TURKISH-SYRIAN BORDER – Despite the flow of tens of thousands of Syrian refugees toward the Turkish border, fleeing the advancing forces of President Bashar Assad’s regime in the northern province of Aleppo, Turkey’s government is still refusing to open the crossing at Bab al-Salam.
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Instead, the official Turkish aid agency is moving convoys of trucks carrying tents and building materials into Syria. This strengthens the assessment of refugee groups and international aid organizations that the Turks intend to create a buffer zone on Syrian soil – for the first time since the Syrian civil war began in 2011. Such a move would challenge the international community, and especially the Western powers who have so far refrained from acting on the ground in Syria, to provide protection for what could become a safe haven.
In a briefing to the Turkish press on Saturday, the governor of Kilis province, just across the border, said Turkey would aid the refugees in Syrian territory and allow them to enter only in case of an “extraordinary crisis.”
Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus, meanwhile, said Sunday that Turkey “has reached the end of its capacity to absorb [refugees].”
Until now, Turkey and the Western governments have refused to guarantee the security of Syrian refugees on their own soil or to enforce a no-fly zone that would protect them from aerial bombardments.
The situation became even more complicated following the Russian deployment in Syria last fall: Russian warplanes, in the service of the Assad regime, control the airspace right up to the border. Turkey is now challenging not only the West but also Russia, which has become its bitter rival.
Aid organizations assess that in the Azaz enclave by the border, which has come under attack in the last few days, there are at least 70,000 civilians, some already displaced from other parts of Syria.
Around 600,000 civilians still remain in the eastern part of Aleppo, still under rebel control. The Syrian army, reinforced by Shi’ite militias under Iranian command, has almost completed its encirclement of the city. Regime forces cut off the road to the Turkish border last Wednesday. There is only one circuitous route out of Aleppo to the Idlib region in northwest Syria, which is also under threat. The other remaining exit is a 30-kilometer (19-mile) trek on foot to the closed Turkish border.
“You can understand the Turks,” says one aid organization employee. “If they open the border, there will be a huge surge of people from Aleppo desperate to leave while it’s still possible.”
Refugees already on the Turkish side have related how Turkey’s army deployed additional forces in recent days to prevent Syrians crossing over illegally. In order to cross now, smugglers are demanding upward of $400 per person. In addition to the aid convoys, the Turkish government has also sent riot police armed with water cannons to the Bab al-Salam crossing. Their official assessment is that there are already some 35,000 refugees at the border and a similar number on the way.
A senior official from one of the aid organizations, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, “The Turks are afraid of more ISIS members coming in with the refugees, and they want to [protest] to the West, which won’t allow the refugees to continue into Europe.”
In the last two days, most of the rebel groups in Aleppo have united to fight against the regime forces closing in on them. Meanwhile, its residents have to make a choice between remaining in the city or taking what could be their last opportunity to leave and making the dangerous journey to Idlib or the border area in the hope they will be safe there. However, no one is guaranteeing their immunity from Russian bombings, which have already taken place close to the border in recent days.
Syrian refugees in Kilis speak of the impossible dilemmas facing their families who remained behind. “My parents in Azaz are surrounded on three sides: by the regime, ISIS and the YPG [the Syrian branch of the Kurdish PKK organization, which is now receiving support from Russia and Iran],” says Mohammed Wisse, a student who arrived from Aleppo four months ago. “The Turks won’t let them enter, and what can they do? They don’t have money to pay the smugglers,” he adds.
Another young man from Aleppo, Abdel Halim Salam, works in a Kilis coffee shop. He says his brothers remained behind “and for now they will stay there, because at least in their part of Aleppo the rebels are still in control – so that may be better.” But the main fear is that the regime forces will just mount a siege, as they did in other places, and try to starve them into surrender.
Even for those who have made it over the border, there are few options. The Turkish authorities are making it increasingly difficult for the refugees to continue onward to Istanbul, where they believe there is more work. The population of Kilis before the Syrian war began was estimated at some 100,000 and has doubled over the past five years with the arrival of refugees. They are, of course, grateful for sanctuary, but jobs are scarce.
Entire extended families have been living for nearly five years in the large refugee camp the Turkish Red Crescent established at the start of the civil war. Mohammed Sayadi, who has been living there since 2011 with his children and grandchildren, says proudly that they managed to gather the necessary funds to send two sons to Germany and Austria, and hope they will soon find jobs there and began sending money back to their families.
But many are not capable of spending the money needed to make the long trip to Europe, which usually costs at least 2,000 euros ($2,230) – a significant part of which goes to the smugglers who take the refugees on leaky boats from Izmir to the Greek islands.
Elderly parents also need their sons to act as translators in a new and alien land. Ahmed Assan, 18, speaks proudly of how he boards the bus from the Kilis camp each day in search of job opportunities. Today, he was carrying small bottles of perfume, smuggled in from Syria, that he was hoping to sell. “I translate for my family from Turkish to Arabic,” says the boy who missed all his high-school education. “Maybe I’ll succeed in also learning English and German, but for now I can only dream of going to Germany,” he adds, his father sitting quietly behind him.
Only a few months ago, when a million Syrian refugees began their journey to Europe, they were singing the praises of Germany and its chancellor, Angela Merkel, for opening their country’s gates. Now they speak bitterly about her and her demands of Turkish President Recep Tayyep Erdogan to keep the refugees in Turkey and out of Europe. Erdogan is the only one who cares for the Syrian people, they say.
Even when they stand at the border crossing, imploring the Turks to open the gates, it is the Europeans they blame for making the Turkish president block their passage.