The fallout from Saudi Arabia’s Jan. 2 execution of cleric Nimr al-Nimr is starting to threaten the Syrian peace process, with key players Saudi Arabia and Iran openly renewing hostilities. A fresh round of sectarian violence could put progress on a Syrian deal on hold for months to come.
Even when negotiations on Syria resume, they will at best be the start of a complicated, slow process that could take months or years.
But there is something the United States can do right now to help Syrian civilians: It can press Turkey to allow human rights advocates and refugees seeking protection to cross the border from Syria. President Barack Obama got one thing dangerously wrong in his Dec. 7 televised national address when he billed the border closure as an achievement in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). In fact, it’s the opposite.
Listening to Syrian human rights activists in the Turkish border city of Gaziantep, it seems the closure doesn’t deter ISIL from crossing in and out of Syria. Rather, it prevents civil society activists from doing their vital work in the fight against ISIL and against the repression of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. To the limited extent that international attention has been paid to the danger of Turkey’s border closure, it has focused on the very real harm to refugees trying to flee Syria. Even less discussed is the threat to Syrians trying to support civil society in their country.
Gaziantep has become a hub for such activists, who are running dozens of programs in Syria that promote good local governance, expose corruption and fight sectarianism. In other words, they’re trying to prevent exactly the sort of grievances that ISIL feeds on. Activists can dissuade potential recruits from joining ISIL — if they can reach them. If civil society leaders are prevented from offering people a credible alternative for a brighter future, ISIL wins.
The effective closure of legal crossings since last July for all but humanitarian emergencies and a few other exceptions is strangling the work of these activists. Very few can cross through the legal checkpoints, and it can take weeks to get permission to get on the humanitarian list approved for crossing.
“Sealing the border is killing civil society,” says a Gaziantep-based activist coordinating civil society projects in Syrian areas besieged by the fighting. “Being able to get across the border was the oxygen keeping civil society in Syria alive. We will lose this area to ISIL.”
“Closing the border has meant us cutting our training programs for those trying to promote democracy in Syria,” says another activist based in Gaziantep. “We can’t expect people to crawl across the border in the night, to risk getting shot to come to our trainings. The border closure’s not hurting [ISIL] but is hurting civil society and those trying to fight extremism.”
Some activists, determined to keep their essential work going, see no other option but to risk their lives in dangerous border crossings. The number of casualties is unknown and largely unreported. Several activists described to me how they paid $200 or $300 to smugglers to get them into or out of Syria in the last few days.
“It’s called a secure illegal crossing,” says one activist, who traveled to Gaziantep from the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, about 60 miles away, one night last month. “We waited 12 hours, most of it in the dark. It’s best to come in small groups of two or three people. It’s very dangerous. Many people have been shot. But we have to do it to help those in Syria who are fighting for civil society.”
Another activist tells me that a few days later that it took him nearly six hours in the dark to make a 3-mile journey with a smuggler across arduous terrain and that someone crossing with him was shot in the foot.
“If Washington is serious about helping Syrians offer an alternative to ISIL and other extremists, to help show that democracy might have a future there, it shouldn’t be helping to cut off civil society leaders from their projects,” says Dareen Khalifa of the Day After, an organization that supports a democratic transition in Syria. “People are risking their lives to cross the border, to keep their democracy projects breathing.”
This is one problem that can be fixed without waiting for Iran and Saudi Arabia and without a superpower grand bargain. In the name of humanitarianism and national security, the U.S. should call on Turkey to open its border with proper controls so that refugees can cross from Syria into Turkey and civil society organizers can cross back and forth.
“America’s support for civil society is a matter of national security,” said Obama in late 2014. He was right, not least in the context of Syria. Washington should be doing everything it can to empower Syria’s peaceful voices battling the Assad regime, ISIL and other extremist groups. Unseal the border and let them do their lifesaving work.