Desperate Syrians storm Turkish border post in protest over Assad offensive

Demonstrations comes as Syrian government to begin a ceasefire  

Borzou Daragahi,Richard Hall
Saturday 31 August 2019 10:30 BST
Turkish border guards fire tear gas Syrian protesters

Hundreds of Syrians stormed a border crossing with Turkey on Friday in a protest that called for an end to a ferocious military offensive by Syrian and Russian government forces.

Video footage from the scene showed crowds pushing their way past the border guards in armoured vehicles, and a huge convoy of motor vehicles massed at the border at Bab al-Hawa, the main gateway between Turkey and Syria’s northwest.

The demonstration underscored the desperation of hundreds of thousands of Syrians trapped inside the northwest of the country, amid a military campaign by the Syrian and Russian armies to recapture the final swathe of rebel-held territory.

That campaign has intensified in recent days as government troops have launched a barrage of airstrikes that have killed more than a dozen civilians and pushed into densely populated parts of Idlib province.

Many Syrians have become increasingly disheartened at Turkey’s inaction in the face of the rapid government advance.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan travelled to Moscow this week to meet his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in an attempt to find a solution to the crisis in Idlib. But images of the two leaders sharing an ice cream together as the battle raged have sparked anger.

“We are very upset by the bombardment,” said Ahmad, a Syrian activist who attended the protest.

“It is very harsh. There is displacement and destruction of civilian health facilities. We decided to come here to tell the world that we would go out to the border.”

Protesters called for Turkey to either open its border or demand an end to the government offensive. Some were pictured holding signs which read: “Save the rest of us.”

Following rapid gains over the past week, the Russian military said Syrian government forces will begin a unilateral ceasefire in the coming hours.

The ceasefire is due to go into effect on Saturday morning at 6am local time.

The images of hundreds of Syrians storming the border are likely to exacerbate deep anxieties in Turkey about the influx of Syrian up to 4 million refugees, who are increasingly viewed with hostility by segments of the Turkish population and the authorities.

After initially welcoming Syrian refugees with an “open door” policy at the beginning of the eight-year conflict, Mr Erdogan’s government has recently begun to tighten restrictions and strictly enforce rules binding them to certain municipalities, and allegedly coerced some to return to their war-ravaged homeland.

Speaking after Friday prayers in Turkey’s capital of Ankara, Mr Erdogan said the fighting in Idlib was forcing Syrians to migrate.

“They are coming towards us and we need to be vigilant, we need to be cautious, and we have taken all the necessary precautions,” he said.

“It would be a lie if we said the developments in Idlib are at the point we want,” he added.

Turkey’s economic downturn last year has exacerbated worries that Syrian refugees are taking jobs, driving down wages, and driving up rents.

“The domestic environment today is such that it will force the government to adopt much more hawkish policies than in the past,” Sinan Ulgen, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told The Independent.

Turkish border guards fire tear gas canisters to disperse a crowd at the Bab al-Hawa crossing (AFP/Getty) (AFP/Getty Images)

“The change in the economic conditions have affected the outlook towards the Syrian refugees from the government, but more so from the standpoint of the society which finds itself under increased economic duress.”

Mr Ulgen also said the images of hundreds of men storming Syria’s border heightens fears that members of Isis and other jihadi groups could cross along with the refugees.

Turkish interior minister Suleyman Soylu, in a briefing with journalists last month, said that the number of unauthorised Syrian refugees detained by authorities was predicted to reach 305,000 by year’s end, compared to 268,000 last year and 175,000 in 2017.

“No country in the world has faced migration of this scope,” he told journalists.

Mr Ulgen predicted the government would come under pressure to not allow any more Syrian refugees, forcing western nations to address the crisis, which many had predicted once the Russian and Syrian regime set its sights on conquering Idlib.

“Europe needs to come back from its summer mode and start to think about what it can do to alleviate the humanitarian crisis at Syria’s border,” he said.

“But Europe cannot turn a blind eye to a situation that has become unsustainable.”

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