By Humeyra Pamuk
KUSAKLI, Turkey (Reuters) - Each night, a stream of beaten-up cars and trucks weighed down with blue jerry cans rumbles along the muddy lane, ferrying fuel smuggled into Turkey from over the border in Syria.
The thousands of liters of diesel that make their way by cover of darkness to Turkey's southern Hatay province are a financial lifeline for Syria's rebels, as well as a source of income for Turkish middlemen.
Much of the oil is sourced from Syria's eastern Deir al-Zor province, a region critical to the country's overall output, which largely fell under the control of a network of tribes and smugglers earlier this year.
Fuel is heavily taxed in Turkey, meaning the black market for illegal imports from Syria, however crudely refined in makeshift facilities, is thriving and sends cash back to the rebels fighting against President Bashar al-Assad.
Turkey has been a staunch supporter of the Syrian opposition throughout the uprising, now in its third year, sheltering an estimated half a million refugees and allowing the opposition to organize on its soil.
But the booming illegal fuel trade has further destabilized the border zone in recent weeks, with the Turkish military exchanging fire with groups of smugglers trying to cross the frontier, sometimes numbering several thousand.
"They arrive in hundreds, sometimes thousands, so the army can't stop them," said Ismail, 36, a middleman selling jerry cans of smuggled fuel from his backyard in the village of Kusakli, which sits on the border.
"They don't need to hide. The soldiers know there is smuggling going on here," he said, breaking off to try to make a sale to the driver of a passing car.
Turkey has maintained an "open-door" policy to refugees from Syria, and officials in Ankara insist that will not change despite conceding there may be smugglers intermingled with the refugees. It has, nonetheless, been forced to tighten security.
The army said last week it had deployed armored vehicles and a tank along the frontier after spotting up to 1,000 people on foot, a separate group of 150 people on horseback, and some 40 vehicles forming a line along the border near Kusakli.
After rounds were fired from a pump action rifle among the crowd, soldiers returned fire, the latest in a series of such confrontations. [ID:nL4N0GG24Z]
However, it has yet to deter the illicit trade.
"Syrian rebels are doing this because they need the money. It's not even so much the money, they're hungry. Aid isn't really reaching them," said Hasan Cemiloglu, Kusakli's "muhtar", an elected local official.
"These guys end up pulling jerry cans at night through the border so that they can buy bread. Not because they are bad people," he told Reuters.
EARNING A LIVING
Villagers say the oil flows through a network of middlemen inside Syria, who all charge a fee for handling the safe passage of the cargo through their territory and usually bring it to the Bab al-Hawa or Tel Abyad border posts.
Mehmet, a middleman whose small truck can carry up to 50 jerry cans, shuttles back and forth from the border up to five times a night, picking up fuel and ferrying it to buyers in Kusakli on the Turkish side, where he can charge a premium.
Pricing depends on where the fuel is delivered. The average price per jerry can right at the border is around 80 lira ($40), but rises to 125 lira once shipped into town, where hundreds of jerry cans sit in the yards in front of almost every house.
"I think they will shut this down soon. It's become too obvious, everyone is doing it now ... People are making the most of it because they think it will be stopped," Mehmet said, declining to give his full name.
With its hilly terrain and thick vegetation, Hatay, the panhandle province that juts down into Syria in which Kusakli sits, makes a relatively easy crossing point for smugglers, as well as Syrian rebels and the refugees fleeing the fighting.
In another border village, Hacipasa, there is a similar scene. Backseats of cars are filled with jerry cans, clumsily covered with cloth, sometimes spilling fuel as they drive.
As violence has spilled over the border, Ankara has become increasingly concerned about the fallout of Syria's civil war and has periodically shut some of its border gates.
Twin bomb attacks in Reyhanli, the nearest main town, killed 52 people in April, while a Syrian minibus exploded at the nearby Cilvegozu border post in February, killing more than a dozen people.
But smuggling has long been part of life in the border regions and villagers who live off the illicit trade say neither the war, nor efforts to tighten security, will snuff it out.
"I have been doing this trade for years. After each bombing, it became more difficult. They closed one route, but people opened another," said Mehmet. "They had to."
(Editing by Nick Tattersall and Alison Williams)