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Turkish-Syrian border standoff: An overview

Turkey faces a growing danger of Syrian economic and social disruption spilling onto its soil, with some fearing an influx of refugees could draw Turkish troops into border operations uncomfortably close to Syrian forces.President Bashar Al Assad’s crackdown on opposition has pushed once-warm ties between Turkey and Syria close to breaking point. Syrian policy towards dissent has driven 12,000 Syrian refugees to move north and take shelter in camps in Turkey, while Syrian troops move up to seal the area.

Turkey’s Land Forces Commander Gen. Erdal Ceylanoğlu, Gendarmerie Commander Gen. Necdet Özel and 2nd Army Corps Commander Gen. Servet Yörük have all visited the border area recently. Yörük visited the Güveççi border post this week to take stock of Syrian troop deployments near the border and to see the refugees’ situation for himself.

Yesterday, the Syrian ambassador to Turkey has called on the Turkish government to take action against what the Syrians call terrorists crossing the border and smuggling weapons across the Turkish-Syrian border. “We have an anti-terrorism agreement that has been signed between Syria and Turkey. This agreement provides the transfer of terrorists and armed people from one country to another. We have handed dozens of [outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party] PKK terrorists in recent months and years as part of agreement. So if there are any members of armed members of the Muslim Brotherhood or any other terrorist organizations, we expect our Turkish friends to [hand them to us],” Nidal Kabalan, the Syrian ambassador to Turkey, told Hürriyet Daily News on Sunday. Kabalan, whose earlier remarks caused problems between the two countries, will leave his position in coming months.

In contacts with his Syrian counterpart, Walid Moallem, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu underlined the seriousness with which Turkey viewed Syrian military activity on the Turkish border, demanding that Syrian forces retreat from the border. For its part, Syria is accusing Turkey of conspiring with Qatar and France to promote American and other western interests.Syrian news website ChamPress, which is close to the regime, yesterday cited a report on Hezbollah’s Al-Manar website claiming that Erdogan himself helped former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri remain in office in 2008, demanding that Syrian President Bashar Assad not try to depose Hariri, saying the Americans wanted him to remain in power. Citing Iranian sources, the Lebanese Al-Akhbar newspaper reported yesterday that Iran had warned Turkey not to allow NATO forces to use Turkish territory to attack Syria, saying if Turkish territory was permitted, Iran would attack American and NATO basis in Turkey.As the Syrian crisis sowed tension in the region, demonstrations continued yesterday in Syria itself – including the Kurdish cities of Kamishli and Al-Haska, as well as Homs, Hama, Daraa – involving tens of thousands of protesters. In Damascus, the army forcefully dispersed hundreds of demonstrators. Friday saw at least 18 protesters killed around the country.Turkey is concerned that the Syrian army might exercise force in Kurdish towns in Syria, sparking a mass flight of Kurds into Turkey. Syrian media outlets, meanwhile, are reporting that the army has deployed troops around the restive city of Jisr al-Shughour.

Syrian officials have ordered military units to step up patrolling near the Turkish border in a warning to its increasingly irate northern neighbour not to establish a buffer zone inside Syria.Diplomats in Ankara and Beirut believe the Syrian advance on the border village of Khirbet al-Jouz on Friday, initially portrayed as a sweep against dissidents, was a veiled threat to Turkey, which is steadily turning on President Bashar al-Assad as his regime’s crackdown on dissent continues.In the wake of Assad’s speech last week, Turkish officials gave him one week to start reforms and stop the violent suppression of protests, which is estimated to have killed more than 1300 people in less than four months.British Government officials travelled last week to the south of Turkey to interview Syrian refugees. A British Foreign Office official said that diplomats are compiling accounts of what happened in Jisr al-Shughour and the villages around it during the first two weeks of this month, when the Syrian army mounted a series of raids, followed by an assault that led almost every resident of the 41,000-strong town to flee, first for the nearby hills, then to Turkey.

Turkish officials have told Western countries that Turkey might launch a military operation in Syria’s north to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, a Kuwaiti newspaper reported on Monday.“Turkey informed Britain, France, Italy, Germany and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) leadership of the possibility that it would launch an offensive in … Aleppo, Homs, Hama and Latakia,” As-Seyassah daily quoted an unnamed British officials as saying, according to the Lebanese news website

The report comes amid fears of undesired confrontation between the Turkish and Syrian armies along the border. About 12,000 Syrians have fled their homes in northern towns and have taken refuge on the Turkish side of the border. The Syrian army is reportedly reinforcing troops near the Turkish border to prevent further inflows of refugees towards Turkey. The Turkish military is also reportedly considering reinforcing border troops. Senior Turkish commanders have recently traveled to the border province of Hatay to inspect the border area.“Turkish officials fear the possibility of the Syrian army committing mistakes on its borders, which might oblige the Turkish army to cross the Syrian border,” the Kuwaiti daily quoted a Lebanese diplomat in Ankara as saying. The Syrian government’s brutal crackdown on anti-regime protesters has brought once-close Turkish-Syrian relations to a breaking point, with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan describing the Syrian response to protests as “savagery.”

Turkish-Syrian border standoff: An overview



Akin Unver

Dr. Ünver is an assistant professor of international relations at Kadir Has University, Istanbul.

Previously he was the Ertegün Lecturer of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, Near Eastern Studies department - the only academic to retain this prestigious fellowship for two consecutive years. He conducted his joint post-doctoral studies at the University of Michigan’s Center for European Studies and the Center for the Middle East and North African Studies, where he authored several articles on Turkish politics, most notable of which is ”Turkey’s deep-state and the Ergenekon conundrum”, published by the Middle East Institute.

Born and raised in Ankara, Turkey, he graduated from T.E.D. Ankara College in 1999 and earned his B.A. in International Relations from Bilkent University (2003) and MSc in European Studies from the Middle East Technical University (2005). He received his PhD from the Department of Government, University of Essex, where his dissertation, ‘A comparative analysis of the discourses on the Kurdish question in the European Parliament, US Congress and Turkish National Assembly‘ has won the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) 2010 Malcolm H. Kerr Dissertation Award in Social Sciences.

Akın also assumed entry-level policy positions at the European Union Secretariat-General, Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Eurasian Center for Strategic Studies (ASAM) and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (D.C.), as well as teaching positions at the University of Essex (Theories of International Relations) and Sabancı University (Turkey and the Middle East).

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