Turkish border police fired tear gas canisters along with warning live rounds in an effort to disperse thousands of outraged Syrians who stormed the border gates with Turkey in provincial Idlib yesterday. The locals chanted slogans against Erdogan as well as the Turkish army and burned posters of the Turkish president as they stormed the two major border crossing points of Bab al-Hawa and Atama as the latest ceasefire came into effect Friday, following an unscheduled visit by Erdogan to Moscow and talks with Russian president Vladimir Putin. The ceasefire was unilaterally announced by the Syrian army after major advances in rural Hama and Idlib liberating some 100 towns, villages, hilltops along with an area of over 700 square km s.
Video footage showed desperate crowds trying to knock down the Atama border gate and force their way into Turkey itself. This crossing point along with that of Bab al-Hawa were two of the major entrance points for smuggling arms, ammunition, supplies and even fighters from Turkey into Syria during the past 8 years. The latter had been a prime life-line border crossing where tens of thousands of trucks and various vehicles passed on a daily basis during the golden years between Turkey and Syria (2009-2011).
Stifling the Syrian lung
Ahmet Davutoglu, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Turkey once told me when I paid him a farewell visit as I finished my mission as Syrian Ambassador to Turkey (2009-2011), recalling a phrase from his book ‘Strategic Depth’ “Syria is the lung through which Turkey breathes southward, and the only viable route for us into the lucrative markets of the Arab world”.
Well, this lung has been virtually smothered by Turkish military intervention and support of terror groups over the past eight years or so. Instead of flourishing trade, land transportation record figures and two-way chronic traffic at the border crossing points during the ‘golden era’, tens of thousands of terrorists from over 84 countries, arms and munitions were flooding into Syria, smuggled mainly through those very borders.
Storming the border alarm bells
The sheer numbers of marching demonstrators who pushed their way past the armored vehicles of the Turkish border guards, and the level of anger they unleashed at Turkey’s leader and his army Friday, reflect an unprecedented degree of frustration and lack of trust on the part of hundreds of thousands of local Syrians who feel trapped and hopeless as the Syrian army closed in on Idlib. The city and its surrounding towns and villages remain the last and largest haven for hardcore militants, including al Nusra Front (Syria version of al Qaeda terrorist organization), still fighting the Syrian army and its allies and vowing to topple the ‘regime’ in the country.
With large numbers of those fleeing into provincial Idlib from recent battle fields in north-western Hama and south-eastern rural Idlib, the area is now believed to harbor over 2 million inhabitants, and is under the strict Islamic Sharia law imposed by al Nusra hardliners. The hardcore Jihadist group which changed its name into Hayyat Tahrir Ash Sham (Levant Liberation Body) after being internationally labeled a terrorist organization, is believed to have over 35000 fighters in its ranks in Idlib alone.
The Salafist group has systematically rejected and breached every truce and ceasefire agreement in Syria, and threatens to eliminate any one who lays down their arms or inters into deals with the Syrian government and its allies. How much will al Nusra and its fellow hardliners in Idlib benefit from local masses who appear totally disheartened at what they deem Turkey’s inaction in the face of Syrian army’s latest offensive which has completely liberated rural Hama and pushed into parts of Idlib province, remains to be seen.
Ceasefire has not stopped the shelling
Complicating things even more, was Yesterday’s fierce rocket attack, this time by US-led coalition bomber jets, which fired 8 rockets and completely destroyed a military base jointly used by al Nusra and the fundamentalist Ansar al-Din Front near Kfarya, Idlib. The raid killed some 40 terrorists and wounded many more according to rebel sources and released footage of the targeted camp. It is unclear yet why has the coalition decided to interfere now and in Idlib.
Some analysts suspect the operation was a US-led effort to cut the way and reshuffle cards in this vital part of Syria, following what seems to have been discussed and agreed during Erdogan’s visit to Moscow last Tuesday. They maintain that by launching this deadly attack into Idlib, the US wants to clarify that it is not part of the ceasefire agreement.
Others point out to the potential fear that if things calm down in Idlib, the Syrian and Russian armies and jets might opt to direct their fire power at the pro-US Kurdish controlled swathes of territory east of the Euphrates river, where Ankara and Washington have agreed to establish a 15 km s deep and some 300 km s long buffer zone in northeastern Syria. The controversial step aims, on the surface at least, to dampen Turkish national security concerns with the Kurds, often presented as a pretext for Turkish military intervention in Syria and Iraq. But the hard reality is that much of Syria’s huge oil and gas fields and reserves are located in that part of the country.
Swap of Turkish anxieties
Whilst Turkey might have succeeded in having things done its way with the US and its Kurdish allies in northeastern Syria, by establishing and jointly patrolling the new-born security zone there, albeit with the reserved, if not forced, consent of local Kurds and their US-trained PYD militia, a different and serious anxiety must be haunting the Turks now. The scene of disgruntled Syrian crowds storming the border gates in Idlib Friday, is a stark reminder of the lurking danger of another massive influx of Syrian refugees into Turkey.
Despite growing popular and official hostile attitudes towards Syrian refugees in Turkey, Ankara has repeatedly played, to its own interests, the refugee card, mainly with the European Union. Regardless of getting enormous aid packages and finance on the shoulders of millions of Syrian refugees since the start of hostilities in 2011, what happened at the Syrian-Turkish border in Idlib this week must have fallen like a boulder in Ankara, sounding alarm bells that are difficult to ignore. Turkey stands to be the biggest loser if things get out of control; the very people and groups it has established, supported or patronized could overnight become a nightmarish thorn in Ankara’s loin.