More than 5000 refugees have fled from Syria across the border to Turkey, two days after the Syrian government began shelling the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour. The continued military assault suggests that forces remain in Jisr al-Shughour who are resisting them, says the Guardian. Residents had started to flee at the end of last week, following earlier reports that 120 security personnel had been killed.
The Syrian government has said that it is fighting “foreign-backed armed gangs” and claimed that it found a mass grave of at least ten soldiers outside the military police headquarters in Jisr al-Shughour, says the Telegraph.
In the New York Times, Amr al-Azm, a Syrian historian at Shawnee State University in Ohio, explained the importance of Jisr al-Shughour:
“Jisr al-Shoughour [sic] is important because it’s a border region, and it’s especially important because the Turkish government cannot be relied on to cooperate with the Syrian regime.”
More evidence is emerging about a “large-scale military defection in Jisr al-Shughour last weekend,” with residents saying those who have remained to fight the government are defectors:
Several residents who spoke to the Guardian said there had been a small defection by up to 15 soldiers in early June, which in turn had led to government agents being sent to the town to assess the situation, followed by a mass-defection on 5 June that accounted for many of the 120 people reported killed.
“Government forces are questioning orders to fire at unarmed civilians and defecting,” said a businessman in Homs with friends and trade partners in the town. “That is why Jisr is posing such a problem to the regime and the operation is taking so long as the defected soldiers will fight back.”
After being blasted by helicopters armed with machine guns and 200 tanks, most of Jisr al-Shigour is reportedly in ruins, its fields to the north of the city scorched. This video is said to show the burned fields and dead livestock outside the town:
With phone lines being cut, those fleeing have only been able to learn about family members via word of mouth:
Abu Tahar, a wounded relief worker in hospital in the southern Turkish town of Antakya, said his wife and nine-month-old son were among those hiding in rough terrain. He said he had lost touch with them three days ago and could no longer contact anyone he knew by phone.
He said he had personally transported men shot from military helicopters two days before he himself was shot rescuing wounded people from a large garden in the centre of Jisr al-Shughour on 5 June. “Have you seen the damage to a human body from a 14-inch gun?” he asked, nursing two bullet wounds to his back. “It was terrible. A massacre.”
There have also been reports of helicopters circling other towns and cities and of helicopters firing on demonstrators in the northern town of Maarat al-Numaan, according to the Atlantic Wire. Gunfire was also reported from other cities including Homs, where tanks had moved in on Wednesday, and the coastal city of Latakia.
Turkey, whose Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a personal friend of President Bashar al-Assad, has said that it expects hundreds and perhaps thousands more refugees from Syria in the coming days and has said that it will accommodate them:
Syrians fleeing to the four crossing points nearest to Jisr al-Shughour on Sunday seemed more harried than in previous days. Some ran for the border and jostled for position as they waited for Turkish authorities. Hundreds more could be seen streaming down a hillside towards the Turkish village of Guvecci, where soldiers from a nearby base were waiting to receive them.
Humanitarian groups have again demanded access to the Syrian side of the border, fearing a mounting humanitarian crisis in the 12 mile (20km) stretch of hills and valleys leading to Jisr al-Shughour. Refugees who have made it to safety say thousands of people are sleeping rough, too afraid to move on as military helicopters circle.
Al Jazeera‘s Anita McNaught, reporting from Turkey, says that Syria’s neighbor has “had to pick a side” and decided whether it “could push Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president gently into the direction of democratic reforms.” But with the reality of the refugees fleeing the violence in Syria, McNaught says that “the message from Ankara seems to be that they are increasingly doubtful” of Bashar al-Assad’s government.
Joshua Landis, a professor of Middle East politics at the University of Oklahoma, described the events in Jisr al-Shoughour and its surroundings “the start of civil war”:
“We saw here an attempt to organize an army, rebel organized military resistance, to the Syrian government,” he said. “The Syrians cannot allow that to happen and must move in with overwhelming force because they must not allow a Benghazi to form here, where rebels would have a physical base and the CIA, MI6 and French intelligence could go in as it did in Libya to train and arm the opposition.”
So far, the US and Europe have said that a military intervention in Syria like that currently going on in Libya is not being considered. Italy has called for humanitarian missions to be allowed into Syria and Germany and France have called for a UN resolution condemning Syria.
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