KILIS, Turkey (Reuters) - Tempers are running short in Syrian refugee camps just inside Turkey, where torrid summer heat and the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan are compounding complaints about living conditions and perceived mistreatment by the Turkish authorities.
“They have broken our hearts, the Turks. Why are they doing this to us?” sobbed Umm Omar, huddling with her four children after choking on teargas fired by Turkish riot police to quell trouble over food distribution in the Kilis camp on Sunday.
“We are fasting,” she said, complaining there was not enough food for the evening meal that ends the day’s fast during Ramadan.
Fights have broken out in other camps, too, this week, among refugees as well as with Turkish security forces, illustrating one of Turkey’s many challenges in coping with the fallout from the conflict raging in nearby Syria for the past 16 months.
The challenge could get much worse, perhaps forcing Turkey to reconsider its current policy mix of taking in refugees, sheltering Syrian army defectors, promoting unity among a fractured Syrian opposition and quietly allowing foreign funds and weapons to reach rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad.
Turkey says 70,000 Syrians in all have crossed the border, but 26,000 have gone back, leaving 46,000 refugees in eight tented camps and in Kilis, which houses 12,000 in rows of white prefabs behind a high metal wall topped with barbed wire.
The numbers are manageable so far, despite occasional friction, but an unprecedented surge of fighting this week in Syria’s northern city of Aleppo, just 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the Turkish border, points up the risk of a huge exodus of refugees.
For now, people caught up in the battles in Aleppo, Syria’s sprawling commercial capital, have moved to safer districts in the city of up to 4 million rather than heading for Turkey.
Less than 20 years ago, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds fled into the Turkish mountains after the 1991 Gulf War, fearing that Saddam Hussein’s forces might attack them with poison gas.
Turkey then appealed to its Western allies, which set up a no-fly zone over northern Iraq to enable the refugees to return.
In the Syria crisis, Ankara has hinted it might act to head off any vast influx of refugees, but has not spelled out what it would do, beyond seeking U.N. Security Council approval or at least support from its NATO allies for any such intervention.
Turkey toughened its military rules of engagement on the frontier after Syria shot down a Turkish jet in disputed circumstances last month, but has not retaliated directly.
“A buffer zone, humanitarian corridors, a safe haven are all vague concepts which will require international resolutions,” said one Turkish official, who asked not to be named.
“Definitely an aggression from Syria might be a turning point, or a massive influx of refugees,” he said. “The other scenario is the total collapse of the regime in Syria. We will reconsider our measures along the borders and protect them.”
For the moment, Turkish leaders seem wary, but more focused on coping better with the refugees they already host.
“We don’t expect an extraordinary influx. But we are taking precautions in case of surprises,” Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay said on Tuesday after senior officials in Ankara discussed the refugee problem and recent disorder in the camps.
After decades of strained ties, Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan had nurtured a more amicable relationship with Syria until Assad spurned his advice last year to defuse the revolt with radical reform and instead sent tanks against protesters.
Turkey has joined the Western and many Arab states in demanding Assad’s departure and is frustrated at the lack of international consensus for this, with Russia, China, Iran and Iraq among those opposing any forced handover of power in Syria.
“Frankly, I don’t think a diplomatic transition looks possible right now, even though that is Turkey’s hope and what it is working toward,” said another Turkish official privately.
“My personal view is that we will see a violent end to the conflict, but up until this point I don’t see any desire for intervention, from Turkey or anyone else,” he added.
“My feeling is there’s still hope the rebels can overturn this themselves, without any intervention other than the logistical support that Turkey and other countries have offered. This would make post-uprising relationships easier.”
Much will depend on what kind of government eventually emerges from civil war in Syria, where the myriad rebel groups fighting on the ground are likely to challenge any attempt by Western-approved Syrian dissidents in exile to inherit power.
“Turkey is almost certain to be disappointed in its current expectations that a future Syrian government will be amenable to Turkish security interests,” wrote Jonathan Eyal in a paper issued this week by Britain’s Royal United Services Institute.
“Gratitude is not an important commodity in politics. Still, a Turkish government will have no option but to dabble in the formation of a future Syrian government, if only to prevent the Kurds from acquiring too much power,” he wrote, referring to Syria’s Kurdish minority, which, like Kurds in Turkey, Iraq and Iran, harbors nationalist aspirations.
For now, Turkey should strive to promote goodwill among Syrian refugees, rather than blaming them for ingratitude, argues Turkish commentator Mehmet Ali Birand. “If we treat them better, then we will form a very strong Turkish lobby in Syria in the future,” he wrote in the Turkish Daily News this week.
In some border camps, goodwill is in short supply.
“It’s better for me to die in Syria than exist in this humiliation,” said Nidal Dweik, complaining of sleepless nights in the “unbearable” heat of the tented Islahiye camp.
A refugee named Aboud Yousef, who arrived in Kilis camp two months ago, said: “Our conditions were at first decent but then I don’t know what happened; the treatment deteriorated.”
He complained of diminishing food rations, oddly colored water supplies and persistent power cuts, as well as the suffocating heat of the prefabs without air-conditioning.
Abu Yousef and others voiced suspicions that Turkish officials and corrupt Syrian partners were diverting food and profiteering from humanitarian aid intended for refugees.
Atalay, Turkey’s deputy prime minister, said the government was trying hard to resolve the problems, describing incidents of disorder as normal for such a “traumatized” refugee population.
Not all Syrian refugees are complaining, however.
“Thank God the Turks are so generous with us,” said Abu Oday, 52, who has lived in Boynuyogan camp for the past year, saying food provisions for its 2,500 residents had improved.
Two of his four sons have found work in a ceramics factory in the nearby Turkish city of Antakya, earning enough to buy an air conditioner for the family.
“What Erdogan has done by saving lives of Syrians fleeing Assad’s death squads, no Arab leader has done,” Abu Oday said. (Additional reporting by Samia Nakhoul in Beirut, Daren Butler in Istanbul and Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Will Waterman)