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2 Looking into the Syrian
Derek Henry Flood
ANTAKYA, Hatay province
southern Turkey - Five weeks before the beginning
of Syria's unarmed uprising against the rule of
President Bashar al-Assad, Turkish Prime Minister
Recip Tayyip Erdogan and his Syrian counterpart
Prime Minister Mohammad Naji Otri laid a symbolic
cornerstone for the so-called "Friendship Dam"
that was to help control the course of the Orontes
River (known as the Asi River in Turkey) that
flows through what has traditionally been - and is
once again - a bitterly divided Levant region.
declared to the state Syrian Arab News Agency that
the dam would be "an important symbol on the
edifice of the strategic relations" that would
revive a long neglected border region that has
littered with land mines for a lengthy party of
its post-colonial existence.
Erdogan stated that the dam
would help to foster a feeling of lost fraternity
between Turkey and the Syrian Arab Republic.
Turkish-Syrian relations have
a complicated history, and conflict over the water
rights to the Euphrates River led to direct Syrian
support of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK)
under the regime of Bashar's father, Hafez
al-Assad. After a fiery speech by then-Turkish
president Suleyman Demirel in Antakya near the end
of the 1990s, Demirel gave a stern warning to
Damascus to end Syrian irredentist claims on
Turkey's Hatay province - once part of the French
Mandate of Syria - and to end covert support for
the PKK insurgency in Turkey's southeast, lest
Syria face the wrath of the Turkish military.
that point on, Turkish-Syrian relations began to
slowly improve and continued apace until the
outbreak of hostilities in Syria with the outset
of the March 15 uprising last year.
After Ankara and Damascus had
eliminated their reciprocal visa regimes for each
other's nationals in order to strengthen
cross-border trade, relations between the two
countries were at a comparative all-time high.
Turkey's membership in the
North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)
throughout the Cold War and its partnership with
Israel pitted it against a Soviet-aligned Syria.
Damascus was also locked in an ideological and
territorial dispute with the Israelis over the
Golan Heights, meaning that Turkey's once
Ottoman-era domain to its south became an enemy of
sorts for much of the latter 20th century.
the outbreak of violence in northern Syria's Idlib
governorate in the spring and summer of 2011,
cross-border Syrian tourist trade in Antakya's
"Syria Bazaar" has come to a complete halt. In
early December, Damascus suspended its free trade
zone agreement with Turkey in reaction to economic
and political sanctions announced by Ankara.
Picture: Derek Henry Flood
Turkey's Foreign Minister
Ahmet Davotglu has been busy implementing his
rather idealistic "zero problems" foreign policy
agenda in the region aimed at improving Turkish
ties with several neighboring states. The rapid
deterioration of Turkish-Israeli relations after
the lethal 2010 raid by Israeli commandos on the
Mavi Mamara flotilla
that was en route to Gaza, led Turkey seemed to
further intensify the concept of renewing stunted
relationships in its immediate neighborhood.
resulted in the bilateral Strategic Cooperation
Council that was to hail a new era in the region.
But when Syria began convulsing in the death
throes of Nasserism that rocked the Arab world
throughout 2011, Erdogan quickly cooled on Assad
by the end of April when it became evident
reprisal acts by that regime would not simply let
up on their own.
The ongoing crisis in Syria
has reignited old feuds. The border has been
heavily militarized on the Syrian side since the
influx of refugees - including a number of army
defectors - from Jisr al-Shigour and the
surrounding rural areas of the troubled Idlib
governorate since a siege in early June.
talk of a buffer or security zone has been bandied
about in the international community, Assad has
been very careful not to let the emergence of a
Benghazi-like area along Syria's borders become a
political reality. The maintenance of Syria's
territorial integrity appears to be of the utmost
priority for the regime's survival.
Times Online sat down with a pair of opposition
activists near the Syrian border who provided
insight into the current situation in the
northwestern regions of their country. They
described the area along the border with Hatay
province as a dead zone with almost no freedom of
Manned by a combination of
regular Syrian troops, brutal shabiha militiamen, and
Syrian intelligence officers bent on protecting
the regime, the border has now reportedly become
one of the world's most dangerous no-go zones.
Times Online was informed that almost no refugees
had crossed into Turkey since high summer due to
the presence of snipers dotted along a series of
border outposts. The men said they were not yet
categorized as refugees under Turkish law so as to
keep their presence, along with several high level
Syrian army defectors, as depoliticized in the
region as possible.
Ankara does not want to be
seen as providing a safe haven for Syrian rebels
in order to keep cross border tensions at a
minimum. But those who spoke to Asia Times Online
did not seem too bothered by the predicament they
faced under international humanitarian law as they
believed they would naturally return to Syria once
Assad met his fate one way or another. In that
regard, they were fairly optimistic. That
optimism, however, does not sync with a
dictatorship that currently shows no signs of
The oppositionists described
how they are operating a delicate humanitarian
corridor along well-worn smuggling tracts to
circumvent the rings of heavy security to bring
medical supplies, satellite phones and tiny hidden
cameras for their countrymen to document
atrocities which can then be smuggled back out of
Syria and uploaded onto Youtube and other social
Though there has been a
recent lifting of the ban on international media
after pressure from the Arab league, it has mostly
resulted in government-minded dog-and-pony show
trips with a few exceptions.
men based in Antakya showed Asia Times Online an
array of devices used to clandestinely gather
imagery to show the outside world what is taking
place in their beleaguered country. They described
vehicle mounted mobile technology imported from
both Iran and Iraq that is being used to block
social media sites and global satellite news
networks inside Syria.
claimed the government of Iraqi Prime Minister
Nuri al-Maliki, tilted heavily toward Tehran after
the US withdrawal, is fully backing Assad even in
the face of a wider Arab consensus that he must
Shi'ite-majority Iraq has
become an outlier in the Arab world in favoring
the Iranian position on Syria in opposition to
Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states led by Qatar
which are openly calling for Assad's ouster.
stated Maliki had even turned over
American-designed communications technology that
was meant for the Baghdad government to Damascus
to aid in its quelling of the rebellion.
Iranian technology has also
been offloaded from Iranian naval vessels at the
port of Latakia, an Alawite stronghold nearly
midway between the Lebanese and Turkish borders.
have delivered huge shipments of non-lethal crowd
suppressing equipment such as batons, tear gas and
riot gear. In comparison, Muammar Gaddafi was
rather isolated as Libya and was flanked by the
weak, revolutionary states of Tunisia and