Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Turkey Hits 'Limit' of Syrian Refugees

The number of Syrian refugees entering Turkey has exceeded Ankara's "psychological limit" of 100,000, officials said, underscoring concerns that the country might not be able to cope with a flow of people that shows no sign of abating.

There are now 100,363 Syrians at 14 camps along the (565-mile border between Turkey and Syria, the Turkish Disaster Management Agency, or Afad, said Monday. They are part of a wave of 300,000 Syrians in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq who have been displaced by the shifting front lines of Syria's conflict. Exposed to the elements and dependent on aid, they are bracing for winter with no signs of an end to the violence in their homeland.

In Turkey, which has seen a dramatic acceleration in the flow of refugees as fighting has intensified in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, the pace of construction of new camps "cannot compete with the level of violence shown by the Syrians," a Turkish foreign ministry official told reporters in Istanbul.

"The 100,000 figure was truly a threshold for us, but we always said it may exceed 100,000," Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters later in the day. "We are now currently working on this issue."

European Union ministers responded Monday to calls from Ankara to do more to help shoulder the growing humanitarian burden, with Berlin and Luxembourg pledging to continue support but declining to offer to help house refugees.

News that the number of refugees has hit six digits—which in the early days of Syria's 19-month-old uprising was touted as the upper limit of what Turkey could accommodate—comes after two weeks of incidents along the border that have brought the onetime allies closer to conflict.

Turkish media was seized by speculation Monday when an Armenian cargo plane carrying humanitarian aid to Syria landed in Turkey to let authorities investigate its cargo. The Armenian plane's arrival in the eastern province of Erzurum triggered reports that Ankara had forced down a second plane destined for Syria, following last week's grounding of an airliner from Moscow that Turkey alleges was carrying "military materials," including ammunition.

The Armenian plane was inspected based on a prior agreement and then allowed to continue its flight, part of Ankara's tougher stance toward Damascus as it seeks to choke support for embattled President Bashar al-Assad.

Mr. Erdogan said Turkey had told its national carrier not to use Syrian airspace immediately after last week's incident. Damascus shut out Turkish flights some days after the incident, Mr. Erdogan said, adding that he instructed the Foreign Ministry to take steps to bar Syrian civilian flights from transiting Turkish airspace. His comments came after Turkey's foreign minister said Sunday that Turkish airspace had been closed to Syrian planes, after Syria on Saturday said it banned Turkish planes from flying over its territory.

Human-rights groups allege that Ankara is preventing thousands of Syrian refugees from entering Turkey, despite their vulnerability to attacks by forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad. Human Rights Watch on Sunday urged Turkey to immediately reopen border crossings where Turkish officials say more than 15,000 Syrians have been stranded for weeks.

Two Turkish foreign-ministry officials denied those claims, stressing that these Syrians have chosen not to cross into Turkey because they know the camps there don't have the capacity to house them. Turkish officials concede, though, that the people seeking shelter on the Syrian side of the border could be at risk of attacks from Syrian government forces.

In towns and villages along the border, activists and smugglers who clandestinely bring refugees into Turkey say Syrian refugees at the border are growing impatient amid indications their wait will be prolonged. Turkish border guards are allowing aid to be taken into Syria but have slowed the number of Syrian civilians they let in, these people say.

Turkish officials are also actively encouraging refugees to stay on the Syrian side by providing aid at designated zones along the so-called zero point that separates the nations. This weekend, Syrian smugglers were allowed to take 100 new tents from Turkey, provided by Syrian donors in Europe, to a makeshift refugee camp in the Syrian border village of Atma. That camp, which has no toilets or other basic amenities, is set up under olive trees in orchards on the Syrian side, making it vulnerable to Syrian air attacks.

"We are planning to keep that camp there as long as there is no immediate security threat," said a Turkish foreign-ministry official near the border. "But in case of serious danger, we will take everyone to Turkey."

Syrian villages and towns near the border have seen an upsurge in violence, feeding fears in Ankara that Syria's conflict could spill onto Turkish soil. Turkey scrambled two fighter jets to the border Friday for the first time since July, after a Syrian military helicopter bombed the Syrian border town of Azmarin. Residents of the nearby Turkish town of Hacipasa have heard booming explosions and the rattle of machine guns from clashes close to the frontier on a daily basis. Turkey has been regularly firing artillery into Syria since Oct. 3, when a Syrian shell killed five civilians in the Turkish town of Akcakale.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar Brahimi, the special diplomatic representative on Syria, appealed to Iran to help secure a cease-fire in Syria. Syria's government had said last week said it wouldn't initiate a unilateral cease-fire until arms stopped flowing to opposition fighters in the country.

Mr. Brahimi, a joint special representative of the U.N. and Arab League on Syria, "has appealed to the Iranian authorities to assist in achieving a cease-fire in Syria during the forthcoming Eid Al-Adha, one of the holiest holidays celebrated by Muslims around the world," his spokesman said.

The envoy visited Iran after trips to Turkey and Saudi Arabia, part of a regional tour to visit countries with influence in the Syrian crisis.

The diplomatic initiative led by Mr. Brahimi's predecessor, Kofi Annan, secured a fleeting cease-fire this spring before unravelling into a widespread armed conflict. Before resigning, Mr. Annan tried to draw Iran into multination talks to try to break the international stalemate on Syria that has pitted most Arab and Western countries against Mr. Assad's supporters—Iran, Russia and China. U.S. officials at the time objected to involving Iran in diplomatic talks.

Also on Monday, Syria's military denied charges that it has used cluster munitions in its fight against rebels. New York-based Human Rights Watch on Saturday said it has collected new evidence that the Syrian air force had recently dropped cluster bombs in the northern province of Idlib, parts of Homs province, the Lattakia countryside, Tal Rifaat in Aleppo and the Eastern Ghouta of Damascus.

"The Syrian Army does not possess such bombs," the army General Command said, according to the state news agency.

For Turkey's government, the growing refugee problem is aggravated by deepening public skepticism about the wisdom of housing so many Syrians inside Turkish territory. Residents in the southern border province of Hatay say that the swell of refugees has contributed to the collapse of the local economy and undermined the tradition of religious harmony in the region.

In a September poll from Metropoll, 66% of respondents said new Syrian refugees should be turned away. More broadly, 52% disapproved of decision to settle Syrians inside the country.

Despite the growing difficulty, many Syrians are still finding ways to cross into Turkey. A man who identified himself as Abu Ahmad, a 42-year-old merchant from Aleppo's Halab Ejdeedeh neighborhood, said he and his family were smuggled into Turkey five days ago by the rebel Free Syrian Army after waiting for two days in a Syrian village.

Having found accommodation for his family in a rented apartment in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli, he says he will now return to Syria to fight alongside the rebels.

"If my wife and my relatives had not insisted so hard, I would have stayed in my own house. I only came to bring them here," he said. "I will go back to Syria soon to join the FSA and fight."

By JOE PARKINSON in Istanbul and AYLA ALBAYRAK in Hatay Province, Turkey

—Nour Malas in Beirut and Emre Peker in Istanbul contributed to this article.