The Syrian regime's continuing attacks on civilians have triggered a growing refugee crisis and have severely damaged Damascus' relations with Turkey. Turkish officials summoned the Syrian ambassador to discuss the refugee situation this week, and Syrian forces massed on the Turkish border, moving close enough to make eye contact with Turkish soldiers on the other side.
On Thursday, hundreds of civilians cut through a fence on the Turkish border near the village of Khirbet al-Joz to escape an assault by the Syrian Army's Fourth Division and Presidential Guard, headed by Maher Assad (brother of Syrian President Bashar Assad).
More than 30 Syrian tanks were seen entering Khirbet al-Joz and automatic gunfire could be heard on the Turkish side of the border. Residents said snipers could be seen on rooftops.
Villagers in nearby Managh said that during a simultaneous offensive there, marauding soldiers drove through the streets in vehicles mounted with machine guns, firing indiscriminately at civilians.
More than 10,000 Syrians are in refugee camps in Turkey administered by the Turkish Red Crescent Society. More than 1,500 crossed the border on Thursday, and at least 11,500 more remain in camps in northern Syria, according to the Turkish Foreign Ministry. With thousands of people thought to be in hiding on the Syrian side, these numbers are likely to grow in coming days.
Meanwhile, Syrian students studying in Turkey say they have been blacklisted by the Assad regime for participating in demonstrations against it. Mohammed al-Mahmoud and Amer Afoura, both from Aleppo, are studying international relations and civil engineering respectively at a Turkish university. After they participated in a protest against the Ba'athist dictatorship, they received a tip that it was not safe to return to Syria during their summer break, which began last week.
Mahmoud and Afour say they know eight other students in the same predicament. A friend of theirs was recently arrested and interrogated by the Mukhabarat, the Syrian secret police.
The deteriorating Syrian-Turkish relationship gives Washington and the West diplomatic room to adopt a more assertive stance with Assad, a close ally of Iran and leading supporter of terrorism, according to David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Between 2002 and 2010, Syria and Turkey signed more than 50 cooperation agreements, including counterterrorism and counterinsurgency accords, and conducted their first-ever joint military exercise. This year, Turkey became Syria's largest trading partner.
But in the wake of the "Arab Spring" coming to Syria, the warm relationship between Assad and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to be over, making Damascus increasingly vulnerable to U.S. pressure. Schenker—previously Levant director at the Defense Department, where he advised the secretary of defense on Syria issues—argues that it's time for Washington to realize what Turkey already has: that Assad is irredeemable.