Syrian refugees are flooding camps on the Turkish and Lebanese borders as their government continues to meet protesters with violent repression. The Turkish Red Crescent has reported that over 11,000 Syrians currently reside in Turkish refugee camps, and CBS estimated that around 10,000 more refugees are living on the Syrian side of the border.
According to a New York Times article, refugee camps are woefully undersupplied and unprepared to deal with the massive influx of sick and wounded. Yet these camps often represent the only safe alternative for Syrians fleeing hometowns ensnared in the government crackdown, which has left some 1,400 dead and 10,000 imprisoned.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, Syrians who have fled to neighboring countries recall the terror inflicted upon their villages by pro-regime forces. Many sport gunshot wounds as evidence, while others whisper of homes burned and bulldozed. Democracy Now reported that the Syrian military, led by President Bashar al-Assad’s infamous brother Maher, has pursued a “scorched earth” policy. Neil Sammonds, the Syria researcher for Amnesty International, in a Turkish border village, told Democracy Now that, “livestock is being slaughtered, the crops have been burned, food has been burned, water supply has been contaminated.”
Women on both borders have repeatedly testified to the use of rape as a terror tactic, saying that many flee women out of fear for their honor. Though raped women are sometimes killed in Syria to protect their family’s honor, the Washington Post reported that a group of men from an attacked village called Jisr al-Shoughour have agreed to marry rape victims.
Such human rights abuses are not limited to women, however. Reports have circulated indicating the widespread and indiscriminant use of torture against civilians. NPR interviewed one Syrian activist arrested by the mukhabarat, the Syrian secret police, whose torture began with cable whips and ended with near paralysis.
In a public address last Tuesday, President Bashar al-Assad called for national dialogue and a return to stability, saying, “I call on each person or family who left their city or village to come back as soon as possible, and I affirm the support of the Syrian government for the people who left Jisr al-Shughour and the surrounding villages to Turkey.”
Since these remarks were broadcast, tanks full of pro-regime troops have been sent to the Turkish and Lebanese borders, attempting to force refugees to return to their homes. Though Syrian news agencies reported no violence in these proceedings, BBC reported two civilians shot dead in a town near the Lebanese border.
Thus far, Turks have offered sympathy and support to the thousands of Syrians flooding into their territory. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the Syrian regime’s violent response to protesters “savagery” in a June 10 interview, saying that Damascus was perpetrating an atrocity against its citizens. Some analysts surmise, however, that the divisions between the Syrian populous and its governance pose a quandary for the recently re-elected Turkish minster, who has pursued a ‘zero problems’ policy with neighboring states but also wishes to act as a voice for human rights in the Muslim world.
The three-month-old Syrian movement for change could tip the delicate balance of peace and cooperation between Turkey and Syria. Relations between the two countries remained cold for decades due to disputes concerning borders, water control, and Kurdish political groups. In recent years, however, the Turkish-Syrian relationship has opened up through a free-trade agreement signed in 2004, and in 2009 the two countries launched a symbolic joint military exercise.
Yet with Syrian forces now amassing at the Turkish border in villages such as Khirbet al-Jouz, officials in Ankara have kept an increasingly watchful eye. Initially, Turkish border patrols moved several hundred feet away from the border to avoid confrontation, however the Jerusalem Post reported that Erdogan convened a meeting with top security officials and foreign ministers to formulate a plan of action in the event of a confrontation. Jordanian analyst Salameh Nematt of the regional communications consultancy Pillar Seven reportedly predicted a turnabout in the Turkish-Syrian relationship.
“You see how Turkey has turned around 180 degrees,” said Nematt. “The relations have turned sour, with Turkey calling for the ouster of the regime.”
While Turkey prepares itself to defend human rights at the cost of its foreign relations and the EU continues to slap sanctions on Syria, the Obama administration’s response has remained hesitant. After a public speech in which the President called for Assad to “allow peaceful protests,” the administration fielded criticism from the Washington Post and others, who called on Obama to take a stronger stance for human rights. The Turkish English-language newspaper Hurriyet News reported that Obama and Erdogan have been in communication regarding policy on Syria in the past weeks, a move that holds promise for future interventions.
So far, however, only the goodwill ambassador for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Angelina Jolie, has taken a strong stance. Two weeks ago the Hollywood celebrity brought toys and media attention to Syrian children in a Turkish refugee camp. Apparently Obama has adopted the policy: “speak softly and carry a big movie star.”
Ariana is a rising senior at Tufts University majoring in Peace and Justice Studies and English.