The Arab Spring on Turkey’s doorstep

Syrian children during an anti-Assad demonstration at a Turkish refugee camp

I’m told that one of the key elements of blogging, and the new social media generally, is to provide timely reflections and observations when involved in matters of general interest.

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve singularly failed in this objective.

I’ve been down on the Syrian-Turkish border, where a humanitarian crisis is unfolding as thousands of people have fled to Turkey in response to a military crackdown by Syrian forces around the town of Jisr al-Shaghour.

The crisis is putting more strain on relations between Damascus and Ankara, which are already tense as a result of the Assad regime’s brutal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators.

Here you can listen to an audio dispatch that I made for the Times whilst reporting out there. At the end I point out that the big question on the horizon is how Damascus will handle the protests in the Kurdish areas of the country.

The Kurds in Syria already staged an uprising in 2004, which turned violent. There’s a general belief that they have a higher level of political organization and a greater ability to get and use weapons than anti-government activists in other parts of country.

There have been consistent, large demonstrations in Kurdish cities such as al-Qamishli since March. The only reason they have not received attention is that the government has not used the same brutal tactics as in places such as Deraa, Homs, Latakia etc.

If, when, and how the Assad regime starts dealing with the demonstrations in the Kurdish east of the country is a big question to watch.

My current assessment is that the uprising has little prospect of overthrowing Assad, but the Kurdish element is undoubtedly the one that presents him with the greatest potential threat.

Down in Hatay, where I was covering this story, I experienced that unreal, intense atmosphere that accompanies big news events (though I’m sure some of the more seasoned journalists down there were not much struck by it).

The media circus descended on Guvecci, the sole village in this area of the border where you can actually see across to the Syrian tent encampments on the other side- most of the rest is in a military-restricted zone.

A substantial amount of cross border smuggling takes place there, and so the village also afforded a ready supply of Syrian interviewees who were staying with friends or relatives in the area.

The residents of Guvecci were very gracious to the army of journalists who descended on them. We’ve been blocking their roads with our cars and TV vans and strutting self-importantly around their sleepy village for two weeks and counting, but they are still pleasant and friendly.

Covering the story left me with oddly contrasting senses of space and claustrophobia. I spent much time driving half lost through stunning, panoramic countryside only to arrive, day after day, in the same dusty villages and refugee camps, meeting the same journalists, the same Syrian activists, the same translators and fixers, again and again.

The intensity of the experience came from the fact that many of the Syrians we were talking to were people who had been living their whole lives in fear and anger, and could speak for the first time, with the rapt attention of the world media, about the injustice of life in their country.

I listened to people describe the power of peaceful protest, discuss what the new Syria will look like, and continually vow that it will only be a few months until Assad is gone.

Their absolute belief in this outcome was both inspiring and, for me, somewhat heartbreaking, as I do not share their optimism.

Many of those I spoke to, as well as translators I work with, had family back in Syria who were being arrested and questioned as a result of their activities. But many did not fear to be named, they had that all-or-nothing, fearless energy that comes with being absolutely committed to a cause. Even after troops moved to the border, many of the activists were vowing to carry on sneaking into the country to film videos of the demonstrations.

But I don’t think peaceful protest can overthrow Assad. If he continues to kill unarmed demonstrators, this may further alienate the West, and perhaps Turkey. But would Russia abandon Syria, would China, would Iran?

I’m quite fearful for the future of the many, many people who have committed themselves to the Syrian uprising.


You can read my stories filed from the border for the Times here:

Report from Khirbet al-Joz, Syria, as people who have fled their homes watch Assad’s third address to the nation since the crisis began

Turkish Red Crescent preparing to enter Syria to distribute aid

Refugees flee as Syrian troops hit village near Turkish border

I also had this report for

Tensions rise as Syrian forces near Turkish border


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