Ankara still stands by Damascus, even as Syrian refugees flow into Turkey

Anshel Pfeffer – Haaretz June 13, 2011

It wasn’t just Syrian refugees who entered Turkey yesterday. Businessmen, merchants and vacationers also continued arriving via the official border crossings. If there is anarchy in Syria, it’s limited to very specific regions. In the rest of the country, life goes on as usual.

The stark contrast between the crowded refugee camp in Yayladagi and the quiet border post two kilometers away, through which Mercedes cross in both directions, seems to encapsulate the situation in Syrian President Bashar Assad’s domain. A senior Israeli defense official told Haaretz last week that he expects Assad’s regime to collapse within months, or at most a little over a year, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Nevertheless, something has changed. The Syrian government’s claim that 120 soldiers were murdered by “armed gangs” is rapidly being exposed as a cover story for its own murder of soldiers who disobeyed orders to shoot civilian demonstrators. Refugee after refugee has testified about soldiers being shot by other soldiers or by plainclothes members of the security forces. There is still no way to estimate the extent of mutiny and desertion in the Syrian army, but it seems this is becoming the key threat to the regime, despite its success in maintaining order in most of the country.

The second significant development is the revolution’s slide over the border into Turkey. Until now, by closing his country to foreign journalists and severing communications lines, Assad has managed to isolate the demonstrators and largely control the flow of information. But the flight of refugees into Turkey creates cracks in the information clampdown, and also a real problem for Syria’s northern neighbor, its staunch ally for a decade.

For now, despite pro forma condemnations, Ankara is standing by Damascus. It’s allowing refugees in, but confining them in camps near the border and preventing all contact between them and either journalists or ordinary Turks. Turkey’s fear is that pressure on the border might spread eastward, into the country’s Kurdish areas, which from its standpoint are far more sensitive.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has so far opted to try to contain the Syrian unrest and avoid further destabilizing Assad’s government. But if the flow of refugees increases and Assad still refuses to reform, Erdogan might well allow the refugee camps to become the Syrian opposition’s temporary base, thus allowing it to grow into a real alternative to the regime in Damascus.


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