Assad says he needs more time to win war as refugees overwhelm Turkey, Jordan

The waves of Syrian refugees seeking haven in Turkey and Jordan are testing the two countries, putting the oft-discussed idea of creating a 'safe zone' in Syria back on the table.

Muhammed Muheisen/AP
Syrians, who fled their homes due to fighting between the Syrian army and the rebels, shout slogans as they march toward the Turkish side of the border, during a protest asking the Turkish government to let them enter to their refugee camps, at the Bab Al-Salameh border crossing, near the Syrian town of Azaz, Tuesday, Aug. 28.

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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said he is “fighting a battle both regionally and internationally,” and his government needs more time to defeat rebel forces.

Mr. Assad's comments, made in an interview with pro-government al-Dunya TV, coincided with a renewed government effort to regain control of rebel-held areas in northern Syria and renewed interest in the international community in creating a "safe zone" inside Syria.

BBC reports that Assad said his forces were “doing a heroic job in every sense,” and that "Everyone is worried about their country – that is normal. But [the rebels] will not be able to spread fear, they never will."

The interview was reportedly conducted from the presidential palace in Damascus – the first confirmation of Assad's location since a July bombing in the capital killed four of his senior officials.

"I say to Syrians: Destiny is in your hands, and not in the hands of others,” Assad said.

For Syrian refugees, that sentiment may be difficult to grasp. The battle for Aleppo has lasted for more than a month now, and the overall conflict has entered its 18th month. Fighting between the government and rebels has disproportionately affected civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Agence France-Presse reports that, according to the human rights group, 189 people were killed in Syria yesterday, 143 of whom were civilians.

Up to 5,000 refugees have crossed into Turkey every day over the past two weeks, and the number of Syrians fleeing the conflict for a camp in northern Jordan has doubled, reaching 10,200 over the past week, Reuters reports. The United Nations estimates that up to 200,000 Syrian refugees could end up settling in Turkey alone.

Jordan is already sheltering an estimated 150,000 Syrians, some of whom have reported “being bombed as they were trying to cross” the border, according to Voice of America.

A Turkish official told the Associated Press that one of four new camps being built in Turkey opened late yesterday, which allowed Turkish authorities to let in several thousand more Syrians who were waiting at the border.

Parts of the border were temporarily closed this week due to an unmanageable influx of refugees, Reuters reports, and refugees had to be held on the Syrian side overnight. The humanitarian crisis is only expected to grow. 

The overwhelming number of Syrians attempting to enter Turkey and Jordan has renewed international interest in creating “buffer zone” within Syria where refugees can seek haven. Turkey is expected to push for a solution at a UN meeting in New York tomorrow, The Christian Science Monitor reports.

Turkey will press for an internationally-backed solution that allows uprooted Syrians to remain safely on their side of the border not only because Turkey already has received its “threshold” of refugees, regional experts say, but also because Turkey has learned the hard way the consequences of handling a refugee crisis on one’s own.

“Turkey’s lesson from the early 1990s is that if you let a large number of refugees come in, they end up being your problem only,” says Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), referring to when Turkey accepted about a half-million Iraqi-Kurd refugees who were fleeing Saddam Hussein and his gassing of Kurdish communities.

WINEP’s Cagaptay says that in reality, Turkey has a “make-do strategy” under which it is addressing the humanitarian needs of Syrians amassed across the border in what have become undeclared safe zones….

But the makeshift response is not seen as a long-term alternative to the “international legitimacy” that Turkey wants for what are becoming safe zones inside Syria. The international community’s stamp is important not just to reassure Syrians that they are safe remaining on their side of the border, regional experts say, but as a message to Mr. Assad that world powers won’t tolerate any attacks on uprooted Syrians.

In his interview with al-Dunya, however, Assad dismissed any chance of setting up havens to shelter refugees within Syria. “Talk of buffer zones firstly is not on the table and secondly it is an unrealistic idea by hostile countries and the enemies of Syria," he said.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius acknowledged that part of setting up a buffer zone would include creating a no-fly zone and deploying ground forces, according to BBC.

But if Assad feels there are international powers working against him, he can expect continued support from one ally: Iran. Yesterday, Iran publicly stated it will send members of its elite Revolutionary Guard to Syria to help Assad, reports Fox News.

“Today, we are involved in fighting every aspect of a war, a military – one in Syria, and a cultural one as well,” Gen. Salar Abnoush, a Revolutionary Guard commander said in addressing a group of volunteer trainees Monday, as reported by Daneshjoo News Agency, an online pro-regime student-run media platform.

Though many have pointed for quite some time to the symbiotic relationship between Tehran and Damascus, including Iran’s training of Syrian cyber police and sending tactical support and cash, the statement appears to be the Iranian regime’s first public account of military participation in Syria.

This military support comes as many Syrian soldiers defect or declare themselves unwilling to fire their weapons on protesters or suspected rebels.

According to the BBC, Assad mocked government officials and military members who have defected in recent months, saying their actions were a result of “self-cleansing of the government firstly, and the country generally."

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