Syrian refugees continued to stream into Turkey Thursday, fleeing an expected revenge attack from the regime against their town of Jisr al-Shughur.
Even as Syrian forces began encircling the northwest town, Turkey said its border is open to those trying to escape the violence. By dusk Thursday, 2,400 Syrians had crossed into Turkey at this and another illegal crossing nearby.
"They are killing people, I saw that with my own eyes," says one refugee who gave his name as Abu Ali, a young man in sandals and a T-shirt from Jisr al-Shughur who crossed several times in recent weeks.
Of all the revolutions sweeping through the Middle East, none create a starker dilemma for Turkey than the one tearing apart its ally Syria. So while it is responding to the humanitarian needs of Syrian refugees, it is also going to great lengths to shield Syria from further international criticism.
Turkish police and local authorities have been ordered to prevent the refugees from telling of their experiences in a city where fighting in the past week caused the death of 120 Syrian security and policemen, according to Syrian authorities.
A closed-circuit camera has been set up along one side of a long fence around the main refugee camp in the town of Yayladagi. Police whistle and wave off journalists who approach the fence; forbidden also are hospitals, where some 35 Syrians are recovering from bullet and shrapnel wounds.
The Turkish regional governor made a visit, passing along the rolling hills, wheat fields, and olive groves of the border line – and its unofficial crossing points – in a convoy of more than 10 vehicles. He eventually stopped at the refugee camp, some miles away, but then roared past waiting journalists – blue and red lights flashing – without making a comment.
The situation could not be more different than the openness displayed by Turkey regarding Iranian refugees in 2009, and even wounded Libyan refugees brought to Turkey for urgent medical treatment, when some journalists were escorted into their presence in government limousines.
Why Syria is different
For years, Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has worked to strengthen ties with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose government is now being vilified across the globe for a vicious crackdown that rights activists say have claimed 1,300 lives.
The two leaders refer to each other as "brother," and speak regularly on the phone – most recently on Wednesday. But Syria's dictatorship bears little resemblance to Turkey's democratic system, which sees another test during a general election next Sunday.
Turkey has sought to present itself as a democratic role model across the region – one that takes the side of people power and justice every time. But the contradictions of that policy await the Syrian refugees as they cross the border.
The Syrians who have fled have much to say, and appear eager to do so if not identified.
Abu Ali, who has avoided the refugee camp, says two of his relatives were wounded in protests in the town but disappeared after they went to the hospital. Grim stories are on his mind, creating a profound fear shared by many refugees.
"The military is moving in to kill the people; they are there to intimidate the people – otherwise we wouldn't run away. It has turned into a blood feud, so it is very deep," he says. "Until Assad goes, it will only get worse. They are pressing and torturing the people, because they fear Assad will lose his power."
And if that happens, Turkey is likely to lose some face.
Faint advice from Turkey
Mr. Erdogan stated Wednesday that Turkey would "keep our doors open to all Syrians seeking refuge," while Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Turkey had "serious concerns about the situation in Syria." Syria must act "more decisively" on political reforms long-promised by Assad, Mr. Davutoglu added.
But that was faint advice from a nation that has increasingly thrown around its diplomatic weight in recent years, a NATO ally that has become a regional player that has taken on Israel and become closer to Iran.
Turkey's promising diplomatic future appears at risk just 12 miles across the border, where Jisr al-Shughur braces for a new level of retaliation from the regime. Syrian government forces are encircling the town to exact "decisive" revenge for the death of 120 security and police forces during what Damascus called an "ambush" by armed gangs.
Eyewitnesses quoted by wire agencies spoke of a military column of 60 transporters with tanks and armored vehicles, and 10 trucks loaded with soldiers, departed from the city of Aleppo and headed toward Jisr al-Shughur.
Syrian officials have vowed to strike "decisively" against the town. The pro-Assad newspaper Al-Watan reported that the military was now ready to launch an offensive in the province that would last for days. An Associated Press description said the report claimed the military would be battling 2,000 armed gunmen.
Residents were fleeing the area "to give the Syrian army a chance to enter all areas and confront the gunmen."
UN criticizes Syria's actions
Such threats are coming against a background of rising international pressure on Syria.
"We are receiving an increasing number of alarming reports pointing to the Syrian government's continuing efforts to ruthlessly crush civilian protests," said Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, today. "It is utterly deplorable for any government to attempt to bludgeon its population into submission, using tanks, artillery and snipers."
The problem for Turkey's government is clear in the fine words used to create this alliance in the past.
At a joint press conference in late 2009 in Damascus, for example, Erdogan said: "Syria is our gate to the Middle East, and it is our second home as Turkey is the second home for the Syrians and Syria's gate to Europe."
Assad claimed that the 51 bilateral agreements signed at the meeting would redraw the map of the Middle East, and the two nations had "become ... an example to be followed of brotherly ties between the two people's and countries."
Assad hailed the "strong and common will that we have possessed [to make] joint future."
Praising Erdogan, Assad was speaking for both leaders when he said "whoever respects himself and his homeland gains the support of his people ... and he who uses his cards above the table, not under that table ... gains the respect of the world."