cities are free, in that case we will allow trade."
Currently four posts on the Turkish border are under rebel control. In addition to the Northern Storm Brigade’s control of Bab al-Salam, the Farouq Brigade, a prominent brigade from Homs, controls both the Tel Abyad crossing, which fell into rebel control on Sept. 19 and remains under periodic attack by government troops, and the Bab al-Hawa post, which was seized in mid-July and is blocked to journalists from the Turkish side. The Jarablus crossing is controlled by Liwa al-Tawheed, an Islamist coalition with roots in Aleppo.
Control of a border outpost has become an important spoil of war.
"There are two kinds of border controls: When an area frees themselves, they will control their own region," Salouh explains. "But if not, the brigade that comes to free them controls it."
Salouh gives the example of the Farouq Brigade’s control of Bab al-Hawa. The brigade’s base in Homs is roughly 120 miles from the crossing, but it has gained fame and recruits across the country for its far-reaching operations.
Northern Storm spent six months trying to figure out how to wrest control of Bab al-Salam from Assad’s troops. Dadikhli says the group decided to try to cut the road leading from Azaz, three miles away, to starve out the stationed government forces. They blared messages over a megaphone urging government troops to defect. They staged a surprise attack, circling around the border post to attack from behind in the no man’s land between the countries. Then they waited. On July 22, the weakened outpost fell to the rebels in a volley of gunfire.
Now that Northern Storm is in control, the brigade has no plans to give up its conquest until there is a new government. "Before we took control of this crossing we did most of the fighting in this area, so it’s only natural that we are responsible for it," Salouh says.
After the blood and treasure that Northern Storm expended to seize the outpost, it is now also a financial boon. The brigade imposes its own tariffs on those crossing out of Free Syria — the charge is 250 Syrian pounds (about $4) per person and 350 pounds ($5) per car. That money stays in the Northern Storm Brigade’s coffers.
Northern Storm controls 15 miles of the border around the Bab al-Salam crossing and runs small patrols across the brigade’s territory, but the rebels admit they don’t have the equipment to fully monitor their land. They are slow to provide more details about the patrols.
"The main control is done by the Turkish government on the Turkish side. We have a simple group watching what is happening along the border from our area, but it’s less organized than the Turkish side," says Dadikhli, who adds that his biggest concern is stopping infiltrators from the Assad regime from circling back into liberated territory, since they have no records to indicate past government employment.
Other groups have found their own ways to benefit from patrolling border territory. Muhanned Issa is deputy leader of the Idlib Martyrs’ Brigade, a group he says numbers more than 1,850 people and monitors part of the porous border.
When I ask Issa how the brigade has the money to support all these men, he lists Syrian expatriate donations, but also describes some of the brigade’s more innovative fundraising measures along the border. "People smuggling diesel or petrol to the other country, Turkey for instance. The first time we warn the driver not to smuggle it. The second time is punishment, paying a fine. The third time is taking the petrol from them," Issa explains over coffee in the Turkish city of Antakya. "So it’s some kind of generating money from the border by introducing the fines or taking away the petrol. This is just an example of what we are doing. We also prevent smuggling tobacco or cows."
For the moment, these fiefdoms seem almost natural due to the chaos of war. As was the case in Libya, however, the decentralized nature of the Syrian revolt could turn from a blessing into a curse if and when Assad falls, and the work turns to putting Syria back together again.
"[It] makes it much more confusing in terms of security, and also, politically, it makes it much more confusing. There’s a lot of men and materiel crossing that border," says Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "For now they’re all unified by the fact that they want to take down the Assad regime, but what happens after that? It’s unclear."
Northern Storm, however, is acting as if it’s here to stay. Dadikhli is aiming to expand his influence. He wants to open a bank to provide financial support to merchants and other rebel units fighting to overthrow the regime — but only moderate groups that agree with his political ideology. He knows that Syria’s post-Assad future will be decided by which brigades can seize power and resources today. "The brigades that want democracy — we must help them," he tells me, "to balance the other brigades whose ideas may be different."