x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Syrians pour across border into Turkey after Assad crackdown

Arab governments, unusually supportive of Nato intervention in Libya, have been silent in the face of Syria's crackdown, fearing that the alternative to Mr al Assad would be chaos.

A Syrian refugee in a refugee camp in the Turkish border town of Boynuegin yesterday. Osman Orsal / Reuters
A Syrian refugee in a refugee camp in the Turkish border town of Boynuegin yesterday. Osman Orsal / Reuters

BEIRUT // Syrians poured across the border yesterday to refugee camps in Turkey, fleeing a military crackdown that sent elite forces backed by helicopters and tanks into a northern town that was spinning out of government control.

Troops led by President Bashar al Assad's brother regained control of Jisr al Shughour on Sunday, sending in tanks and helicopter gunships after shelling the town. But residents were still terrified; more than 6,000 Syrians have sought sanctuary in Turkey, nearly all of them in the past few days from Idlib province.

In Guvecci, Turkey, two Syrian refugees gave a bleak picture of life across the frontier.

"There are 7,000 people across the border; more and more women and children are coming toward the barbed wires," said Abu Ali, who left Jisr al Shughour. "Jisr is finished. It is razed."

Turkey's prime minister has accused the Assad regime of "savagery" but also said he would reach out to the Syrian leader to help solve the crisis.

Arab governments, which were unusually supportive of Nato intervention in Libya, have been silent in the face of Syria's crackdown, fearing that the alternative to Mr al Assad would be chaos. The country has a potentially explosive sectarian mix and is seen as a regional powerhouse with influence on events in neighbouring Israel, Lebanon and Iraq.

A reported mutiny in Jisr al Shughour posed one of the most serious threats to the Assad regime since protests against his rule began in mid-March. Mr al Assad has made some concessions, but thousands of people demonstrating weekly, inspired by protests in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere, say they will not stop until he leaves power.

The Local Coordination Committees, a group that documents the protests, said government snipers have killed at least 10 people in the nearby village of Ariha in the past two days.

Syria's government has said 500 members of the security forces have died, including 120 last week in Jisr al Shughour, although it has denied a mutiny. More than 1,400 Syrians have died and 10,000 have been detained in the government crackdown since mid-March, activists say.

Two of the refugees in Turkey said the military is killing soldiers who refuse orders to fire on protesters.

"Assad's men are killing anyone within the military, police or others who don't obey their orders blindly," said a man who gave his name as Abu Ali. "They are killing those who want freedom."

Another Syrian, who gave his name as Ammar, had a similar allegation, though neither man offered any specifics.

Yesterday, Syria imposed a travel ban on one of the president's cousins, a move that appeared to be an attempt to show Mr al Assad is serious about investigating the bloodshed.

State-run SANA news agency says the ban was imposed on Brigadier General Atef Najib, who ran the security department in the southern province of Daraa. The uprising erupted there in mid-March after the arrest of 15 teenagers who scrawled anti-government graffiti.

Judge Mohammed Deeb al Muqatran of the Special Judicial Committee said the travel ban is precautionary in order for Brigadier General Najib to be available for questioning. Mr al Muqatran was quoted as saying yesterday that "no one has immunity, whoever he is".

In an apparent anticipation of more refugees, workers of the Turkish Red Crescent began building a fourth tent camp yesterday near the border.

Yesterday, women in the camp, many of them wearing colorful robes and head scarves, tended to children as refugees tried to dry laundry under a cloudy sky.

Turkish authorities have blocked the media from entering the camps. Turkey appears to be trying to limit the publicity of the crisis. Prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who won a landslide victory in Sunday's general elections, has said he would speak to Mr al Assad soon.

Turkey and Syria share an 850-kilometre border, which includes several Syrian provinces. Refugees and relatives on both sides appeared to be crossing unimpeded around the village of Guvecci.

The Turkish province of Hatay has a sizable Arabic-speaking population. It gained independence from Syria in 1938 and joined Turkey in a plebiscite a year later. Families in some villages were split when the borders were finalized in 1948.

In Washignton yesterday, the White House condemned violence in Syria and renewed its calls to Mr al Assad to lead a political transition or leave power, after a brutal crackdown on a rebel town.

"We have called on President Assad to cease the violence. We strongly condemn, in the strongest possible terms, the violence being perpetrated in Syria," said White House spokesman Jay Carney.

"President Assad needs to engage in political dialogue. A transition needs to take place. If President Assad does not lead that transition then he should step aside," Mr Carney told reporters aboard Air Force One.