Tensions rise on the Turkish Border with Syria

31 August 2013 Last updated at 01:10 Share this pageEmailPrint

Syria crisis: Tensions rise on Turkish border

By James Reynolds & Zeynep Erdim

From the shade of a small hut on the Turkey-Syria border, Hussein Mahmeddin keeps an eye on the grey border gates at the end of the road.

He has been waiting since 6am for his parents and three sisters to cross over and join him in Turkey.

Mahmeddin is a fighter with the opposition Free Syrian Army. Two weeks ago, he was wounded inside Syria. He came to Turkey to recover.

Now his immediate family has decided to leave Idlib in Syria and join him in Turkey. They plan to move to the nearby town of Reyhanli.

They will join more than 450,000 Syrians who have already taken refuge in this country.

Hussein Mahmeddin supports the idea of a US-led air strike against the Assad government. “I’ve lost three of my cousins in this war. They were all younger than me,” he says. “I want this air strike.”

Does he think that possible US-led airstrikes will end up killing more people? “It’s a very hard question to answer,” he replies.

He wants foreign countries to supply weapons to the Free Syrian Army. “But that’s not happening,” he reflects. “That’s why I want the air strike.”

During the last few days, dozens of Syrian families have made their way through the Cilvegozu border crossing. Some carry heavy bags and cram their way into taxis.

One family of six has decided to leave Syria and stay with friends on the Turkish side of the border.

The family bears the marks of war. Their six-year-old daughter lost her hand in a shell attack. A younger daughter was killed before that. The father explains why the family has now decided to leave Syria.

“It’s not the air strike we’re afraid of,” he says. “We’re worried about Assad’s retaliation after that.”

At the crossing, two dozen Turkish taxi drivers wait in their cars. Two or three times a day, they take Syrians from the border to the town of Reyhanli.

But that does not provide a perfect escape from Syria’s war.

Violence spreading
On 11 May, more than 50 people were killed in Reyhanli when two bombs exploded. The Turkish government blamed Syria for the attack.

Over the last year and a half, more than 70 Turkish citizens have been killed in Syria-related violence.

The Turkish government strongly opposes President Assad. But the Turkish population here is nervous about an escalation of the war.

“I don’t want air strikes,” says Hassan Inci, a taxi driver. “They will damage our country. So Turkey will have to retaliate. Many more people will die.”

“I feel terrible for Syrians but I don’t want Obama to attack. It will just make things worse.”

The Turkish government has suggested that it will support US-led air strikes against the Assad government.

“If the UN Security Council fails to take a decision to impose sanctions, other options will then be on the table,” the foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, said earlier this week.

“About 36-37 countries are already discussing other options. If a coalition is established against the Syrian [regime], Turkey will take part in it.”

Exactly how Turkey might take part in airstrikes is not yet clear. The government insists that it has the right to act in self-defence against a hostile neighbour.

In October 2012, following shell fire from Syria, Turkey’s parliament authorised cross-border actions. But there has been no suggestion that the country will choose to carry out significant airstrikes of its own.

Instead, it may be that Turkey’s existing logistical support to the United States, its Nato partner, will count as Turkey’s contribution to an American-led offensive.

In a strike against Syria, the US may benefit from the use of its air base at Incirlik in southern Turkey, only 80 miles from Syrian territory. The airbase’s website promises “a full spectrum of capabilities to the warfighter”.

But Turkey has also expressed some annoyance with the US for what it sees as America’s long-standing reluctance to take tough action against Syria.

Cilvegozu border crossing point on Turkish-Syria frontier, 30 August 2013.
The Turkish government has authorised action across the border in Syrian territory
“One hundred thousand people wouldn’t have died in Syria if the US had done what [Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan said,” the prime minister’s adviser, Yigit Bulut, told local media.

“The world has a leadership problem,” Mr Bulut said. “Today there are two and a half leaders in the world. One is Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the second is Putin and the other half is Obama.”

Mr Bulut suggests that lobbyists in America have reduced Obama to the size of half-leader.

But it is that leader, half or otherwise, that Turkey now trusts to carry out a strike against its enemy in Syria.

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