TOPICS > World

Civil War Next Door: Syrian Conflict Tests Neighbor Turkey

November 21, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
As Syrian refugees flee their homeland to escape violence between rebels and military troops, Turkey finds itself walking a fine line between protecting its interests and being drawn into war. Margaret Warner reports on the reactions from the Turkish government and civilians to Syrian violence spilling over its 500-mile border.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: And now to the conflict in Syria.

NATO said today that it would consider a Turkish request to deploy Patriot missiles to protect itself from Syrian attacks. Turkey and Syria share a 560-mile-long border, and after Syrian mortar rounds landed in Turkish territory, concerns have risen that the civil war fighting could spread further.

In Margaret Warner’s latest report, she examines the spillover that’s already happening.

MARGARET WARNER: Nestled up against the border with Syria, Ceylanpinar, Turkey has an all-too-up-close view of the civil war next door, as fighting rages in its Syrian twin city of Ras al-Ayn. For days last week, on the Syrian side, President Bashar al-Assad’s forces fought rebels of the Free Syrian Army, or FSA, to control Ras al-Ayn.

Terrified Syrian civilians scrambled, some over razor wire, into Ceylanpinar. The FSA finally took over the Syrian town, but not before badly fraying nerves in its Turkish neighbor.

Turk Abdulazziz Guven said he’d had to rescue his cousins from the Syrian side.

ABDULAZZIZ GUVEN,Turkey (through translator): The fight started at 3:00. At 7:00 a.m., we went to the border, called our cousins there, and told them to come to the border. They are staying at my house now as my guests.

MARGARET WARNER: With the fighting in Syrian areas like Ras al-Ayn, just 100 yards behind me, spilling over into Turkish towns like here in Ceylanpinar, Turkey finds itself walking a fine line, between defending its interests and being drawn into a regional war.

Yesterday, Turkish soldiers were patrolling their side of the border, while FSA rebels drove along their side, flag flying. Now there’s new factional fighting in Ras al-Ayn between the FSA and Syrian Kurds. And locals in the Turkish town are nervous about what’s to come.

SEYDO AKTIMAR, Turkey (through translator): Bullets are coming from the other side to here. Our children are scared. Many families moved away because they are scared.

MAN (through translator): When she hears the planes, my daughter says, father, are the planes of Bashar coming here? We’re very much concerned that the war will get much wider throughout the Middle East.

MARGARET WARNER: It wasn’t always this way. Turkey and Syria were once allies. But Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan broke with Damascus in August 2011, after his appeals to Assad to negotiate with democracy protesters were answered with deadly bombings against them during Ramadan.

Since then, Turkey has provided safe haven to Syrian refugees and fighters. Stray fire from the Syrian side has killed Turkish civilians, prompting Turkey to fire back. Now Turkey, a NATO member, is poised to receive Patriot missile batteries from the alliance to fortify this 500- mile border.

Turks throughout the country are fretting about the prospect of wider war, even people like Inci Altinok, out for a Sunday stroll in Istanbul hundreds of miles from the conflict.

INCI ALTINOK, Turkey (through translator): I wouldn’t support a war. But if it comes, Turkey would finish Syria in minutes. Turkey is a very strong country. We would all come together and strangle Syria.

MARGARET WARNER: But polls show there’s little appetite for war.

 

Cetin Ingiz said he had to leave his border province of Hatay for Istanbul because tensions from the war had dried up local jobs.

CETIN INGIZ, Turkey (through translator): Mr. Erdogan is provoking Syria at the moment, and he’s screaming about war. People in Hatay used to live on money from the outside. Before, there would be 10, 15, even 50 buses coming every day from Syria. Now there are no buses.

KEMAL KIRISCI, BogaziciUniversity: The most visible consequence of the crisis in and the violence in Syria on Turkey is an economic one.

MARGARET WARNER: Political scientist Kemal Kirisci of Istanbul’s BogaziciUniversity says border provinces like Hatay have been hardest hit.

KEMAL KIRISCI: So, there was a very heavy truck transit traffic going through Syria. A lot of Turkish companies were doing big business with the Arab world beyond Syria, Jordan, Egypt, the Gulf states. And by this summer, trade and businesses has grinded to a halt.

MARGARET WARNER: Part of that lost trade, shopping in places like Hatay’s capital, Antakya.

Syrians used to flock here by the busloads to this souk in Antakya to buy everything from clothing to household wares of the variety and quality they couldn’t get at home. But since the civil war erupted in Syria, that boon to business has all but evaporated.

Jewelry store owner Zena Buyukleya says her sales are down 50 percent.

ZENA BUYUKLEYA, Turkey(through translator): When they came, they would buy everything, gold and jewelry. And it’s not only our business. Everybody else’s is going down here.

MARGARET WARNER: The break with Syria has also been felt in the sprawling city of Gaziantep, a manufacturing powerhouse just 30 miles north of Syria. Exports have fueled businesses like Naksan, now one of the top five plastic bag and packing makers in the world. But most of its exports to the Middle East and North Africa went through Syria.

We caught up with Gaziantep mayor Asim Guzelbey at his city’s newly opened museum for ancient mosaics. He sought to downplay the impact, but conceded the loss of trade between Gaziantep and its sister city, Aleppo, two hours south.

MAYOR ASIM GUZELBEY, Gaziantep, Turkey (through translator): We had very good relations. The trade between Turkey and Syria was large. And Syria was important to Turkey for exports. But those things are left in the past now.

MARGARET WARNER: A medical doctor by training, he says Syrians now come here for different reasons.

So, do you have injured people coming here to Gaziantep?

ASIM GUZELBEY: Yes, of course, a lot of injured people come to Gaziantep.

MARGARET WARNER: Where are they treated?

ASIM GUZELBEY (through translator): We treat them in our hospitals in Gaziantep and throughout Turkey, and the expenses are paid by the Turkish government.

MARGARET WARNER: Turks are also footing the bill for an ever-growing number of camps in its borderlands, which now shelter more than 100,000 Syrian refugees. This former tobacco factory in Yayladagi was the first. Most of its 2,400 residents are settling in for their second winter in tents equipped with electricity and satellite TV.

For some, brick and mortar are replacing canvas and tarps.

When will they be able to leave?

Cemal Argol is a Turkish-Arabic translator at the camp.

CEMAL ARGOL, translator (through translator): Neither we nor they know when they will go back. And even if they go back, most of them have nothing.

MARGARET WARNER: But 18-month camp resident Armani Karnibo made it clear she and her family yearn to go home.

What are these symbols of?

ARMANI KARNIBO, Syrian resident (through translator): These are symbols of victory.

MARGARET WARNER: She has fashioned artwork out of seeds, grains, rice and paint.

ARMANI KARNIBO (through translator): We want to show we refugees are here not only eating and sleeping. We have a goal to achieve. We want to go back to our homes.

MARGARET WARNER: Maryam Hajyoussef and her husband, Ahmed, had one son killed by Assad’s security forces and now their second son is fighting with the resistance.

MARYAM HAJYOUSSEF, Syrian resident (through translator): They took everything. They stole our homes and burned them.

MARGARET WARNER: Her anger ebbed when she spoke of what Turkey has done.

MARYAM HAJYOUSSEF (through translator): Thanks to God we are here. Thanks to them for their hospitality.

MARGARET WARNER: What would you do if Turkey weren’t providing this place to be?

MARYAM HAJYOUSSEF (through translator): They would have killed us all.

KEMAL KIRISCI: I think the Turkish public by and large feels a lot of empathy with these refugees.

MARGARET WARNER: But now, says Kemal Kirisci, there’s a growing backlash against them, particularly among members of Turkey’s minority Alawi sect, who share bonds with Assad’s ruling Alawites in Syria.

KEMAL KIRISCI: The conflict in Syria that sometimes has been defined in Turkey as a conflict between a regime that is minority base or, slash, Alawite base, versus a Sunni majority, has had a spillover effect in Turkey.

MARGARET WARNER: Indeed, we heard scorn for the mostly Sunni refugees, and it was loudly expressed in the central square of the mostly Alawi seaside town of Samandag.

TARIK ASLAN, Turkey (through translator): They are all al-Qaida. They are terrorists, and criminals brought here from Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq. The CIA paid them each $50,000 to come here.

IMMETIN KURAN, Turkey (through translator): We are Alawites here, too. If they have sectarian problems over there, we feel the pain over here, too. Provocation and the sectarian problem, that’s happening here now.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet, however much the Turks would like to find a way out of the conflict next door, desperate Syrians, like this mother and her four children, will keep trying to find their way in.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you can watch Margaret’s previous reports from Turkey and Syria on our website.