Fearing spillover, Turkey closes border with Syria as Aleppo braces for war

Thousands of Syrian troops are headed toward Aleppo, where rebels have taken over some neighborhoods. Many Syrians never expected the fighting to reach the regime stronghold.

By , Staff writer

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    In this image made from amateur video released by the Ugarit News and accessed Tuesday, July 24, a Free Syrian Army soldier fires his weapon during clashes with Syrian government troops in Aleppo, Syria. Turkey sealed its border with Syria to trucks on Wednesday, July 25, cutting off a vital supply line to the embattled nation as fighting stretched into its fifth day in the commercial capital of Aleppo.
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Turkey closed its border with Syria today to all but refugees as violence gripped the northern commercial city of Aleppo for the fifth day.

Today’s closure will seal the only three border gates that remain open along the 566-mile border, closing off important supply routes into Syria, according to local newspaper National Turk. Rebel and regime forces have fought fiercely for control of the border posts; the closure follows the rebels recently wresting control of two border posts from government troops, Agence France-Presse reports.

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Zafer Caglayan, the Turkish economy minister, told the Associated Press that "dozens of Turkish trucks were either looted or torched" during a clash last week in which rebels took over border crossing of Bab al-Hawa and, in the last year, Turkish truck drivers have been regularly targeted or caught in the middle of fighting. Rebels frequently smuggle weapons and other materials across the border and they control a substantial amount of territory on the Syrian side. 

“We have serious concerns over the safety of Turkish trucks regarding their entry and return from Syria,” Mr. Caglayan said. The number of tracks traveling from Turkey to Syria dropped 87 percent this year, he told the Post.

Rebels poured into Aleppo, a former regime stronghold, over the weekend. The city, the wealthiest in Syria and the country's commercial capital, is 40 miles from the Turkish border. Now the government is fighting to regain control. Helicopters fired down into some neighborhoods as Syrian troops fought rebel fighters in the streets throughout the night and into this morning, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told AFP.

Many Syrians had held out hope that the violence, which has entered its 17th month, wouldn’t seep into its two major cities, Damascus and Aleppo.

The New York Times reports:

Damascus and Aleppo had been the two significant holdouts in the fighting that has gradually engulfed the rest of Syria since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011. But now the whole country is inflamed. Guerrillas from the loosely affiliated Free Syrian Army launched major assaults in both cities via sympathetic, anti-regime neighborhoods in the two cities, which vie for the title of the oldest urban centers on earth.

Much is at stake. Whoever controls the two jewels-in-the-crown controls Syria.

City residents told the Times that today was calm, aside from the helicopters overhead, but rebels say the government sent thousands of troops, as well as tanks, toward Aleppo today. Rebels tried to destroy or contain some of the tanks coming from Idlib Province, but some got through. Rebels have sent reinforcements of their own to Syria’s second-largest city. 

As is the case in Damascus, where the Assad regime is slowly retaking control of the city from rebel fighters after they took over much of the city last week, rebel gains in Aleppo may begin to fade as well, reports the Times.

But US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said it’s important not to let this happen because rebel gains in Aleppo could “enable them to set up a safe haven inside Syria," according to AFP. 

“We have to work closely with the opposition because more and more territory is being taken and it will eventually result in a safe haven inside Syria which will then provide a base for further actions by the opposition," she said.

"We do believe that it is not too late for the Assad regime to commence with planning for a transition to find a way that ends the violence."

Few are voicing such optimistic outlooks. In his New York Times column today, Thomas Friedman compares Syria to Iraq.

"[T]he chances of this best-of-all-possible outcomes is low. That’s because Syria is a lot like Iraq. Indeed, Syria is Iraq’s twin – a multisectarian, minority-ruled dictatorship that was held together by an iron fist under Baathist ideology."

But unlike Iraq, the US and likely no other third party country will step into the fray to wrangle the Syrian conflict, he says.

"Since it is highly unlikely that an armed, feared and trusted midwife will dare enter the fray in Syria, the rebels on the ground there will have to do it themselves."

An estimated 30 people were reported killed in Syria today, including six in Aleppo, according to opposition activists and the Local Coordination Committees of Syria. As of June 2012, some 78,000 people are estimated to have fled Syria for neighboring Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Close to 25,000 are registered refugees with the Turkish government.

A Turkish official told the AFP that the border closing is an “open-ended measure and the reopening depends on the developments on the ground."

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