Aug 30 2019

Syrians protest Turkey's Erdoğan as Idlib crisis deepens

(Updated with new information on protests in third and fourth paragraphs)


Despite news of a ceasefire, the Turkish government has expressed serious concerns about the situation in Syria’s Idlib province, where the ongoing conflict has driven thousands of Syrians toward the Turkish border.

The advance of Syrian government forces on the last rebel-held province has threatened to spark a humanitarian crisis and left Turkish military observation posts stranded and vulnerable.

Thousands of Syrians have joined demonstrations at settlements in Idlib and near the border. One group filmed themselves burning a flag bearing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's image.

Another group took control of a Turkish armoured vehicle at the Atmeh border crossing the connects Idlib to Turkey's Hatay province, the Syrian Step News Agency reported. 

Erdoğan said the situation in the province was not at the point Turkey would want, noting what he called harassment of two of the twelve Turkish observation posts built in the province after an agreement with Russia last September.

Syrian President Bashar Assad began an attack on Idlib with Russian backing in April, despite last September's deal to establish a de-escalation zone in the province.

Moscow and Damascus say Turkey, which has been a main backer of several rebel groups in the conflict, has failed to fulfil its agreement to remove “extremist” fighters from the de-escalation zone.

The offensive by Assad’s forces and supported by Russia has intensified over the last month, pinning rebels back and leaving a Turkish observation post in Morek surrounded. Airstrikes have reportedly targeted areas near two more of the Turkish-manned posts.

"If we say the developments regarding Idlib are at a point we desire, it would be a lie. It is not where we want it right now," Turkey's state-run Anadolu news agency quoted Erdoğan as saying on Friday.

“There has been harassment at our observation posts nine and 10”, he said, adding that he had warned Russian President Vladimir Putin on the issue after their meeting in Russia earlier this week.

The Turkish president is likely to have warned Putin that Turkey would launch retaliatory strikes against Assad's forces if Turkish troops were targeted again, according to pro-government columnist Murat Kelkitlioğlu.

But his friendly meeting this week with Putin, who has helped prop up Assad's government against mass protests and years of armed resistance, was seen as a betrayal by Syrians who oppose Assad.

On Friday, as Assad’s forces continued their onslaught, thousands of Syrians flocked to checkpoints on the Syrian-Turkish border to demand protection.

The United Nations estimates that some 3 million people are living in Idlib province, with roughly half thought to have been displaced from elsewhere in Syria.

Throughout the week, reports and video footage have shown large numbers of civilians killed as Assad’s forces advanced.

Video footage shot on Friday showed the road to the border completely blocked with traffic. Other footage showed crowds at the border attempting to break down a gate at a checkpoint.

A video shared on Twitter appeared to show large crowds protesting against Turkey, while another appeared to show Turkish soldiers firing in the air to disperse civilians.

As footage of the crowds fleeing to the border continued to spread on social media, the Syrian government on Friday announced a unilateral ceasefire in the province, Russian news agency Interfax reported.

But Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuioğlu said on Friday that he doubted Assad’s government believed in a political solution.

Further violence would likely lead to a new humanitarian crisis and a new wave of migration to Europe, Çavuşoğlu said.

The Turkish government has been battling serious domestic pressure this year over its large population of refugees. There are approximately 3.6 million Syrians registered with temporary protection status in Turkey, and there are thought to be many more unregistered migrants from the country.

As public discontent over the number of Syrians rose, the government began a crackdown on undocumented migrants, reportedly transporting some back to Syria. The government denies these reports.

The hashtag #suriyelileriistemiyoruz - "we don't want Syrians" - became a trending topic as the day wore on, with many Turks taking to social media to express their opposition to incoming migrants.

"These are jihadists, they are murderers! The Turkish army must protect the borders immediately! They are coming to turn Turkey into Syria, into Iraq, into Afghanistan, to make out country open to enemy invasion", said Mine G. Kırıkkanat, a columnist at secularist daily Cumhuriyet, in a tweet responding to footage of migrants confronting a Turkish armoured vehicle.

With Turkey unable to bear the strain of a potentially huge influx of migrants from Idlib, there could be little option for many but to attempt a perilous journey to Europe.

The European Union signed a migration deal with Turkey in 2016 stating that undocumented migrants crossing to European countries from Turkey would be sent back.