Aid from Turkey: Syrian Refugees Get Help Across the Border

By , on the Turkish-Syria border

Thousands of Syrians are fleeing across the border into Turkey from the intensifying violence in their own country. There, they fill refugee camps and hospitals while worrying about those left behind -- and wondering if leaders in Ankara will take their support to the next level.

Photo Gallery: Syrian Refugees in Turkey Photos
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Kadir took a bullet himself not five months ago, and his leg still drags a bit. Now his nephew Hasim has been shot, as well: three bullets to his shoulder and upper body a little less than 20 hours ago.

Kadir carried his nephew on his back, a 41-year-old man with a limp lugging a 20-year-old man through the evening and half the night, as he describes it. Going to a Syrian hospital was out of the question. "They would have instantly shot us dead," he says. Kadir was determined to reach the border with Turkey, where doctors had already helped him with his leg.

Syria's northern neighbor has become a refuge for thousands of people fleeing Bashar Assad, the dictator who has been having his own people shot down for months in a bid to cling to power. Those who have fled live in tents in refugee camps along the border, and doctors in the southern Turkish province of Hatay treat the gunshot wounds of people who have demonstrated or fought against Assad's troops -- or were simply gunned down indiscriminately on the street, as Kadir says happened to his nephew.

The flood of refugees shows no sign of abating since the situation in Syria is growing worse by the day. Activists in Homs, a stronghold for the protest movement, reported on Tuesday experiencing the heaviest shelling there in days. The establishment of a UN peacekeeping mission, as the Arab League has proposed, is unlikely. Such a mission is impossible without a cease-fire, said one US government spokesman. In other words, the murdering in Syria will continue.

Escaping over the Border

Escaping over the border into Turkey is the last resort for members of the opposition and the wounded. This was certainly the case for Kadir, a gray-bearded man now keeping vigil beside his nephew's hospital bed in Antakya. The young man has a makeshift dressing covering his wounds and an IV in his arm. His feet are scraped raw from being dragged along the ground when his uncle could no longer hold him up.

Kadir and Hasim are not these men's real names. Both men, who fled from the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib to the public hospital in Antakya, asked not to have their real names published out of fear for their families in Syria, fear that Assad's men might harm them. There's another Syrian with a gunshot wound in the bed next to Hasim, and another one a few rooms down the hall. The hospital's director says his staff was mainly treating gunshot wounds at first. But, lately, they're also seeing patients from the refugee camps with chronic illnesses, including ones in need of dialysis.

In most cases, family members accompany those needing assistance, as Kadir did his nephew. If they don't have a spot in the camp yet, they stay at the hospital, where they're fed three times a day. Kadir praises Turkey for opening its arms to Assad's victims.

From 'Brother' to 'Coward'

However, it hasn't been long since Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan referred to himself as Assad's "abi," a brother who puts things right. He prepared a state reception for Assad and had his soldiers hold joint training exercises with Syrian forces on Turkish soil. Barely two years after those maneuvers, Assad has become the enemy. Erdogan now calls his erstwhile brother a "coward," going so far as to even compare him with Hitler.

In doing so, the Turkish prime minister has performed a foreign-policy about-face. "Zero problems with the neighbors" used to be the Erdogan administration's strategy, and that included Syria and Iran. The prime minister accepted that this was tantamount to snubbing Israel and the US, a NATO ally.

Indeed, some in the West started to worry about where Turkey was headed. Bu then Arab nations began toppling their despots, and Erdogan, ever the pragmatist, was quick to side with the revolutionaries. The same man that secular-minded Turkish citizens have accused of blurring the boundaries between religion and state has now presented his secular country as a model for the countries of the Arab Spring.

Although Erdogan turned against Assad comparatively late, he eventually condemned the dictator's "atrocities" and called for Assad to step down. The prime minister is now working actively to bring down Syria's despot. Turkey has intercepted supply deliveries meant for Assad's troops, and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has declared, "We won't abandon Syria to its fate."

What Else Can Turkey Do?

Erdogan dispatched his top diplomat to Washington to discuss a course of action and is also eager to work together with the EU and the Arab League. But now he needs to decide how to go forward. There's no doubt he will continue to allow refugees into Turkey and to take a leading role in international negotiations, such as during an upcoming international conference on Syria. He has also given the Syrian opposition a green light to open an office in Istanbul.

Still, questions remain about what else Erdogan is willing to do. Many are calling for Turkey to arm the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a loosely organized group of former Assad soldiers who have joined the opposition. Although hundreds of these fighters continue to slip back and forth over the Turkish-Syrian border, the FSA still gets most of its arms from Lebanon.

But, of course, direct military intervention is also a possibility. For example, Turkey could establish a "humanitarian corridor" in northern Syria.

A few months ago, Erdogan's foreign minister categorically ruled out any deployment of Turkish troops. But, these days, his phrasing is far more cautious. He says that Turkey prefers not to discuss military intervention -- but that sounds less like denial and more like a threat aimed at Damascus.

Which path Erdogan chooses matters little to Kadir, the Syrian man watching over his wounded nephew in the hospital in Antakya. He's hoping for two things: that his nephew will recover, and that Syria's dictator will fall. "Assad should hang for all the people to see!" he says.

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein

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