ATMEH, Syria — The town of Reyhanli, Turkey, on the Syrian-Turkish border is bursting at the seams. Its population of Turks and Alawi, Sunni, and Christian Arabs has recently doubled with the arrival of Syrian refugees. The crisis has boosted the local economy but also brought tragedy -- a car bombing on May 11, almost certainly the work of Bashar al-Assad's intelligence services, killed 51 people. It was the worst terrorist atrocity in Turkey's history.
A hotel in Reyhanli served as my base in late June while I worked with refugees on the Syrian side of the border. It felt something like the setting of a Graham Greene novel: Salim Idris, chief of staff of the Supreme Council of the Free Syrian Army, wandered in one evening, while expatriate Syrians, charity workers, and weapons smugglers smoked shisha in the courtyard. An American called Eric, with no surname, introducing himself as "a researcher," visited the charity offices outside.
With well over a quarter of a million refugees now lodged in Turkish camps, many displaced Syrians are refused entry into Turkey. Instead they shelter in the fields and at roadsides nearby -- including at the Atmeh camp, planted exactly on the border.
In a sense, Atmeh is Syria in microcosm: Over 5 million Syrians, a quarter of the country's population, are persisting in similar or worse conditions -- having fled to neighboring countries or displaced inside their own, living under trees, in abandoned apartments, in mosques and schools. As the United States threatens a military response to the Assad regime's latest atrocity -- an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in Damascus that left hundreds dead -- the world is still seemingly unmoved by the suffering of these people.
The United States may strike Assad's bases, but it seems clear that it won't go so far as regime change. Its aim is punishment -- to uphold the international taboo on weapons of mass destruction attacks and show that President Barack Obama's words mean something, not to dramatically alter the balance in Syria so that these people can return to their homes.
This part of the world used to be known as the Sanjak of Alexandretta and was historically part of Syria. The French Mandate awarded the territory to Turkey in the late 1930s. The Turks named the area Hatay, after the Hittites; the extreme Turkish nationalism of the time held that the ancient community had been proto-Turk and that the Hittite ruins in the area justified its annexation to the Kemalist republic.
The Arab population of the province produced its own mythology in response. Zaki al-Arsuzi, one of the founding ideologues of the Baath Party (its slogan: "One Arab Nation Bearing an Eternal Message"), did much of his agitating in the provincial capital of Antioch. Baathism appealed particularly to non-Sunni minorities throughout the Levant. Today, a debased version of the creed provides ideological cover for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's campaign of slaughter.
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There is no passport control at the entrance into and out of Turkey, just a gap in the barbed-wire fence where cars deliver the wounded into Turkish ambulances and trucks of food and medical aid are unloaded into vans headed for Aleppo and Idlib. Unemployed men hoping to work in Turkey mingle here with kerosene smugglers and fighters from the various Free Syrian Army and Islamist militias.
One morning, a Syrian jet bombed a village on a nearby hillside and then soared close to the Atmeh camp. The crowded entrance space cleared in a matter of seconds. A war novice may wonder at the uselessness of running to flimsy tents for shelter, but the point is to disperse, so as not to offer a densely packed target.
The Atmeh camp currently houses 22,000 refugees from shelling, aerial bombardment, gunfire, torture, and rape. They come mainly from the Idlib, Hama, and Aleppo regions. Most are rural people, but there are middle class urbanites too. Some come from further afield. One man I met was from the town of Adra, near Damascus. After four regime rockets struck his home, he moved his family in with neighbors. When the regime attacked the area with poison gas, he gave up on the capital and moved north.