x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

More than 1,000 Syrian refugees cross into southern Turkey

As Syrian government troops circle town of Jisr al Shughour, Ankara says it is planning for 'disaster scenario' where up to 1.5 million people flee Bashar al Assad's regime.

A woman hangs out clothes at a refugee camp in the border town of Yayladag in Turkey's Hatay province yesterday. The Turkish Red Crescent set up several camps in Yayladag when the first Syrian refugees arrived in April, and now plans to set up more. Osman Orsal / Reuters
A woman hangs out clothes at a refugee camp in the border town of Yayladag in Turkey's Hatay province yesterday. The Turkish Red Crescent set up several camps in Yayladag when the first Syrian refugees arrived in April, and now plans to set up more. Osman Orsal / Reuters

ISTANBUL // The Ankara government has promised to shelter all Syrian refugees despite a wave of more than 1,000 people who entered southern Turkey in the last two days.

Although the bulk of the recent influx has been people fleeing violence in the north-western Syrian town of Jisr al Shughour, Ankara estimates that as many as 1.5 million refugees may eventually arrive.

"We will keep our door open to all our brothers who want to flee from Syria to our country," Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, told Kral TV, a private television station, yesterday.

The prime minister said in his speech that 1,200 Syrian citizens had arrived in Turkey.

"Syria is of concern to us," Mr Erdogan added.

News reports quoting officials in Ankara yesterday put the total number of Syrian refugees in Turkey at about 1,600.

According to the Turkish press, Ankara expects up to 1.5 million Syrian refugees in a "disaster scenario".

The Turkish government has put aside 30 million lira (Dh70m) to pay for humanitarian aid for the refugees, the reports said.

The Turkish military is reported to be looking into creating a security zone along the border where refugees would be vetted before being sent on to camps.

Other reports said the Turkish army might send soldiers into Syria to create a Turkish-controlled haven for civilians.

Similar news reports last month were denied by officials in Ankara.

In his television interview yesterday, Mr Erdogan did not comment on the reports, but confirmed that his government was preparing for a massive influx of refugees.

"The refugee situation could move to Aleppo," the prime minister said. Aleppo, Syria's largest city with more than two million people, is about 50 kilometres south of the Turkish border.

Mr Erdogan said three southern provinces of Turkey, Hatay, Gaziantep and Mardin, could be affected.

The southern Turkish district of Yayladag, 20km from the border, has become the focal point for refugees.

Reports from human rights groups estimate that more than 1,000 protesters have been killed by Turkish authorities. The regime of the Syrian president, Bashar al Assad, which has intensified its crackdowns on the popular revolt that started in March, says that 120 policemen were killed by insurgents in Jisr al Shughour.

Most of the Syrians arriving in Turkey within the last two days had fled from Jisr al Shughour because they feared reprisals by the security forces there, the Turkish news agency Anadolu reported.

Syrian troops encircled the town yesterday, an activist told AP news agency.

Turkey's Red Crescent built several tent cities in Yayladag when the first Syrian refugees arrived in April. With many more Syrians arriving this week, the Red Crescent said it is planning to erect more refugee camps, Anadolu reported.

Syrians coming into the Turkish border village of Guvecc were taken to refugee camps by Turkish soldiers, news reports said.

An influx of refugees from Syria is exactly what Turkey has been trying to avoid in recent weeks. Mr Erdogan and other top politicians repeatedly called on the Assad regime to introduce democratic reforms.

Turkey and Syria share a border of almost 900km, and Turkish officials are concerned that a massive wave of refugees from their neighbour could destabilise the country's south.

Twenty years ago, Turkey was overwhelmed by the arrival of several hundred thousand Kurds from northern Iraq fleeing suppression by the regime of Saddam Hussein. Fighters of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, a rebel group fighting for Kurdish self rule since 1984, entered Turkey with the refugees. The PKK's arrival triggered an upsurge of violence in Turkey's south-eastern region in the 1990s.

This time, Turkey wants to be prepared.

The government in Ankara has so far refrained from calling on Mr Assad to resign, although in recent weeks officials have voiced frustration over the Syria's slow pace of reform.

Last week, Ali Babacan, Mr Erdogan's economic minister and a deputy prime minister in his cabinet, confirmed for the first time that Ankara was talking to the Syrian opposition. Also last week, Ankara allowed several hundred representatives of Syrian opposition groups to gather in the southern Turkish resort of Antalya for a conference.

tseibert@thenational.ae