Syrian refugees June 17, 2011 (Reuters)
Syrian refugees in a camp in Turkey's Hatay Province, near the border, this week. Photo by Reuters
Text size

HACIPASA, on the Turkish-Syrian border - A group of men sat on a dirt mound Sunday and watched quietly as final touches were applied to the tent camp outside the town of Hacipasa, to which they were evacuated two hours earlier. They still haven't come to terms with the fact that suddenly, without warning, their status has been radically altered, and they have no idea when they will see their homes again. Weeks? Months? Years?

The packs of cigarettes beside them are still from Syria and carry a health warning in Arabic. By tomorrow they will have to switch to Turkish cigarettes. In the meantime, they feel the new situation above all as an affront. They are not political activists, certainly not professional demonstrators. But they are very angry at their president, Bashar Assad, for having caused them to lose their homes in Jisr al-Shughour and forcing them to flee across the border.

They would not have considered demonstrating against him for ideological reasons. "It started with them arriving in the city from outside, on Monday, with two busloads of Assad supporters carrying his pictures and demanding that we take part in a march of support," Moussa Abdu says. "They also brought in soldiers, but the people just weren't ready for that. So they started shooting."

The demonstrations in Daraa three months ago, which marked the start of the bloody clashes in Syria's outlying cities, started in much the same way. The police arrested a few children, aged 10 through 12, who had scrawled graffiti slogans on walls. Their clan reacted with furious demonstrations, and from there the situation deteriorated into a violent struggle, and army units were sent in to perpetrate a massacre in the southern city.

The opposition groups and the intellectuals in the major cities of Damascus and Aleppo have not yet succeeded in getting more than a few thousand demonstrators into the streets. The massive events took place in the provincial cities, where the arrogant behavior of the security forces and the Assad supporters enraged entire populations.

After having pitted themselves against soldiers and police, lost relatives and in some cases all their property as well, even now the new refugees say they do not know who they want to see in power in Syria or which regime they would prefer over the Baath, which has ruled for more than four decades. "All we want is to go back to our homes and to be rid of the cursed Bashar," is the kind of thing they say.

Zero problems

The inhabitants of Jisr al-Shughour and neighboring villages who fled from their homes last weekend are not the only ones who have no idea what kind of Syria they would like to see on the day after. Their Turkish hosts are also becoming increasingly perplexed. Logistically, the response to the sudden influx of thousands of refugees was quick and efficient: Within less than a week, five organized tent camps have begun to operate in the border area. The Turkish Red Crescent erected hundreds of tents with thousands of mattresses and set up latrines and showers. The lessons from the major earthquake of October 1999, which left more than half a million people homeless, appear to have been learned well.

Less clear is the political and diplomatic response. Until Sunday, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was still preoccupied with an election campaign. In border villages, the campaign produced, among other benefits, new roads that were paved with uncanny timing . The campaign focused on domestic policy, the economy and the dispute over the proposed new constitution, but it was clear that this was not the appropriate time to admit that the policy of "zero problems with the neighbors," which Erdogan has pursued over the past eight years (preferring ties with Syria and Iran to the strategic alliance with Israel ), is no longer relevant in the era of Arab revolutions.

Despite the sharp criticism of the suppression of the demonstrations in Syria voiced last week by Erdogan, his government's handling of the refugees so far has reduced the damage to the Syrian regime. The Turks prevented a humanitarian disaster by setting up the refugee camps. They also tried to spare Assad a publicity debacle, by prohibiting journalists from entering the camps. That turned out to be ineffective, as hundreds of reporters from around the world descended on Hatay Province and were able to get to enough refugees, who for the first time provided eyewitness accounts of the events in Syria.

Immediately after the election, signs appeared of a change in Turkey's policy. On Monday, after senior officials from the Foreign Ministry and from Erdogan's office met to discuss the subject, one of the participants told the newspaper Hurriyet that "Turkey will continue to have dialogue with Syria, but Syria's attitude will decide our approach."

Hatay Province was annexed to Turkey in 1939, in a move that Syria disputes to this day. The Turks are a small majority in the region and hold the key governmental and economic positions in the big cities. However, many in the border villages speak Arabic (even though, as part of the heritage of the republic's founder, Kemal Ataturk, that language does not appear on signs ) and are related to families in villages on the Syrian side.

It is difficult to ignore the patronizing and supercilious attitude of the Turkish majority toward the refugees. "Uncivilized Arabs," snorted a driver who took journalists from the provincial capital of Antakya (Antioch ) to the border. "You are ungrateful," a Health Ministry official screamed at refugees who tried to speak with reporters despite the ban imposed on them. "Look what we did for you."

Despite Erdogan's efforts to improve relations, many Turks apparently still long for the period of the Ottoman Empire, when Damascus was a provincial capital. The undermining of the Assad dynasty and the spread of violence toward the borders affords Turkey another opportunity to influence Syria's fate.

This is an opportunity that Erdogan, who this week was given another four years in power, is unlikely to pass up. The open borders and the absence of tension with Turkey's neighbors to the east were a boon to the rapid development of his country's economy. Turkey barely felt the effects of the global recession and is dotted with massive construction projects. The Turks have a direct interest in shaping the new regime that will eventually arise in Syria. If they allow the emerging Syrian opposition to operate in the refugee camps or in a secure buffer zone on the border, they will be able to regulate the pace of the revolution.

Skinheads

The big unknown at the moment about the situation in Syria is how far Assad and his close circle are in control of the army and the security forces. Many refugees have shared stories about exchanges of fire between soldiers loyal to the regime and others who refused to shoot at civilians and, in some cases, joined them.

This was apparently the background to the Syrian government's reports of 120 soldiers who were supposedly murdered by "armed gangs" in Jisr al-Shughour. The army and police units that arrived to quell the uprising last Friday had escorts. According to some of the refugees who spoke with reporters in Turkey, they were "bearded men who did not speak Arabic," probably Iranian advisers, though most of the reports refer to young skinheads with thin beards wearing baseball caps.

The Shabiha - a militia of young men from the Alawi sect, which is ruled by the Assad family - were active in the 1980s and 1990s and were also involved in organized crime. They were supposedly disbanded when Bashar Assad took power, as part of the ostensible liberalization he carried out. Now it turns out that the Shabiha have returned to the arena big-time. "The Shabiha were behind the soldiers," says Mohamed Hasrawi, a 26-year-old student from Jisr al-Shughour. "They were there to shoot soldiers who refused to shoot civilians." Other refugees related that the Shabiha burned wheat fields in the villages and raped women who remained in them. These are the people on whom Assad is now relying in order to retain his grip on power.