Bloomberg News

Assad’s Troops Pushing North Spur Syrians to Turkish Refuge

June 12, 2011

{Updates with Erdogan election in 12th paragraph, analyst comment in 18th. See EXTRA and MET for more on regional unrest.)

June 12 (Bloomberg) -- Syrians fleeing President Bashar Al- Assad’s assault against northern towns say troops are torching fields and opening fire at random, the chief of a Turkish border village hosting refugees said.

Assad has justified the offensive by saying 120 members of his security forces were killed by “armed gangs” in the town of Jisr al Shughour on June 7. Residents say the forces defected after refusing to fire on pro-democracy protesters and were killed for their subversion.

Bloomberg has been unable to independently verify the claims. Most foreign journalists have been banned from Syria and the government has restricted telephone and Internet access.

Army units rolled into Jisr al-Shughour today to “purify it from members of armed groups,” according to Syrian state television. A large number of gunmen have been detained and two were killed, it said. Heavy shelling and shooting was heard in the town during the morning, according to the website of the Syrian Observatory human rights group.

A total of 1,289 civilians and 332 army and security forces have been killed since pro-reform protests erupted in the country in mid-March, the website said. Syria’s unrest has been inspired by protests that ousted the longstanding presidents of Tunisia and Egypt, and threaten the leaders of Libya and Yemen.

Makeshift Camps

The incidents in Jisr al-Shughour sparked chaos in regions near the Turkish border, with only 5,000 out of the population of 45,000 remaining in the town, according to Mahmoud Merhi, Damascus-based head of the Arab Organization for Human Rights. Thousands of refugees have headed for makeshift camps set up across the Turkish border and the majority have sought refuge in safer areas in Syria, he said.

Syrians arriving in the past 48 hours in Turkey told of Assad’s forces setting their fields and villages aflame and opening fire randomly on residents, said Cemil Utanc, the chief of the Turkish border village of Guvecci. About 5,000 Syrians have already taken refuge in tent cities on the Turkish border, according to figures provided by the Foreign Ministry yesterday.

Britain, France, Germany and Portugal urged the United Nations Security Council on June 8 to adopt a resolution condemning the Syrian crackdown on protesters. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the U.S. supports the resolution. Russia has opposed it.

Legitimate Grievances

U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague urged the UN today to issue “a clear statement” calling on Syria to respond to legitimate grievances, to release prisoners of conscience and reopen access to the internet. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton yesterday criticised Syria’s crackdown, calling the actions of the regime “revolting.”

Assad’s assault against his own people is increasingly straining the relationship with one of his closest allies, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is bracing his country for a flood of Syrian refugees and a possible change in Turkish policy toward its neighbor.

Erdogan is heading for a third term in office after winning elections today. His Justice and Development Party, or AKP, got 51 percent of the vote with almost 90 percent of ballots counted.

“Let’s get these elections out of the way, see what the picture looks like, and then I’ll talk with the Syrians in a very different way,” Erdogan said in an interview with NTV television on June 10.

‘Disgusting Mental Images’

After the protest movement erupted in Syria in March, Erdogan backed Assad, urging him to make immediate reforms and offering Turkish assistance to the Syrian leadership in creating a civil democratic society. The offers weren’t taken seriously enough, he said. He called the Syrian government’s actions “savagery” and said “disgusting” images of the dead were making it impossible to justify continued support.

Shashank Joshi, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, said Assad appears to have made a choice to sacrifice the Turkish relationship in order to do what he thinks necessary to stay in power.

“Assad has deemed that he has no choice but to suppress any kind of uprising or lose real control of these towns in the north,” Joshi said. “Although Turkey is a friend, it’s also a new friend; Syria has been an authoritarian country for many decades without Turkish friendship, and I suppose Assad’s made a calculation that it can be so again.”

Increased Trade

Relations between Turkey and Syria have deepened under Erdogan as the two neighbors dropped visa requirements, started joint military training exercises in 2009 and increased trade. Imports from Syria have almost doubled since 2007 to $660 million, while exports rose by more than $1 billion over the same period to $1.8 billion last year, according to Turkey’s state statistics agency.

Aksa Elektrik Toptan Satis AS, a Turkish energy company, signed a contract in March to sell as much as 500 megawatts of electricity a year to Syria, Syrian Deputy Electricity Minister Hisham Mashfej said at the time.

“Turkey exercises a certain degree of influence just by nature of neighboring Syria and can influence the economic situation in Syria, which is really perilous,” Joshi said.

The uprising has caused little damage to Syria’s $60 billion economy, central bank governor Adib Mayaleh said in an interview on May 31. Deposits at Syrian private banks declined about 7 percent in the first quarter, Abdul Qader Dweik, head of the Syrian International Islamic Bank, the country’s largest Islamic lender, said the same day.

--With assistance from Caroline Alexander in London, Emre Peker in Ankara, Glen Carey in Riyadh and Robert Tuttle in Doha. Editors: Andrew J. Barden, Mike Harrison, Philip Sanders, Ben Holland.

To contact the reporters on this story: Benjamin Harvey in Yayladagi, Turkey at; Nayla Razzouk in Amman at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden in Dubai at

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