That perfect moment of the triumph of the people happened again in Syria. The rebels captured another border crossing between Syria and Turkey, lowering the Syrian flag and raising their own banner. It is a symbolic moment of victory – and in a bloody civil war abundant with various factions and no real positive endgame in view, a moment like this is often a zenith of smiles.
“Welcome to Syria,” one said to NPR’s Kelly McEvers as they pulled up barbed wire to permit her to cross the border. You could hear the joy in the Arabic and English, a temporary portal, a shift, a lean toward a change or – at least in the eyes of some – a step toward democracy.
For the media, aid workers, diplomats and others who find a need to enter Syria, control of a border crossing by a friendly rebel faction will make their lives easier for the moment. It adds to the sheen of geographic progress the rebels seem to make as a new week joins those past weeks already bloodied in the Syrian conflict.
Much like a flag or an international airport, control of a border crossing offers a group symbolic trapping of “statehood” that is important to any band of fighters. Think of the glee on the face of Yasser Arafat when the Dahaniya Airport was given full international status in 1988 even though Palestine was not a recognized nation. It made it real to him and his troops – and provoked ire in others.
Likewise, during the Bosnian war, such border crossings were given to the Bosnian Serbs by the Yugoslavs to suggest legitimacy to their breakaway fiefdom. In their case, it also made it easier to tighten access to the region, which of course border crossings also can influence. That is another lesson to heed.
So they matter.
Capturing such border crossings provides a strategic and logistical boost to the opposition, allowing them to ferry supplies into Syria and carve out an area of control, which is key as the rebels try to tip the balance in the civil war.
In the north, the rebels are in control of the borders and they are granting travelers entry visas just like any legitimate government. Now they must govern, a first big test. Their grip extends to the borders of Aleppo. They also try to strangle the regime internally by cutting oil supply lines. They are not attacking the fuel sources, such as electricity stations or refineries, but the pipelines.
This gives a new element to the conflict. In a sense, the rebels no longer have their backs against the wall; they now have a door to come and go. A border crossing, a flag, good relations (for the moment) with the press and others, and solid land to stand upon.
News reports say leaders of the rebel Free Syrian Army planned to move their command center from Turkey to Syria with the aim of uniting rebels and speeding up the fall of President Bashar Assad’s regime. It helps having solid land to stand upon.
Rebels still have to rely on Turkey as a rear base for supplies and reinforcements. In the past few months, rebels have captured wide swaths of Syrian territory bordering Turkey, along with three border crossings, allowing them to ferry supplies and people into Syria.
Yet now is the latest irony. Pushed back from the border, Syria has responded with more shelling and what seems to be a determination to provoke Turkey into a wider conflict. Now that border crossings are being lost to the rebels, the Syrians are using shells to disrupt the cross-border activity.
That has resulted in Turkish villages hit by shells and Turkish civilians killed. Turkey has little tolerance for this and Syria may have done what its allies Russia and China have been able to block: NATO acting.
The Turks have been returning and Turkey’s parliament approved a bill that would allow cross border military operations there. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned Damascus not to test Turkey’s patience.
So at the border, all seems to be going the way of the west and pro-democracy hopes. The sheen of “welcome to Syria” still sounds good. In time, the fondness for the press and the west will also soon change. It almost always does.
In Libya and Egypt, the forces of change have brought no nods to free speech or expression or need to be cordial to U.S. style democratic values.
“We expect from others, as they expect from us, that they respect our cultural specifics and religious references and not seek to impose concepts or cultures that are unacceptable to us,” Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi told the United Nations at the body’s opening sessions last month.
“Insults against the prophet of Islam, Muhammad, are not acceptable,” said Morsi, whose political roots lie in the Muslim Brotherhood. “We will not allow anyone to do this by word or by deed.”
In an interview with The Washington Post, Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi sounded a similar note, saying freedom of speech does not constitute freedom to defame religious beliefs. “It should not be understood that freedom of expression is freedom attacking our faith.”
Democracy blooms well and happy at newly free border crossings. A little further down the road, however, watch out for those checkpoints.