Along Syrian Border, Lives Defined by War

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KILIS, Turkey -- It was midday, overcast, as a Turkish man backed up his truck to the front of a beige one-story farmhouse here. It was loaded with enough fertilizer to blow up a city block.

"Whatever they ask me, I do," said the man, who did not want to give his name but was happy to talk about his willingness to help the Syrian rebels. "I don't say no."

He pulled a receipt from a pocket of his jacket to show how much money he had spent on his haul: about $2,500, to be reimbursed by his Syrian paymasters.

His truck was packed with the two tons of nitrate-based fertilizer -- the same chemicals and almost the same amount as Timothy McVeigh used to blow up a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995 -- that he had bought at a wholesale farm supply store in Antakya, a two-hour drive west.

Another Turkish man, Ahmed Helo, helped unload the cargo, bag after bag, until the front room of the farmhouse, whose owner collects a storage fee from the men, was filled with the bags of fertilizer, as well as a single barrel of sulfur. The plan was to wait until nightfall to smuggle everything into Syria and to give it to fighters to make bombs.

Mr. Helo uttered an expletive to describe President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and then said, "We just want to get rid of him."

"Since the beginning of the revolution, I have helped," said Mr. Helo, a former soldier in the Turkish Army who has relatives in Aleppo, Syria's largest city, and often travels inside Syria to help rebels build explosive devices. Sometimes, he said, he joins the fight.

Nothing about what the men are doing seems secretive, nor do they take measures of concealment. A Turkish military vehicle drove on by, and an official border crossing was just a few hundred yards down the road.

"It's not a secret," said the Syrian man in charge of the fertilizer deal, a rebel commander who gave his name as Abu Mohammed. "It's not prohibited. It's fertilizer."

It has now been about 20 months since Syria's uprising began, and the civil war has become the defining feature of life along this long border, shaping the days' rhythms and conversations and commerce. The Syrians are trying to change their lives, and the Turks are trying to hold on to theirs, and both are struggling to coexist. Everyone, it seems, either wants in on the action or just wants it all to go away. And with little political or military unity to the revolutionary efforts so far, and no defined strategy for how to topple the government, nor a vision for what comes when the fighting stops, everyone is left to project hopes and fears onto the cause.

"We cannot define what we want," Abu Mohammed said. "We just want the regime to fall."

Abu Mohammed, like many of the men involved in the war effort, spoke in contradictions. He described himself as just a simple house painter in Syria before the revolution, but then he said he was one of the many foreign fighters who had flocked to Iraq to fight the Americans because "they are nonbelievers." Then he said, "I'm not very attached to religion."

Without a strong guiding hand from the international community, particularly from the United States, whose influence these men seem both to crave and to resent, nearly all agree that the influence of foreign religious extremists on Syria's battlefields has grown in recent months.

"Thanks to God, it is increasing," Abu Mohammed said. "Whoever is helping us, why not?"

More pointedly, religion is becoming a stronger force in shaping the lives of Syrians. Many formerly secular Syrians who may have prayed but whose lives were focused on the prosaic -- feeding their families and spending time with friends -- are growing beards, forgoing alcohol and, in some communities under rebel control, establishing courts under Shariah, or Islamic law.

"Some people used to drink, and now they have stopped," Abu Mohammed said. "They don't want to sin. Religious commitment is increasing. If they see all this killing, it's natural that they become more religious."

Saiid al-Assi, who has let his beard grow and is now dedicated to his prayers, sat last week in a hotel in Antakya. Mr. Assi, a former farmer who raised and sold sheep and grew almonds, said many Syrian men were now like him. "Most of the men, they are becoming more religious," he said. "Why? Because all of the world has left them."

He added, "Al Qaeda is helping us, but the Europeans are not."

On the night before the American presidential election, a rebel commander who moves between Syria and Turkey and gave only his first name, Maysara, sat in a cafe in Antakya and drank tea and smoked hand-rolled cigarettes. "I used to drink, but not today," he said. "Because now I might die anytime."

Like many others, he was a farmer before the war, and not much concerned with religion. But as the war has dragged on, its cruelties have begun to shape the sensibilities of men like Maysara in a way that provides an ominous foreshadowing of the type of society that may emerge after the war. He favors the harsh justice of the Shariah courts that have sprouted in communities held by the rebels. He explained the recent kidnapping of Kurds by fighters aligned with the Free Syrian Army, after clashes between the two groups, by saying, "It was a message: We can kill you at any time."

And about the recent coldblooded killings of detained government soldiers, captured in a harrowing video and denounced by the United Nations as a possible war crime, he had this to say: "In my opinion, the only mistake they made was to take the pictures."

Later in the week, as the concluded American presidential election prompted reports of renewed international efforts to persuade Mr. Assad to leave Syria in exchange for assurances of his safety, another rebel, Abdul Zaki, sat in the same cafe. That morning, Mr. Assad was giving an interview to a Russian television channel in which he vowed to "live and die in Syria."

As Mr. Assad's comments filtered through Twitter, Mr. Zaki offered a rebuttal with the bravado of a young man who has taken up arms.

"For sure, he will die in Syria," he said. "We will make sure of it."

Hwaida Saad contributed reporting.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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