Kassab Crossing: Northern Office Responsible For “Settlements”
A narrow mountain road, barely fitting two cars, one heading south towards Syrian territory, and the other returning to the north, where the villages of southwest Turkey bordering Syria are located.
The first way quickly leads to a high border point, exposed to the Mediterranean’s humidity in the summer and requires passengers to have a “security break” with a representative of the intelligence, after arriving in the Syrian side, and leave as a “good citizen.”
Taking the road from Turkey to Syrian territory through Kassab Crossing requires the Syrian refugee to take a set of decisions, taking into account the material and livelihood considerations and judged according to the extent to which his security file the Syrian regime had is “clean.” Meanwhile, as a whole, this process remains an adventure having unknown consequences.
Due to the harassment the Syrians, having a precarious legal situation, are being subject to in Turkey, the adventure has become a kind of surrender, for violators could possibly be sent to border camps, or deported to northern Syria, according to the Turkish measures adopted in early July 2019.
Starting with Istanbul
Since Istanbul has been witnessing a tight security campaign during the past two months, the number of returnees has dramatically increased. A greater number decided to return voluntarily to regime-held areas via Kassab border point.
The administration of the crossing on the Turkish side refused to disclose to Enab Baladi the number of returnees holding “Temporary Protection Identification Document” and coming from Istanbul or the rest of the Turkish states. However, the driver of a passenger car from Istanbul to Kassab Crossing confirmed that he gives several rides almost daily.
The correspondent of Enab Baladi in Hatay province, in southern Turkey, monitored several batches of refugees arriving at the Kassab Crossing, one of which was on August 21. On this day the crossing received about 145 people in the morning coming from Istanbul, in addition to a bus arriving on the same day carrying 50 other people.
A driver transporting Syrian returnees said to Enab Baladi, on conditions of anonymity for security reasons, that the cost of the 16-hour family car ride trip is worth up to 2,000 Turkish Liras (400 Dollars), as a negotiable fee.
The province of Hatay also witnessed a larger movement of refugees into Syria where they were residing, according to Enab Baladi’s correspondent, specifically from the town of Yayladağı bordering Syria and Syrian town Kassab, in the countryside of Latakia.
Kassab Crossing was closed to Syrian travelers and trade since 2011, until last March. During this period, some Syrian individuals crossed into Turkey during the past two years, following requests that were organized through Hatay, after submitting medical reports or reunion papers to the Turkish side, and informing the Syrian side while at the crossing.
Since last February, the crossing has been reopened to returnees coming from Turkey under the auspices of the reconciliation mediator in Syria, Omar Rahmon, who claimed in a tweet published in April that “thousands of Syrians are returning from Turkey” since February.
Following the Turkish campaign targeting Syrian dissidents, the cases of returnees Rahmon has tackled have surfaced. This has prompted the regime’s media to promote “safety of return” using leaflets circulating through pro-regime Facebook pages, which included “Rahmon’s instructions of offering steps to return to Syria.”
On the other hand, Enab Baladi monitored the activity of certain pages run by Syrians in Turkey, sharing tips and personal experiences of Syrian refugees who returned through the Kassab Crossing. They shared a positive content, encouraging others to return and attaching the telephones numbers of drivers for those looking for someone to drive them to the border, and others to receive them at the Syrian side to give them a lift.
Similar publications were repeated and included instructions similar to those published by Rahmon, following the Turkish campaign, to encourage refugees to return.
“Voluntary return” and “settlement”
Syrian returnees are forced to review a Turkish government security center in Hatay before reaching the crossing. At the center, they sign “voluntary return” papers that legally exonerate Turkey, given that refugees are returning to “unsafe” areas, which goes against the UN charters.
The driver speaking to Enab Baladi confirmed that he was delivering passengers to a security center in Antakya (Hatay State Center), and was waiting for them to complete their “voluntary return” papers and get their temporary protection document. Then, he would take them to the Turkish side of the crossing, having a document indicating their voluntary return.
Handing over the refugee card and heading toward the Syrian side of the crossing, the Syrian refugees will be received by the members of State and Military Security and asked to present any Syrian official document they have, such as identity cards, passports or family record book.
If a person coming from Turkey is wanted for regular or reserve military service, he shall be given a paper provided by military security allowing him to move inside Syria. However, he is required to consult the recruitment divisions within 15 days no more.
Pre and post-campaign are quite Different
The driver taking passengers from Istanbul to the Turkish side of the Kassab Crossing stressed that all of them agreed that the way border officials dealt with the returnees is “good” on both Turkish and Syrian sides.
Enab Baladi’s correspondent confirmed these claims, and monitored the return of a group of Syrians from the Turkish border town of Yayladağı through the Kassab Crossing. He pointed out that this deal was limited to the period that followed the security campaign in Turkey, encouraging return.
Prior to the campaign, between February and June, many young men were subject to arrests at the crossing. Enab Baladi documented 10 cases of young men who were arrested after moving from the Turkish side to the Kassab border point.
Enab Baladi notes its reservations to name the detainees to ensure the safety of their relatives inside Syria.
The residents of Yayladağı town are telling stories about people who have returned to Syria but were killed by security forces after they were arrested at the crossing. The correspondent of Enab Baladi reported a Syrian toy store owner in the town, called Zakaria, confirming that his neighbor working in a car wash was killed after returning to Syria.
Zakaria said that his neighbor was arrested in Kassab area after his return, and was killed at one of the military fronts after being recruited for compulsory service with the regime forces; while the fate of his brother, who was accompanying him when he entered Syria, is still unknown.
According to the testimony of Yayladağı residents, some of the returnees were subject to interrogation at the security branches and were forced to provide information on the political activity of the refugees who were still in Turkey.
Staying on the Syrian side of the Kassab Crossing does not exceed one and a half hours; then, the returnees would take pre-arranged rides through cars or buses to take them to their cities or villages.
Enab Baladi interviewed a taxi driver in Latakia countryside who brings the returnees from the crossing to Damascus. He declared that all people entering the Syrian side are subject to a settlement.
The driver requires 150,000 Syrian Pounds for the trip from Kassab Crossing to Damascus. The price increases following the number of bags the returnees are carrying, for the driver will have to pay more bribes to the military at security checkpoints on the road, to convince them not to inspect the car; thus, reducing the duration of the trip.
On the other hand, the security checkpoint at the Kassab Crossing sends the name of wanted individuals to the Mashqita checkpoint, which is about ten kilometers away, to assume the task of arresting some people, away from the crossing.
The driver insists, however, that he works to ensure safety during the trip through providing further bribes to the checkpoints, but the matter remains precarious for returnees who may be subject to accountability afterwards.
Those who escaped military service will have to check with military recruitment departments and join the army if they have not paid the “service allowance” at the Syrian consulate in Istanbul.
Accordingly, the returnees through the Kassab Crossing maintain the image of “the embrace of the motherland ” for a short time, and the security records will not forget that they needed “settlements” to become good citizens, even if they have overlooked them temporarily.