Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 February 2020

Syria's war threatens to engulf Turkish border towns

The war is threatening to engulf Turkey and those in the line of fire are apprehensive, worried and critical of government responses. Justin Vela reports from south-eastern Turkey

HACIPASA, Turkey // "We are afraid, but where do we go?" said Abdul Fatah, 80, who lives in a Turkish town directly on the border with Syria.

As he speaks, the sound of explosions and machine gunfire could be heard a short distance away where a fierce battle was being fought between rebels and forces loyal to the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad.

"We have seen many dead people," he said. "We see everything. We are not happy."

Mr Fatah is among the Turkish citizens frustrated with their government's policies towards Syria following cross-border shelling and increased clashes in the frontier region. There is little appetite for war and some fear the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is endangering the lives of citizens with its support for rebels fighting the regime of Mr Al Assad.

Hayretin Yildiz, 32, said he was so "angry" with the conflict on his doorstep in the town of Hacipasa that, for the past months, he had been crossing the border to fight with the Syrian rebels.

"My friends are there now. I go tonight," said Mr Yildiz, whose mother is Syrian. "I want to go, I go helping alone. We are sorting it out amongst ourselves. I don't want Nato or Turkey to enter Syria."

Earlier this month, five Turkish civilians were killed in the south-eastern border village of Akcakale in cross-border shelling that the Syrian regime claimed was targeting rebels. Several more shells have hit Turkish territory in recent days. Each time, the Turkish military has responded with retaliatory shelling.

Further signs of increasing tensions include Turkey scrambling two fighter jets to the border on Friday and forcing a Syrian plane to land in Ankara on suspicions it was transporting weapons. In response, Syria yesterday banned Turkish passenger flights from its airspace.

In turn, Turkey banned Syrian flights. Turkish citizens living in the border area don't agree on how Turkey can best counter their growing sense of insecurity, but said the possibility of war leaves them apprehensive. "I want to start fighting," said a man in a teashop in Altinozu, a south-western Turkish town about 30km from the border.

"Everyday, bomb, bomb, why?" the man said. "I don't sleep. Every night, bomb, bomb."

Although he was a supporter of the AKP, he said he was frustrated with the Syrians who had fled to Turkey and were housed in a camp in Altinozu.

He had worked in the camp when it first opened over a year ago and had heard Syrians talking about how they wanted countries such as Turkey to intervene in Syria.

"This made me angry," he said. "We give food, we give clothing. They make a plan, it [the refugee crisis] is a game for Turkey [to be pulled into the conflict]." Although his experience is a sign of the Turkish frustration, the combative attitude is not the norm in Turkey.

According to a poll conducted this summer by the Institute of Strategic Thinking nearly 60 per cent of Turks oppose Turkey becoming involved militarily in Syria, despite security concerns along the border.

"We already have a war [with Kurdish militants] on our hands," said Soli Ozel, a professor of international relations at Istanbul's Kadir Has University.

"The country does not want to get involved in any other wars."

While support for the government's Syria policies was slim, Prof Ozel did not think it would suffer a major loss of overall popularity.

The government might have even won points with more nationalist Turks for the retaliatory shelling and forcing the Syrian plane down, he said.

Still, most Turks want to avoid being sucked into the 19-month conflict in Syria because they see it as a problem Syrians should settle themselves, said Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Istanbul-based Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies. "AKP was already suffering before the shelling," Mr Ulgen said. "There was a gap between the government's more aggressive position on Syria and the majority feeling among the Turkish population that Syria is a problem for the Syrians and that Turkey should not intervene."

In the village of Guvecci, which has been hit by fire from Syria several times, residents said that they were happy the rebels had recently pushed regime forces back away from the border.

The shelling could "come to any home", said one man, who did not want to be identified. The government is "not doing enough to keep people safe".

The Turkish government's only concern was "which one wins" in Syria, he said.

"We don't want to go and fight Assad's army, for what? We are like a brother country."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

Updated: October 15, 2012 04:00 AM

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