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.