Middle East

Syria crisis: Anxious neighbours wait for endgame

Syrian civilians enter Turkey through the Cilvegozu border crossing (20 July 2012)
Image caption One relieved Syrian family crosses into Turkey at Cilvegozu

Turkey's long border with its neighbour Syria is deceptively quiet.

On the Turkish side of the Cilvegozu crossing, truck drivers, border officials and an increasing number of journalists wilt in the midday sun.

For those not fortunate enough to have access to air-conditioned buildings inside the border complex, finding any available bit of shade is a priority in the stifling heat.

Tales of destruction

Just 3km (1.9 miles) away, across a sizeable stretch of no-man's land, is the Syrian border post of Bab al-Hawa.

The situation there, apparently, is very different.

Image caption A lorry driver told reporters that both sides had armed checkpoints along the road out of Syria

At the end of a week of fierce fighting in north-western Syria at least two border crossings fell into rebel hands.

As important as cities such as Aleppo, Latakia and Idlib are to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, outside intelligence services say he has had to withdraw some army units from peripheral areas to combat rebel uprisings in Damascus and other cities.

That has, in turn, allowed the increasingly confident rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) to occupy some villages and key installations, including the border post at Bab al-Hawa.

Although the UN says tens, even hundreds of thousands of refugees are fleeing across Syria's borders to all points of the compass, at this particular Turkish crossing they only come across now in dribs and drabs.

Nonetheless the stories they tell of the destruction in their homeland are just as dramatic.

'No choice'

In one small van, an extended family arrived on the Turkish side this weekend, having taken the extraordinarily brave decision to travel through the chaos that is north-western Syria - a region where it is often difficult to say if any one side or armed group is in overall control.

Image caption On the Syrian side of the border at Bab al-Hawa, rebels posed for photographs

Understandably, given what has happened before, everyone is reluctant to be filmed or to give their real names for fear of reprisals.

"They were firing shells, rockets - really big stuff", one animated woman told me as she sat in the front passenger seat - squeezed against at least two other women.

"We've come from the town of Saraqeb", said the woman's husband.

"We had to leave. When I saw a neighbour who's lost five members of his family in the shelling, we knew we had no choice but to go."

According to the main opposition coalition, the Syrian National Council (SNC) - 1.5 million people have been displaced, internally or externally, by the fighting.

A lorry driver, who had just got out of Syria, spoke to a group of journalists before heading through to his destination in Turkey.

"Both sides have armed checkpoints along the road out of Syria," the driver told us.

"Some places are under the control of the rebels but government forces are always trying to take positions back."

Decisive phase

Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq are absorbing huge numbers of people fleeing the fighting in Syria.

Thus far, it has been with relatively open arms and good grace. But Syria's neighbours are increasingly concerned that the longer President Assad clings to power and the more force he is prepared to use against his own people, the greater the destabilising effect will be on the entire region.

Image caption There are some 40,000 Syrian refugees living in camps on the Turkish side of the border

Regional politicians and security chiefs from the Turkish province of Hatay held a long meeting at the border on Saturday to discuss the crisis and the stark realities on the other side of the frontier - where no-one really knows who, if anyone, is in charge from one day to the next.

At the end of the meeting a spokesman came out to say that the crossing was now, in effect, closed.

This is an important trade route not just between the two countries but for goods and produce heading into Iraq and beyond, so it was not a decision taken lightly, the spokesman said.

The problem, he said, was that the customs post and border offices on the Syrian side had been abandoned and subsequently looted - either by rebel fighters or the smuggling gangs who proliferate in this mountainous region and make their living by less legal means.

Unlike the situation last year in Libya where Muammar Gaddafi's regime and the capital, Tripoli, collapsed in the space of just a few days following weeks of heavy Nato air strikes, the regime in Damascus is still militarily strong.

Most observers in Turkey do expect the Assad regime to fall eventually but it will, they suggest, take some time.

Perhaps the best that the opposition and Syria's anxious neighbours can hope for at this point is for a significantly large and geographically defined part of the country to "open up" and fall into rebel hands.

That would give them a platform within Syria itself to launch a final, perhaps decisive, phase of the campaign to force Bashar al-Assad from power.