Turkey has been criticised for its lax border controls on the Syrian frontier. But public ire over deteriorating security has led Turkish authorities to erect a barricade separating the two countries.
A concrete wall winds through the rolling hills, plateaus and plains of Turkey’s southern Hatay province, which borders northern Syria.
Turkish authorities have recently beefed up security along the border zone following accusations that Turkey’s policy of keeping its border with Syria open was fueling insecurity in the area.
In a sleepy village along the new wall, local residents say the new structure, which has not yet been completed, is already making them feel a lot safer.
"Building this wall has reinforced security. That's not enough," said Mahmut Itri, a villager, pointing to the wall, which is only five kilometres long in this area. "But at least, it has stemmed the illegal crossings."
In the provincial capital of Antakya, a historical city once known as Antioch, Mayor Lutfu Savas says the new security measures seem to be paying off.
"There are probably still fighters in the rural areas close to the border, and we hope border security will continue to be tightened there," said Savas. "But it's clear that there are much fewer fighters in the streets of Antakya now than before."
When fighters roamed the streets of Antakya
Home to a diverse population of Alevi Muslims, Christians and Sunni Muslims, Hatay was in danger of destabilisation with tourists avoiding the border region and refugees from the Syrian crisis fueling unemployment in some sectors.
In the March local elections, Hatay delivered a shocking upset for the ruling AK Party.
While Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party swept the national polls, this province delivered a victory for the main secularist opposition CHP.
The Turkish leader’s support for opponents of Syrian President Bashar al Assad was unpopular with several locals who told journalists covering the election that Erdogan seemed bent on dragging Turkey into a war with Syria.
Savas, Antakya’s mayor, defected from the AK Party and won the local election for the CHP.
The city today is a far cry from months ago, when fighters, including foreign nationals en route to Syria, were a visible presence.
Jameel Saib, a Syrian refugee living in Antakya, used to welcome fighters – some of them foreign – at his home.
Now the appartment is empty. Saib says Turkey's crackdown has forced jihadists to rethink their travel plans.
"There are many more controls now so most jihadists prefer to enter Syria from Iraq instead," said Saib, putting down his cell phone which has photographs of friends he has hosted, some of whom have been killed in battle.
The changing dynamics inside Syria also explains the Turkish policy shift.
In January, the radical jihadist group ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) had to retreat from the Idlib region across the border.
Most foreign fighters can now be found further east along Turkey's 800-kilometer long border with Syria. Hatay may seem safer for now, but it’s quite likely that Turkey’s problem has just inched further down the frontier.
Date created : 2014-06-03