© 2024
NPR News, Colorado Voices
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Border Incidents Ratchet Up Turkey-Syria Tensions



This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The 19th month old conflict between government and opposition forces in Syria is spilling across the country's borders and tensions are mounting between Turkey and Russia, which is an ally of Syria's President Assad.

Joining us now to talk about the latest news from the region is NPR's Kelly McEvers. She's monitoring unfolding events from Beirut. Kelly, thanks for being with us.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: You're welcome.

SIMON: And NPR's Peter Kenyon is along the Turkish-Syrian border. Peter, thank you.


SIMON: Kelly, let's begin with you. Rebel fighters say that they've captured an airbase just outside of Aleppo. If so, how significant is that?

MCEVERS: Well, Aleppo, as you know, is where a lot of the fighting has been going on for the last couple of months. This could be a development for the rebels. They claim that they did capture a Syrian army airbase. They say that they took some 20 or so surface-to-air missiles. This could put these weapons into the rebels' hands.

Some witnesses say that the army actually shelled the base after the rebels took it to destroy some of these munitions. So I don't know how significant of a gain in terms of weapons that it is for the rebels. The rebels also took a strategic town along the highway south of Aleppo.

So, you know, overall, this week, I think the rebels are sort of saying they've been - they're winning. I don't think it changes the bigger picture, though, that these two are locked in a nasty stalemate where neither side is gaining major ground. And the people who are losing out are the civilians. I mean, now we're in the hundreds of people dying every day. This is a conflict that's now more violent than the most violent weeks and months in Iraq.

SIMON: Peter Kenyon, along the Syrian-Turkey border. What do you know about these airstrikes?

KENYON: Well, the strikes have been very bad in a town across from Hacipasa, which is a farming village in Turkey. Just across is a Syrian village called Azmarin. I spent much of yesterday on the Turkish side of that border and it was scene that really does illustrate what's going on there.

On the Turkish side, there's farm workers trying to pick cottons and peppers and vegetables. On the Syrian side, cascades of gunfire, plumes of smokes coming up, the sound of helicopters firing on these villages, and then of course the stream of refugees - Syrian refugees trying to get across the narrow river to the Hacipasa side.

The people on this side of the border say it's been a regular occurrence and the Turkish farmers are complaining. They can't get to their fields to harvest because they're afraid of mortars, but obviously, as Kelly said, the worst of it is being borne by the Syrian villagers who are caught between the rebel Free Syrian army and the heavy weapons of the loyalist forces.

SIMON: And Peter, this week Turkey intercepted a Syrian passenger plane that was on its way to Damascus from Moscow. The Turkish government says it was carrying arms for the Syrian army, and say they acted on an intelligence tip. What's the latest we know about that?

KENYON: Well, the Syrians and the Russians are denying it. There's a report out of Moscow that it had to do with radar parts, which they claim were legal cargo. The Turks insist this is not legitimate civilian cargo to be in a civilian aircraft. That has raised diplomatic tensions, it raises the prospect of retaliation, but it's one piece in a picture of ratcheting up tensions that we've been following for some time now.

And now, there's another military buildup on the border. Just today, the Turkish media says 250 more tanks, more artillery units, F-16 fighter jets, are all moving closer to the Syrian border, some of which, of course, is aimed at Kurdish militants that they're concerned about. But part of it has to do with this ratcheting up of tensions that has got everyone concerned, especially the people who live here, down by the border.

SIMON: Kelly McEvers, you were talking about the human cost in casualties. What about the refugee situation inside and just outside of Syria?

MCEVERS: The numbers are pretty staggering, Scott. I mean, we're looking at hundreds of thousands of Syrians fleeing their country, going every direction into Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and even Iraq, which isn't totally equipped to handle them because it's got so many problems of its own. And then, you know, some estimates say that even 2 million Syrians inside the country are now internally displaced.

It's taxing all of these neighboring countries. They don't enough. The United Nations is appealing for more money from all the international donors. I was at a town inside Syria just a couple of weeks ago where people are forming their own makeshift camps under olive trees because the Turks won't let them in to their camps anymore. They basically say they've reached capacity.

Here in Lebanon where I'm stationed, there aren't any camps. They're trying to absorb Syrians into existing homes. They don't want to build these camps. We want to try to see if the Syrians can have as normal life as possible. That's really taxing the economy here.

But probably the worst situation is in Jordan, where it's possible that some 300,000 Syrians have fled. Many of them are living in very, sort of, dire conditions in a tent camp along the border in the desert. It's windy, it's dusty. Others are trying to integrate into Jordanian society, but Jordan just doesn't have a robust economy. It's not really able to absorb all these people and support them.

SIMON: And winter's coming.

MCEVERS: Yes, exactly. I mean, that's what I heard in that village under the olive trees from so many people. What happens when it starts to rain?

SIMON: Quickly to you, Peter Kenyon, along the Turkish-Syrian border. Is there a feeling in Turkey that they're part of this now?

KENYON: There is a growing discontent with the government's policies. Not an uprising, but there are more and more people who are worried about the direction this is taking. One of the fears, of course, is the reports of Islamist influence happening. Turkey being a majority Sunni country, it is getting lumped in with the Sunni states; Qatar, Saudi Arabia. Syria and their allies, of course are trying to push this sectarian angle, which brings up a very interesting conversation I had last night with a Syrian-American activist. He was just in Kuribitaljos(ph), a village just across from here. And it was overrun by the army, but then taken back by the Free Syrian Army rebels, and they have been keeping prisoners apparently decently, according to the videos I've seen. Now there are no Islamists that I can see there.

He's hoping - this activist is hoping that it will become an experiment for showing the world that the opposition can run territory fairly and be fair to all of Syria's various communities. It's a long shot, of course. The army could come storming back in. There's shortages of food and money. But it's an interesting experiment that bears watching.

SIMON: NPR's Peter Kenyon along the Turkish-Syrian border, and Kelly McEvers in Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.