IN THE dingy lobby of the Orontes Hotel in the southern Turkish town of Antakya, a 20-minute drive from the Syrian border, Syrian men—some smartly suited and booted, others bearded and in tracksuits—sit on ragged leather chairs around a low table, cigarettes smouldering in the ashtray. A defector from Homs shakes hands with a sheikh from the city. A fighter from the port of Latakia sidles up to a businessman sliding prayer beads the colours of the Syrian freedom flag between his fingers.
Here in the hotels and cafés of Antakya, once part of Syria, friendships are forged and rebel rivalries wrought that will affect the future of the war-ravaged country over the border. Well-heeled holidaymakers have gone, replaced by Syrians trailed by other foreigners—journalists, wheeler-dealers and spies.
Abu Hassan, a Syrian trader from Dubai who flew in with a fat wallet, passes a plastic bag of cash across the table to an activist to give to the needy. The businessman says he has given away $400,000 since the revolution started. Other donors are less open, says a Turk from Istanbul, who insinuates he is a Muslim Brother.
In Antakya's hospitals lie young girls and fighters with sniper wounds who have been rushed over the border to be treated or, as often as not, to die. Comrades from north-western Syria pull up in battered vans and shiny Mercedes to wait for news of a rebel commander who was struck in the head by a piece of shrapnel. His weary-looking father's shell-suit rustles as he paces up and down. Sick Turks eye them warily: the queue for treatment has got longer. Arabic, already spoken here, has replaced Turkish as the lingua franca. Out in the streets, demonstrations against the influx of Syrians have got louder in recent weeks.
Come nightfall, people cross into the farms and border villages where Turkish territory blurs seamlessly into Syria. Spotty young foot soldiers with wispy beards linger on the streets sipping coke, while their rebel commanders in safe houses drink tea, their bloodshot eyes glued to a television showing non-stop videos of the grisly war across the border. In a corner shop a Syrian man buying cigarettes is jolted by the thud of shells landing on a nearby hillside, where the lights of a Syrian village flicker. “My country, my country,” he groans.
Surrounded by the scent of rosemary and the sound of chirruping crickets, another wave of women and children follow smugglers across the olive groves to the safety of Turkey. They know they may never see their menfolk again, as they add to the burgeoning mass of Syrians sitting in limbo in refugee camps and cramped houses on the Turkish side of the border.
« The Economist: Digital highlights, September 22nd 2012