Syria’s operations close to border may spark clash with Turkey

A Syrian woman carries her baby to the hospital tent at a refugee camp in the town of Yayladağı in Hatay province on Sunday. The number of refugees has reached 10,114, and another 10,000 were sheltering by the border just inside Syria.(L), Syrian army soldiers stand on their military trucks shouting slogans in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as they enter a village near the town of Jisr al-Shughour in Syria in this photo from June 10, 2011. (R)

June 19, 2011, Sunday/ 17:13:00

The times of good relations between Turkey and Syria, during which the once-hostile neighbors were brought together politically, economically and socially for a period of time and which saw unprecedented agreements, such as the elimination of visa requirements and shared border crossing projects, may have taken a hit due to the Syrian army's brutal crackdown on opposition protestors and the civilian killings which are reported to have happened close to Turkey's border.

Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM) expert Professor Veysel Ayhan warned that Turkey will not be a bystander if and when the Syrian army, which is located close to the Syrian-Turkish border, starts killing civilians in front of the eyes of Turkey.

“Remember when NATO was accused by the international media and public of not being able to prevent 8,000 Muslim Bosnians from being murdered in front of the world's eyes? As a member of NATO and a country whose border is about to witness such a massacre by the Syrian army, Turkey will not allow such a thing to happen again, especially before its own eyes,” Ayhan told Today's Zaman. Top Turkish political and military officials have been paying visits to the border region lately to check on the status of Syrian refugees and get a perspective on the situation first hand. The high-level appearances sent a strong message to Syrian leadership that Turkey will not remain indifferent to what has been happening along the border areas with Syria, experts argued.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu was in the area last Wednesday, visiting almost all tent cities, talking to Syrian refugees and responsible Turkish officials in person before leaving for Ankara to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s special envoy, Hassan Turkmani, the next day.

During the meeting with Tukmani, Davutoğlu warned Syria about the ongoing crackdown on dissidents, urging Syrian security forces to stop resorting to violence and bloodshed. “We want a strong, stable, prosperous Syria. To achieve this we believe it is necessary to implement a comprehensive reform process towards democratization guaranteed by [Assad],” Davutoğlu told reporters after three hours of talks with Turkmani on Thursday morning.

“In order to achieve this, the violence must stop immediately. Yesterday I clearly saw the fear in the eyes of the people, and I shared this,” he added, describing talks with Turkmani as friendly and Syria as Turkey’s “closest friend.”

On Friday, the Turkish commander of the land forces, Gen. Erdal Ceylanoğlu, flew to Hatay, a border province where all the tent cities for the Syrian refugees are set up, to investigate the Turkish army facilities and sites, gathering information about the army stations along the border from officials.

There are some reports that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan could be next on the list to visit the area, with some saying he might come as early as Monday if not in the immediately following days.

According to Ayhan, all of these top-level visits of Turkish officials to the region send a clear and serious message to Syria that Turkey will not close its eyes to the killings of civilians at its elbow. “Yet I have doubts about how much of those messages will be understood by the other side,” Ayhan said.

According to the reports from the region there are about 15,000 Syrians who have fled from the Syrian army’s latest attacks on the villages in a bid to catch the protesters. Those Syrians have set up camps on the Syrian side along the Turkish border and are waiting to cross the border in the event the Syrian army attacks intensify in the coming days.

Ayhan says that if the Syrian army steps in and harms those people along the border this will have grave consequences. He also warns that Turkey will not stay put in the event that the Syrian army moves into the area, especially with an intention to conduct mass killings of its own people with whom many in Turkey share historical, cultural, religious and familial ties.

Syrian troops near Turkish border as the number of refugees exceeds 10,000

Syrian troops are tightening their grip on villages near the Turkish border, setting up checkpoints and arresting dozens in an attempt to stanch the flow of residents fleeing into Turkey, activists said Sunday.

Human rights activist Mustafa Osso said there were concerns that thousands of displaced people crowded near the border would come under attack in the coming days.

The fighting in the Jisr al-Shughour area in the northern Idlib Governorate of Syria started nearly two weeks ago, and has displaced thousands of people, including some 10,100 who are being sheltered in three Turkish refugee camps. An estimated 5,000 more people are camped out on the Syrian side of the border. They hope to remain in Syria and avoid refugee status, but their resources are dwindling as the army tightens its grip on the area.

On Saturday, Syrian troops backed by tanks and firing heavy machine guns swept into a village near the Turkish border, forcing more people displaced by the crackdown on anti-government protesters to flee across the frontier.

The Local Coordination Committees of Syria, a group that documents protests, said troops backed by six tanks and several armored personnel carriers entered Bdama Saturday morning.

The Syrians who fled to the border areas and are still in Syria told Today’s Zaman that some Syrian soldiers are deployed at a school in Bdama and that around 15,000 soldiers have been posted in several villages along the Turkish-Syrian border. The same people who live at the border due to the fear of the Syrian army also said that the Syrian army has cordoned off the border area between Az Zawf and Bdama in order to prevent the Syrians who are fleeing from their hometowns from crossing into Turkey.

“We were told that there were armed men [from the opposition groups] in the villages we live in and thus they were evacuated. Yet where are those armed men?” A Syrian refugee who just arrived in Turkey and wants to remain anonymous to protect himself asks.

“They tell people on Syrian TV that the people who flee to Turkey are terrorists. The majority of people who live in the tent cities are women and children. How could they be labeled as terrorists?” the same Syrian told Today’s Zaman.

Human rights activists say more than 1,400 Syrians have been killed and 10,000 detained since the uprisings started in January as Assad tries to maintain his grip on power.

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