Ankara preps for Syrian exodus

Syrian refugees wait to enter Turkey on the border with Syria on Wednesday. AFP photo

Turkey will not close its doors to Syrians fleeing unrest in their country, the Turkish prime minister said Wednesday after a group of 169 Syrians fled the border town of Jisr al-Shughour overnight, fearing bloodshed.

“We are monitoring developments in Syria with concern,” Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan said at a news conference, urging Damascus to “change its attitude toward civilians” and “take its attitude to a more tolerant level as soon as possible.”

Turkey has exerted efforts for a peaceful transition process in Syria, but reforms have not been carried out at the desired speed and are being outpaced by growing violence, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu told the private channel NTV in an interview Wednesday. He said Turkey is prepared to deal with a mass influx of Syrian refugees.

“We have taken all necessary precautions in case of a massive flow of crossings,” Davutoğlu said. Implying a security check would be made for Syrian refugees, he added, “We have to determine their intention [in] seeking refuge.”

People who fled the town of Jisr al-Shughour on Wednesday, fearing a crackdown by their government after the alleged massacre of 120 policemen, are sheltering at a camp set up by the Turkish Red Crescent in the Yayladagi district of Hatay, a Turkish city on the Syrian border.

A total of 420 Syrians have crossed the border and stayed in Turkey since the start of the unrest, a Turkish Foreign Ministry diplomat told the Daily News. The Anatolia news agency reported, however, that new groups are continuing to arrive at the Turkish border. Turkish officials also told reporters that many Syrians were waiting at villages near the border.

Syria’s government said “armed gangs” killed 120 security forces in an ambush over the weekend. Other reports say that the mutiny of Syrian soldiers who refused to fire on civilians set off deadly fighting between officers and security guards. Thirty-five Syrians wounded in the clashes are being treated at Turkish hospitals after crossing the border, a Turkish diplomat told the Hürriyet Daily News on Tuesday.

Ankara has enjoyed good relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad but has been putting pressure on the Syrian leader in recent weeks to initiate a democratic transition while stopping his regime’s bloody crackdown on protesters. Erdoğan sent his envoy to Damascus in April to urge al-Assad to take steps toward reforms, offering Turkey’s expertise for the suggested political and economic overhaul. Syrian opposition groups gathered in the Turkish Mediterranean city of Antalya last week to discuss a transition process in Syria.

More than 1,100 civilians have been killed in Syria and at least 10,000 arrested in a brutal crackdown on almost daily street demonstrations that have simmered since March 15, human-rights organizations say.