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Wednesday, August 1, 2012 - Page updated at 06:00 a.m.

Turkey beefs up forces on Syrian border

By SEBNEM ARSU and JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
The New York Times

ANTAKYA, Turkey — The Turkish military sent troops, armored personnel carriers and missile batteries to the Syrian border Monday, shoring up defenses against a country that has plunged into turmoil with some serious potential repercussions for Turkey.

In the past few weeks, as Syria's government has struggled against an inchoate but spirited rebel army, chunks of Syria have fallen into the hands of Kurdish militias, while at least one area along Turkey's border is now controlled by jihadist groups dominated by heavily armed foreign fighters.

Television pictures Monday showed a convoy of Turkish army trucks chugging down a highway running along the Syrian border. The semiofficial Anatolia News Agency reported that mobile missile batteries in Iskenderun, a southern coastal town, were being relocated by rail to Islahiye township, along the border.

Turkish officials quickly described the border buildup as "routine," but at the same time, one government official said, "It is not possible to expect Turkey to act as if nothing is happening."

The Turkish government considers Kurdish separatists to be the greatest national security threat. Since the 1980s, tens of thousands of people have been killed in a conflict between the Turkish government and the PKK, a militant Kurdish group fighting for more autonomy.

Turkish officials now fear that Syria could become a beachhead for Kurdish militants bent on wreaking havoc inside Turkey. Turkish officials have indicated that they will not hesitate to strike in Syria should Kurdish militants stage attacks against Turkey from there.

But there is another growing problem. Scores and perhaps even hundreds of foreign fighters — from Libya, Algeria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Europe — are moving into Turkey and using it as a transit point to Syria.

Many fighters say they are on a jihad, or holy war, with the goal of turning Syria into a purist Islamist state. There were even rumors in Antakya, a usually quiet Turkish tourist town near the border, that Libyan fighters carrying bulletproof vests had arrived at the city's airport.

On Sunday, a recent refugee from a village near Bab al-Hawa, a Syrian border town, said a jihadist group of 200 foreign fighters had grabbed control of that town. The refugee, a young man named Ahmed, said the jihadists' plan was to seize control of a specific area, secure it, invite in the Free Syrian Army (the main rebel alliance) and then shift to another area to fight government troops.

"These guys are very professional," said Ahmed, whose last name was omitted for his safety. "You can tell by the way they move they know what they're doing."

Turkish analysts say they do not expect Turkey to be dragged deep into Syria's conflict because popular sentiment is solidly against that.

But Turkish officials are clear that they do not like the direction some of the Kurdish areas of Syria are heading. It seems Kurdish areas are rapidly getting sucked into a growing proxy war between Syria and Turkey.

The two countries used to be allies, but after Syria's president, Bashar Assad, refused to compromise with Syria's political opposition, Turkey began backing the Syrian political opposition and helping rebel fighters get weapons.

Recently, Kurdish militants in Syria, apparently with the approval of the Assad government, seized control of a few northern Syrian areas and then raised the PKK flag. This prompted Turkish officials to ask Syrian rebel commanders to take down the flags and hoist the white, green and black banner of the Free Syrian Army.

Some 200,000 people have fled Syria's largest city, Aleppo, during clashes between rebels and the military, the U.N. said Sunday.

Activists said regime forces were shelling rebel-held districts of the city and a cluster of surrounding villages relentlessly on Monday, sending panicked residents fleeing. Many went to Turkey, some 30 miles away, where tens of thousands of Syrians have already found refuge during the uprising.

The battle for Aleppo, a city of 3 million that was once a bastion of support for Assad, is critical for both the regime and the opposition. Its fall would give the opposition a major strategic victory with a stronghold in the north. A rebel defeat, at the very least, would buy Assad more time.

As the violence intensified, the country's most senior diplomat in London defected. Charge d'affaires Khaled al-Ayoubi is the latest in a string of high-profile diplomats to abandon Assad's regime over a crackdown that, according to rights activists, has killed more than 19,000 people since March 2011.

Turkish officials say they are concerned about the fragmentation of Syria, which has deep sectarian fault lines.

"Taking a separatist line is not good for the country," a senior Turkish official said. "The other groups could start their own agenda."

But Turkish foreign policy analysts say the possibility of a Kurdish stronghold in next-door Syria is the real worry.

President Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke by phone Monday and agreed to "coordinate efforts to assist the growing numbers of displaced Syrians, not only within Syria, but in Turkey and the broader region," a White House statement said.

Includes material from The Associated Press

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company


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