Turkey-Syria: Rebels and Refugees on the Border // 11 Photos

ED GILES ON ASSIGNMENT FOR THE AUSTRALIAN NEWSPAPER

In early March 2012 Syria had been in a state of rebellion, or civil war, for one year. The United Nations had stopped counting the number killed in the violence at 5000 in late 2011, but in March made a 'jump' in the estimate to over 9000 dead.

Syrian government forces were by this stage undertaking a broad assault on rebel strongholds in the west and north-west of the country. Homs city, and its district of Baba Amr, had taken a weeks-long artillery assault in late February. Idlib province, bordering Turkey, had also come into the firing line. Reports were emerging of entire towns being razed by Syrian forces, young men of fighting age dragged into fields and executed. Witnesses on the border reported seeing refugees shot at by Syrian forces as they tried to cross into the safety of Turkey.

These refugees were now pouring in to neighbouring Turkey and Lebanon in the thousands. Turkey had absorbed roughly 10,000 refugees from restive provinces on its border, mostly housed in camps just inside Turkish territory.

The rebel forces of the Free Syrian Army also used the safety of Turkish soil for command structures, information gathering, and delivering orders across to rebels inside the conflict zone. Safe houses sheltered commanders and close comrades, places where refugees and rebel runners could drop in to report on troops movements and rebel wins or losses in the escalating guerilla conflict.

In addition to safehouses, refugee camps allowed the Syrians to come and go 'as they pleased'. Some young refugee men used this freedom to move between Turkish soil and rebel camps across the border. The same refugees protesting outside the camp would visit the safehouses, then bring supplies, information and orders across the border. Free Syrian Army positions just inside Syria, sometimes by a matter of meters, took these orders and turned them into action on the ground, against a much better armed Syrian government army.

One of the camps depicted in this series was within view of a Turkish military post, raising questions of how involved the Turkish government is in supporting the Free Syrian Army, or at least how far are the Turks turning a blind eye to rebel activity in their territory. These events, one year into the Syrian revolution, perhaps now the Syrian civil war, provide an insight into the complexity of the conflict, and the disparity between Syrian rebels and government forces.

As the conflict becomes more and more violent, and begins to threaten stability in neighbouring Turkey and Lebanon, the question of who can stop the conflict remains unanswered. But, for the rebels and refugees on the Turkish border, the conflict will continue to grind on in the mountains and forests of northern Syria.