Tuesday, October 9, 2012

And still the Syrians keep coming

On Sunday, Uday Fandi was helping to run the family stall in a bustling street market in northern Syria. Yesterday, the 13-year-old boy lay semi-conscious and clinging to life, his shattered body swathed in white bandages.

One of President Bashar al-Assad’s jet fighters had dropped a bomb on the crowded market in the town of Manbij. Uday’s father, Ibrahim, carried the boy on an agonising journey over the border into Turkey, where he lay in a hospital bed. “He was still bleeding when we arrived here,” said Mr Fandi. “He was bleeding for the whole journey.”

Compared with the cauldron that much of Syria has become, Mr Fandi and his son have found relative safety in the Turkish frontier town of Kilis. Yet their country’s war may still pursue them here. For Syria’s bloodshed is inexorably spilling over the nation’s borders, vindicating a grim prophecy made by Kofi Annan. Back in June, the former United Nations secretary general predicted that Syria’s rebellion would not be contained in the way that other insurrections against brutal regimes had been. “Syria is not Libya,” said Mr Annan. “It will not implode – it will explode.”

People living along Turkey’s 500-mile border with Syria know the truth of this forecast. The era when Mr Assad’s pitiless struggle claimed the lives of the innocent only within his bloodstained domain has clearly ended. Instead, his campaign has escalated beyond civil conflict and is rapidly becoming a regional war. To adopt Mr Annan’s parlance, Syria is indeed “exploding” before our eyes.

The most poignant proof is offered by the remains of a modest family home in Turkey’s border town of Akçakale. Here, the walls are pockmarked by shards of jagged shrapnel, showing where a Syrian mortar bomb killed five Turkish civilians, including a mother and her three daughters.

In the aftermath of this tragedy last Wednesday, some observers – including Western diplomats in Ankara – predicted that Turkey and Syria would draw back and quietly de-escalate the situation. Instead, cross-border bombardment has become a daily event. Yesterday, the Syrian army was at it again, firing mortar rounds into the Turkish province of Hatay and causing its neighbour to retaliate in kind. This was Syria’s third such attack on Turkish territory since the Akçakale killings, although mercifully with no further casualties so far.

In the first nine months of 2012, Syrian shells or mortar bombs are known to have exploded inside Turkey on seven occasions. In the past six days alone, there have been four such barrages. That stark contrast suggests that greater forces are at work than overzealous or reckless local commanders.

Today, the rebel Free Syrian Army dominates a swath of territory along the country’s northern frontier with Turkey. That matters a great deal, because the insurgents also control formal border crossings, through which they are able to move recruits, weapons and supplies. Mr Assad’s options for dealing with this threat are extremely limited. He could launch a ground assault on the rebel zone of control, but his overstretched army, heavily engaged in a vicious battle of attrition in the streets of Aleppo, probably lacks the troops for the task.

That leaves him with two options: either turn a blind eye to the FSA’s dominance of Syria’s borderlands, or pound this region with mortars and artillery – even if this means that shells and bombs fly over the frontier into Turkey. The daily round of cross-border bombardment suggests that Mr Assad has chosen the latter option. Instead of a series of mistakes, the most plausible explanation for the attacks on Turkish soil is that Syria’s dictator has consciously decided to escalate.

This should not have come as a surprise. At every stage of this conflict, Mr Assad has shown himself willing to cast aside the restraints on his campaign to save his regime. The air raids that his jet fighters now mount on rebel-held towns provide the most graphic evidence. For the first year of the uprising, Syria’s Russian-supplied MiG and Sukhoi attack aircraft remained firmly on the ground; now they are in action day after day.
The next logical step would be for Syrian commanders to commence long-range bombardments of rebel-held territory, regardless of the risk of hitting Turkey. In the past six days, that phase of Mr Assad’s campaign appears to have begun. In the process, more and more people are being forced from their homes. Syria is not only “exploding”, in the literal sense that dangerous projectiles are being lobbed into a neighbour; the country is also expelling enough of its citizens to strain the tolerance and hospitality of other states.

Turkey now hosts about 93,000 registered Syrian refugees in 13 camps, but at least another 40,000 or 50,000 are undocumented and probably staying with relations or renting their own accommodation. Last week there was a street demonstration against the new arrivals in Hatay province, where many people are from the same Alawite sect as Mr Assad and resent the largely Sunni refugees.

So far, that does not reflect the general mood in Turkey. In Kilis, a camp holds about 13,000 refugees and many are grateful for the safety and hospitality provided by the country. “I feel myself a human being here,” said Sahada Allavi, 40, who fled Syria five months ago. “If they see one piece of rubbish near the place where I stay, they clear it.”

The refugees in Kilis are not consigned to tents; instead, families share temporary, prefabricated houses. They have all the food they need, schools for their children and a weekly allowance of £6 per head. Syrians and Turks are bound together by ties of kinship and, for the most part, shared loyalty to Sunni Islam.
“We must thank the Turkish people because they have shown us great hospitality from the beginning,” said Mohammed Bakor, who arrived three months ago. “We have no problem with them.”

None the less, danger signals are already present. Kilis camp has been placed in an isolated location, safely away from the town and directly beside the Syrian border. All refugees have freedom of movement, but a high fence and watchtowers surround the camp, suggesting that Turkey is retaining the options of sealing them off or sending them back.

Meanwhile, Turkey has quietly ended its policy of accepting unlimited numbers of fugitives. Today, the country will only admit as many refugees as the established camps have the space to house. Perhaps 10,000 people are now believed to be waiting on the Syrian side of the border for new places to become available.
The authorities keep a close watch on the refugees in Kilis – and they are not above issuing threats to move them to a less well-equipped camp. “They say, 'If you make any problems, we will send you to Urfa camp, where there are only tents,’ ” said one refugee. “They always say that.” The 42-year-old man pointed out that winter was approaching and he would not want to expose his children to its full harshness with no shelter but a tent.

While the outflow of refugees has been manageable so far, this may not persist indefinitely. And the United Nations believes that more and more Syrians will flee: its latest plan assumes 710,000 refugees in all neighbouring countries by the end of this year – more than double the present number.

If the tensions are detectable with 93,000 registered refugees in Turkey, how great will they be if twice that number are present? And what if they stay indefinitely?

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prickly and emotional prime minister, was the first regional leader to urge Mr Assad’s downfall. With every shell that lands on its territory and every refugee that arrives, Turkey’s national interest in toppling Syria’s regime becomes more compelling.

So far, Mr Erdogan’s response to the attacks on his country’s soil has been measured: Turkish artillery has retaliated for Syrian bombardments in a proportionate and restrained way. But Turkey is already waging a covert war against Mr Assad by providing bases and supplies to the FSA rebels.

As the conflict spills over the frontier, the question arises: for how long will this de facto cross-border war remain undeclared? As Syria “explodes” in accordance with Mr Annan’s prophecy, every neighbour risks being hit by the debris.