Monday, April 16, 2012
Home away from home for Syrian refugees
Monitors arrived in Damascus on Monday with Kofi Annan’s peace plan in mind and armed with a UN Security Council vote. Despite the initial promise of the ceasefire working, sign of any resolution in Syria remains difficult as news of further shelling was reported. 12 people were alleged to have been killed by army shelling of opposition areas in the city of Homs on Monday. It was hoped that a lull in the violence would allow some humanitarian relief to civilians and refugees affected by the continuing crisis.
However, the ongoing violence continues to force Syrians to flee their country and cross borders into Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. Currently, Turkey is temporarily home to around 24,000 Syrians. A refugee camp in the town of Kilis has over 9,000 inhabitants already.
Recent reports indicate that Turkey plans to build a refugee camp for over 12,000 Syrians in Kilis. The project will initially cost $50m and a further $2m per month to run. There will be 500 Turkish employees working in the site, including teachers, doctors and police. Ankara has already spent over $150m on refugee camps since the Syrian uprising last year. Thus far, Turkey has referred to the Syrian refugees as ‘guests’. However the fear in Turkey is that if the crisis shows no sign of abating, what started off as temporary camps for Syrians will soon turn into permanent homes for tens of thousands unable to return back to Syria.
Turkey’s trade and economy has suffered since the crisis started last year. Syria was once one of its main trade partners in the area and a gateway into the rest of the Middle East. All trade relations with Syria were suspended late last year, bringing to an end the Turkish government’s hope of increasing the volume of trade between the two countries to upwards of $5bn in the coming years. Main Turkish trade cities with Syria such as Gaziantep, known for its textiles and chemicals industries have suffered due to rising costs in seeking alternative, longer transport routes.
Despite backing the Annan peace plan, Ankara must be weary of the continuing violence in Syria. There was substantial rhetoric from Turkey a few months ago of forming buffer zones along the Syrian border to protect civilians fleeing the fighting, but pressure from the Americans and Russians saw to it that no such action was taken. Cross fire by the Syrian army into one of the refugee camps near Kilis, which killed two and wounded a further five, increased the likelihood of Turkey becoming directly embroiled in the crisis.
The Assad regime has protested that Turkey is already involved in the fighting, as is Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Bashar al-Assad is adamant that the continuing shelling is important to eradicate the threat of ‘terrorists’ operating in the country; rebels have reportedly been sponsored and armed by the Saudis, Qataris and Turkey. The continuing shelling by the Syrian army beyond the ceasefire has some commentators predicting that Bashar will carry on trying to militarily weaken opposition areas such as Homs because once he stops, Annan’s peace plan may snow ball him out of office.
Ankara will be praying that Annan’s peace plan draws dividends, because the longer the fighting in Syria continues the greater the economic and humanitarian burden on Turkey. It will also hope not to be embroiled in a direct military confrontation with Bashar. Any attack on Syria will fuel the fire on issues such as Kurdistan, with the PKK being currently supported by Damascus, and trade relations with Iran and Russia.
For the while, Ankara will keep its support for Annan’s peace plan, continue to disrupt the Assad regime by supporting the rebel groups and hope that the increasing refugee population does not become permanent. For the Syrian refugees, hopes of returning to their homeland must seem bleak as they make home in the growing camps in Turkey.